There are few things as demeaning as nation-states being engulfed in hyphenated relationships. For more than five decades, until information technology injected a new dimension, India was trapped into a hyphenated relationship with Pakistan. India’s status as the dominant, stable and democratic power of south Asia was constantly undermined by the strategic community’s invocation of the India-Pakistan problem. Today, that pejorative hyphenation has yielded way to a more favourable dash. Projections of the global economy of the next fifty years are invariably bound by both expectations and concern about India-China.
Yet, nowhere is the distorting effect of hyphenation more keenly felt than in the deliberations on the war on terror. Five years after the events of 9/11 triggered a chain reaction throughout the world, the two great trouble spots — Iraq and Afghanistan — have been bound together by another disastrous hyphenation. From the expectantly jubilant mullahs in countless countries to fulminating field marshals in the gentleman’s clubs, the Iraq-Afghanistan mess is the talk of town.
The preoccupation with the theatres of post-9/11 conflict is understandable. Regardless of the brave talk of “staying the course”, both the United States of America and the United Kingdom appear to be propelled into considering exit strategies by public hostility at home. Last month, President George W. Bush conceded in an interview that comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam were not totally inappropriate. In Britain, despite the tough talk of the prime minister, Tony Blair, the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, admitted that the invasion of Iraq might ultimately be judged a “foreign policy disaster” on a par with the 1956 Suez debacle.
The allusions to Suez and Vietnam are revealing. Harold Macmillan’s failure to upstage Colonel Nasser fifty years ago formally signalled the end of Britain as a great, imperial power. Henceforth, the fortunes of the erstwhile “mother country” became enmeshed in the fortunes of the larger community of “English-speaking peoples”, a face-saving euphemism for American hegemony.
For the US, too, Vietnam was a landmark. From the fall of Saigon in 1974 till Ronald Reagan’s move into the White House in 1980, Washington retreated into the isolationism which had characterized the period between 1919 and 1941. Indeed, had it not been for the retreat from Vietnam, the US would never have passively acquiesced in the Shah of Iran’s overthrow by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
That the war in Iraq is sapping the moral and political reserves of the Anglo-American alliance is not in any doubt. The chilling reports from Basra in the BBC’s Today programme reveal Iraq’s descent into sectarian conflict and anarchy, and the associated helplessness of the British forces. Tragically, the elected government of the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, in Baghdad lacks the political wherewithal to take on the militias. Comparisons with the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain are irresistible.
The Anglo-American setback in Iraq is certain to have two consequences. First, it is calculated to transform Iran into the dominant regional power, with ominous consequences for Israel. With groups like the Hizbullah in Lebanon totally beholden to it, Iran will be faced with the choice of assuming the role of the great stabilizer or using its clout to trigger further unrest in west Asia. Secondly, the retreat from Baghdad is certain to be accompanied by political and moral convulsions in the English-speaking world. The immediate impact of both these developments may be felt in Afghanistan, a country unfairly linked by hyphenation to Iraq.
As things stand today, the situation in Afghanistan is parlous but not irredeemable. Thanks to four years of covert nurturing by Pakistan, the taliban militia has regrouped and is posing a serious challenge to the Nato-led forces in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in the Helmand province. Financed by both Pakistan and the proceeds of the opium economy, the taliban has taken advantage of the disillusionment with the corruption of provincial governors appointed by the Hamid Karzai government to re-establish itself all along the border with Pakistan.
In its new jihad against the West, propaganda has emerged as an important weapon in the taliban arsenal. Over the past two months, for example, the taliban has allowed Western journalists access to their forces. Coupled with grisly videos of Mullah Dadullah personally beheading scores of Afghan “collaborators”, the thrust of taliban propaganda is to frighten the West into believing that it is impossible to win against a determined guerrilla force: the Soviet Union couldn’t do it and neither can Nato.
Although taliban propaganda and careful targeting of Canadian soldiers are having some effect on Western public opinion, the real problem faced by the Nato forces is one of numbers. With the US and Britain committing the major chunk of their expeditionary forces in Iraq, the anti-taliban offensive in Afghanistan is suffering grievously. For the past three months, Nato has been imploring member countries to contribute an additional 2,500 soldiers, to supplement the 31,000 foreign troops already in Afghanistan. If the Nato secretary-general, Jaap Scheffer, is anything to go by, the outcome of the campaign in eastern Afghanistan will determine the future loyalties of some 70 per cent of Afghans.
The battle for the hearts and minds of the Pushtuns — the other ethnic groups have been traditionally wary of the taliban — will not succeed unless the military advance of the insurgents is checked. This, in turn, depends on Nato’s ability to choke the lifeline of the taliban in Pakistan. However, there is no sign of any action on this front. “I don’t believe,” Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, the former chief of British armed forces, told a think-tank meeting last month, “we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I sense we’ve lost the ability to think strategically. Deep down inside me, I worry that the British army could risk operational failure if we’re not careful in Afghanistan.”
The cantonment strategists in Pakistan are already salivating over this possible “operational failure” becoming a reality. For five years, Pakistan successfully maintained the fiction of being a partner in the war on terror while simultaneously doing its utmost to regain its lost “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Today, as the West falters, overwhelmed by self-doubt, it awaits the grand prize of its duplicity — the recovery of Afghanistan. Just prior to the US military action against the taliban, Pervez Musharraf had used a historical analogy from 7th-century Arabia to justify a strategic retreat from Afghanistan. The sub-text of his message, which the West chose to wilfully overlook, was that Pakistan would be playing a double game.
For India, the trends in Afghanistan are life-threatening. India was understandably jubilant when the taliban over-reached itself in 2001 and invited American ire. Afghanistan had become the nursery of the jihad in Kashmir and yet India could do nothing about it. The US undertook the much-needed fumigation job and earned our gratitude. Today, with the taliban back in business, the wheel threatens to turn a full circle.
The consequences of a Western defeat in Afghanistan for India will be catastrophic. First, it will be the signal for a no-holds-barred Islamic jihad in Jammu and Kashmir in which Afghans, Pakistanis and others will be active participants. Second, the scope of battle is likely to be enlarged from a territorial battle in Kashmir to subversion in the rest of India. The spadework of new terror networks manned by locals has already been done.
It is unfashionable to invoke the domino effect. But if Iraq goes under, Afghanistan is certain to be next in line. If that happens, India will be the next target of a resurgent jihad. We can gloat over the present Anglo-American discomfiture at our own peril.