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Losing the psy-war in Afghanistan

By Sushant Sareen
October 08, 2008 13:15 IST
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If wars are won and lost first in the head and only after that on the battlefield, then Pakistan and perhaps even the West might be on the verge of losing the War on Terror. Despite all the resources available to the forces battling terror, psychologically the Islamists are dominating their rivals in this war.

One manifestation of this lies in the statements being made by the US's European allies, openly saying that the war in Afghanistan is not winnable. Reports of Saudi-brokered negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban further reaffirm the feeling that the US and its allies are unlikely to stay the course in this war.

The psychological ascendance of the Islamist Pashtun insurgents can also be gauged by the constant refrain inside Pakistan that this war cannot be won by force alone, that the warring Pashtun tribesmen can never be subdued by an alien force, that peace will not become possible as long as the foreign troops don't leave Afghanistan, and that Pakistan will have to reach out to the combatants and negotiate with them if there has to be peace in that country.

The response of the Pakistani civil society to the devastating suicide bombing of the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Islamabad is indicative of the defeatist mentality afflicting those who have most to lose if the Taliban win. Instead of the outrage stiffening the resolve of the people to wipe the Islamists out, the predominant opinion inside Pakistan is to make peace with them. At the same time, the collateral damage caused by Pakistan army operations inside the troubled tribal areas has also caused uproar inside Pakistan. It is almost as though the critics seriously expected military operations in an anti-septic environment!

On the other side, the civilians caught in the crossfire in the tribal areas, instead of being despondent, are yearning for revenge, not against the Taliban but against the Pakistani State. In the midst of all this is the Pakistani army which still has a large number of people who are still not convinced about fighting against the Taliban and who continue to see the Taliban as Islamic warriors.

Many in the Pakistan army feel they are fighting an unpopular war on the side of the 'hated' Americans against their own countrymen, who are also fellow Muslims. It is another matter that the Pakistani army felt no such compunction when it butchered the Bengalis in the erstwhile East Pakistan or when it massacred the Baloch, who were no less Muslim than the Pashtuns. This begs the question as to why the Pakistani army, which has never felt constrained to use the maximum force possible to protect the State, is so chary of using force against the Islamist Pashtun insurgents who pose the gravest threat to Pakistan's survival as a nation state.

Part of the problem lies in the right-wing supporters of the Islamists in the media, politics, civil society and among the retired bureaucrats and Army generals. Most of these characters have been on the payroll of the infamous intelligence agencies to back the Islamist adventurism being sponsored by the Pakistani State in the past. It is this element that is today playing a big role in undermining the quest for a coherent national policy against the terrorists by questioning Pakistan's participation in the War on Terror.

To say that this is not Pakistan's war and Pakistan should not fight this war is nothing but an advocacy of the cause of the Taliban and an invitation to them to take over Pakistan. Even more galling is the nonsense being peddled that this war is not winnable and that the Pashtun lands are the graveyards of empires past and present. Not only is this historically incorrect, it is also a self-created, self-serving and self perpetuated myth.

The fact is that the Pashtuns are eminently beatable and have been beaten plenty of times in the past. Alexander, Timur, Nadir Shah, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the British, all have beaten the Pashtuns and established order in the Pashtun lands. Lest it be forgotten, the Sikhs followed by the British had defeated the Pashtuns so comprehensively that for almost 150 years now, relative peace and order has prevailed in the Pashtun lands.

True, the British suffered the occasional setback but they eventually managed to subdue the Pashtun tribes. Had the British wanted they would have also continued to rule Afghanistan, only they didn't find it worth their while and preferred to let it remain a buffer between India and Russia. The Russians too would never have been defeated had the Soviet economy not collapsed (and it didn't collapse because of the war in Afghanistan) and had the Americans not pumped in weapons and money to back the so-called Mujahideen.

No doubt the Pashtuns are a very turbulent race. Not only have they crafted treachery into a fine art form, they have also used it to great effect in the way they fight against their rivals. But while they are terrific warriors for whom warfare is a way of life, they have always succumbed to superior force and superior tactics, not to mention the lure of money. The Pashtuns have never been known to stand against a well-disciplined, well-equipped, motivated, and equally ruthless force.

But a set-piece army is only partially useful against the Pashtuns; it must be backed by highly mobile troops who can chase the guerrillas and hunt them down. To an extent, the pilotless drones do this job, but these need to be backed by troops on the ground. A piecemeal application of force of the type being use by the Pakistanis and Americans can never succeed against the Pashtuns. Application of force must be total and must aim at wiping out the opposition.

The Pashtuns are a people who have nothing to live for but everything to die for -- they don't seek paradise in this life but in the after-life. If the Pashtuns see opposition as being namby-pamby, then of course they will exploit it to the hilt, as they are doing with the Pakistanis. But if the opposition they face is as brutal and ruthless as them and gives back much better than they get then the Pashtuns are quite amenable to a peaceful settlement, more so if they feel they have no chance of winning.

Over the years many things have changed in Pashtun society. The decades of settled living has changed the attitude of many Pashtuns, especially those who are not living in the wild and lawless tribal region straddling Afghanistan. Unlike the tribal belt where life has been very harsh and tribal traditions have remained unchanged for centuries, the people of the settled areas have been softened by the 'settled existence' and will not find it easy to confront the State and risk losing all their worldly possessions.

The fact that Pakistan has been quite successful in integrating the Pashtuns in the power structure of the country will also come handy in fighting the Islamist insurgents. And then there are the tribal rivalries that can always be exploited to raise a counter force against the Islamist Pashtuns.

Of course, all this requires a determination to defeat the Islamists, no matter what the cost. For the moment, the Pakistanis have not been able to demonstrate this determination. It is also not clear how long the Americans will stay the course in this war. The worry really is not so much that the Americans have got into a war they cannot win; rather it is that like the Soviets, the American economy too might not be in a position to bear the cost of this war for very long.

There should be no doubt that if the Americans leave without finishing the job in Afghanistan they will be doing this at their own peril. In the globalised and borderless world of today, the US doesn't have the luxury that the British enjoyed of leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. The objective conditions have changed and if the sole superpower leaves Afghanistan that country will become a base for Jihad international, and destabilise the entire Middle-East, Central Asia and South Asia. And of course, the Pashtuns will claim to have defeated yet another superpower.

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Sushant Sareen