Sunday, September 13, 2009

Shifts in opinion & threat perception

By Irfan Husain

US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division and Afghan National Policemen and Army patrol through the mountains into the Derezda Valley in the rugged Spira mountains in Khost province, along the Afghan-Pakistan Border.
JUST as public support for the fight against Taliban terrorists has firmed up in Pakistan, it is crumbling in the West. A recent survey among 13 nations contributing troops to the international forces in Afghanistan shows significant majorities wanting either a total pullout, or a reduction in the number of their soldiers.

The US was the only exception, with 30 per cent supporting an increase, and a further 32 per cent wanting no change in troop numbers. But even here, 11 per cent said they would support a reduction, and 19 per cent wanted a total withdrawal. While I am not aware of a similar poll to gauge Pakistani opinion, there appears to be considerable support for army action in Fata, at least judging from the media. Gone are the days when news of a fresh drone attack would be greeted by small demonstrations in the streets, and a verbal barrage on TV talk shows.

It is eight years since 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by US-led forces, and patience with the conflict, especially in Europe, is wearing thin. As casualties mount and the cost of sustaining the occupation escalates, more and more people in the West want to know why they are squandering money and blood in a far-off country where there is no hope of winning a clear-cut victory.

Taliban resistance to western occupation has increased sharply at the same time that President Karzai’s legitimacy is being called into question. His administration’s many failures might soon make a return of the Taliban a less poor alternative. Nevertheless, many polls show that the majority of Afghans do not want the dreaded Taliban to rule them again.

Of course the situation in Pakistan is very different from Afghanistan: here, our army is fighting to impose the writ of the state in tribal areas where extremists have seized control. On our neighbour’s soil, foreign troops are attempting to end an insurgency against their presence. In the process, they hope to train Afghan soldiers and army to take over from them while building a social and physical infrastructure at the same time. The idea is to improve life for ordinary Afghans to the point where the Taliban lose support and the country no longer plays host to Al Qaeda.

Despite these differences, the strands of extremism, geography and ethnicity make this a common struggle. The success or failure of either the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban will certainly impact on the war across the border. Over time, this struggle has become a magnet for Islamic radicals from Manchester to Multan. Arabs and Central Asians have flocked to the Taliban banner.

As the recent conviction of three British men of Pakistani origin for planning to blow up several jetliners across the Atlantic shows, tremors from the epicentre of jihad continue being felt around the world. This is the reason the British government has given for its presence in Afghanistan: it is keeping British cities safe from extremist terrorists by fighting them in Helmand and Kunduz. But as critics have pointed out, this particular plot was smashed by intelligence and police work in Britain and not by the soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And while our troops have achieved significant success against jihadis in Fata, the same cannot be said about the western forces in Afghanistan. The fact is that drone attacks have kept Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders off-balance and fearful in the tribal areas, despite the casualties they have caused among the civilians who have been forced to harbour them. But in this, jihadis must be held responsible for using innocent people as human shields.

When western troops first went into Afghanistan, there was a deep reluctance to get involved among neo-cons in Washington. “We don’t do nation-building,” said Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in another context. The idea was to topple the Taliban and walk away. But interventionists like Tony Blair were of the view that unless Afghanistan was helped back to its feet, it would once again become a breeding ground for terrorists. The British prime minister assured the Afghan people that this time, the West would not abandon them as it had after the Soviet pullout two decades ago.

Eight years and $32bn since the invasion, the war has intensified and, understandably, ordinary people in the West are asking how much longer before their soldiers can come back. Not before the job is done, replies Gordon Brown. And what precisely is the job? Ambitions have been scaled back since those heady days when the Taliban were sent scurrying off after a minimum of fighting. Writing off the Taliban as a spent force, the allies thought the task only involved engineers and planners, not thousands of troops to secure the countryside. But as the situation has unfolded, security has emerged as the biggest issue facing the occupation forces.

It is clear that the presence of western forces provokes and fuels the resistance. And now, after the rigged election, Afghanistan appears to be entering a period of political instability.

Critics of the war are asking why their governments should be complicit in supporting a corrupt and inefficient government that has just stolen an election. Increasingly, the war will be harder to sell to a public that is seeing social services being cut due to a recession that continues to put people out of work. But despite an understandable dislike for foreign troops fighting on our doorstep, we in Pakistan need to understand the full consequences of a pullout of international forces from Afghanistan.

A victorious Taliban would attain new legitimacy as they return to Kabul. Al Qaeda would be able to operate more freely and the civil war against the Northern Alliance would resume. Pakistan would be sucked into supporting the Taliban as India and Iran would help the Tajik and Uzbek fighters as they did in the past. Sooner rather than later, the Taliban would prevail and would then turn their sights towards Pakistan.

In Pakistan, there are clear signs the army recognises these dangers, and as a result, has increased forces facing the Afghan forces, thinning out troops from the border with India. This represents a significant shift in strategy and threat perception. After years of procrastination under Musharraf, the army has finally come on board the fight against the Taliban and their various allies.

Given these momentous changes in the army’s mindset, there is a very good chance that it will prevail in this struggle. But it will need our support in this grim battle against the forces of darkness.


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