November 27, 2001


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The great Afghan

S Gopikrishna

Wield the pen, not the sword

To everybody's surprise, the Taleban is on the run in Afghanistan. The new debate centres on the prospects of whether the Northern Alliance will allow a multi-ethnic government to function without indulging in their talent for division, decimation and destruction.

The discussion also centres on the inclusion of Pushtoons in the new government and preventing the National Alliance from biting and clawing each other to the detriment of the Afghan people. The Pushtoon inclusion will ensure stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since the Pushtoons in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan are sensitive to any woe befalling their Afghan cousins, the stability of the Pakistani government is questionable if the Pushtoons are not placated. Any itch in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Pushtoons move to scratch, causing turmoil in Pakistan.

Prevailing on the Alliance to accommodate the Pushtuns is Herculean. There exists no single country or security agency possessing the same influence over the alliance as Pakistan and the ISI possess over the Taleban. It can only be hoped that the combined pressure of a dozen countries on the Alliance will prevent degeneration into a new episode of old Afghan history where peace is in pieces before the ink dries on the unifying treaty.

As usual, implementing this complex task is being left to a United Nations peacekeeping force. What makes the peacekeeping force unusual is the reliance, completely or partially, on Islamic countries.

The efficiency and track record of United Nations peacekeeping forces leave a lot to be desired (Somalia being an example). Members of the peacekeeping force would have to possess adequate sensitivity, skill and strength to address the needs of the people while being familiar with the terrain to contain disgruntled elements stirring up trouble.

The US seems to think that involving Islamic countries and soldiers would automatically bestow the necessary sensitivity and knowledge to work in Afghanistan. Names of potential candidates, including Turkey, Egypt and Bangladesh, are being bandied about.

This move rests on a precarious premise. While Turkey and Egypt may be Islamic, how much experience do they have fighting in terrain similar to Afghanistan's? The Egyptian Army has been a hotbed of Islamic activity since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and can be expected to stoke the fires of Islamicism, not temper them. The Turkish military on the other hand looks disdainfully on excessive Islamicism and possesses an outlook that is fairly kaffir, bringing it into conflict with the puritanical Afghans. The Bangladeshi Army has neither experience nor the wherewithal to join the team.

India, on the other hand, has had a long record of fighting Islamic terrorists in Kashmir and possesses experience in managing a restive and resentful civil population. It has some understanding of the complexities of separating the civilian population from terrorists for governance, interaction and sympathies notwithstanding. Given that the Islamic fundamentalists will miss no opportunity to fish in the troubled Afghani waters, comprehending Kashmir's complexities will be valuable in managing the Afghan situation. Thanks to Siachen, Kashmir and Ladakh, the Indian Army is experienced in working in terrain that resembles Afghanistan.

Since it is common knowledge that many Afghan organisations are mere limbs of the ISI, which has, does, and will continue to meddle in Afghanistan, India's intimate knowledge of the ISI (gleaned through years of cloak-and-dagger games and open confrontation) will be irreplaceable in establishing peace. The significant numbers of Muslims in its army will be a plus in establishing a rapport with a Muslim population.

Given these skills, it behooves India to advocate a peacekeeping force that emphasizes experience and an Islamic complexion over an outright Islamic force. India should use this opportunity and contribute its expertise in Afghanistan.

"Why spill Indian blood in pursuing a lost cause like peace in Afghanistan?" you ask.

The US deemed Pakistani cooperation to be crucial to victory in Afghanistan and dangled apples galore before Musharraf to win him over. In stark contrast to Nawaz Sharief, who rebuffed similar overtures and deferred to the mullah lobby in 1998, making Pakistan a "nuclear power", Musharraf responded positively to Uncle Sam's entreaties despite the clerics' formidable influence. This act has endeared him to the Americans, who are moving at lightning speed to reverse sanctions and fulfil their promises of assistance. USAID, various UN organisations and just about every funding agency can be expected to pour millions of dollars into "reconstructing" Pakistan.

But Musharraf realises that only by winning favour with the Islamic faction can he thrive in Pakistan. While an improving economy may blunt criticism and grant him a respite, winning the extremists over would ensure him the presidency for life.

What better cause than Kashmir can be found to make the extremists foam at the mouth?

Ever the suave, shrewd operator, Musharraf can be expected to exploit American goodwill and them into falling in line with Pakistani aspirations in Kashmir. The lackadaisical performance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee & Company in influencing world opinion can't be relied upon to make the Indian stand acceptable.

It is critical that India take a proactive role in the Afghanistan-Pakistani drama and prevent a Nehru-style debacle in reshaping international opinion on Kashmir. Contributing to the peacekeeping force will help India interact with the US and other Islamic countries and will be indispensable in countering Musharraf's wily moves.

India can further pursue this opportunity to counter and negate the Islamic fundamentalist contribution to the Kashmir problem by advocating an educational revolution.

Zia-ul-Haq's lasting legacy lives through his harnessing the power of Islamic fanaticism. Access to a secular (at least by Pakistani standards) education was offered only by elite, private schools and was expensive under the best of times before his advent. By subsidising the madrassas, elevating them into national institutions (eg: Dar-ul-uloom Haqqani becoming the 'Harvard of the Taleban') and driving the children of Pakistan's poverty-stricken teeming throngs into the madrassas, Zia ensured generations of recruits for terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The sum total of experiences in Pakistan, Kashmir and Mallapuram prove that thriving madrassas are harbingers of terrorism.

Only by reversing the process can we eliminate the long-term growth of terrorism. India should lobby for recovery and reconstruction in Pakistan and Afghanistan. India should volunteer its formidable experience in building up a secular educational system amidst a dearth of resources. Turkey's experiences in creating and protecting a secular educational system will also be valuable to research and implement in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since the pen is mightier than the sword, India will be mightier if its neighbours wield pens, not swords.

S Gopikrishna

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