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December 2001

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AFGHANISTAN: PAST AND FUTURE

By Sushmit Sen 

Now that the Taleban have lost control, the world hopes that Afghanistan can have a ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘broad-based government’, supported by ‘multi-national stabilisation force’, which can bring peace to this war-ravaged country.

 

Afghanistan was not always like this. Ancient Afghanistan was at its peak one time - on the crossroads between Mesopotamia and other Civilisations. Archaeologists have identified evidence of stone-age technology… Plant remains at the foothill of the Hindu Kush mountains indicate that North Afghanistan was one of the earliest places to domestic plants and animals.

 

For more than last 2500 years, Afghanistan has been a playground for various empires and armies: from Darius the Great, between 522 BC-486 BC to Alexander the Great, followed by Genghis Khan in 1219-1221, and then Nadir Shah in 1738. ( See Afghanistan: History - A Summary)

 

It was in 1747 that under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Abdali, modern Afghanistan was established. ( See Contemporary History of Afghanistan )

 

Then followed three Anglo-Afghan wars in 19th and 20th century, followed by the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in December 1979, and their defeat and total withdrawl on February 15, 1989 at the hands of the Mujahideen movement, born In June 1978, armed and supported by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

 

The various factions started fighting against each other. In September 1996, the Taleban seized control of Kabul and overthrew the government of President Burhannudin Rabbani.

 

The Talebans were recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – all friends and allies of the US.

 

The United Nations and most other countries continued to recognise the Rabbani government but did little to help them.

 

Ahmad Shah Masood’s forces of the Northern Alliance remained loyal to ousted President Burhanuddin. (Masood was assassinated on September 9.)

 

Earlier in April, during his visits to Paris and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the veteran commander urged the world community to put pressure on Pakistan to stop backing the Taleban and condemned the destruction of giant Buddha statues by the purist movement. (See Interview with Masood)

 

The US was more interested in getting the oil and gas pipeline from the Central Asian (former Soviet Union) republics to Pakistan and the sea than with the legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan. 

 

As John Hamre, US strategic analyst, says, “We wanted to have reliable sources of oil more than we wanted democracy.” (That is true whether it is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan.)

 

Since the Taleban provided a stable government, things between the US and the Taleban were normal. The US ignored the Taleban's ruthlessness

 

 

When Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan and was blamed for his involvement in the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the US started putting pressure, through Pakistan, on the Taleban to hand him over in return for the US recognition and aid.

 

From February, when the Taleban first offered to extradite bin Laden to a third country (as reported by the Times of London) until August, when the negotiations stalled, the US government was doing business with the Taleban, whom they labelled a terrorist regime after the September 11 attack.

 

Weeks before the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Taleban had been warned by the US via the Pakistani government that unless they surrendered Bin Laden, they would be subjected to military strikes. The Taleban refused to comply, and whether independently or in response to the threat of military action by the US, terrorist attacks were launched on New York and Washington. George W Bush's subsequent "wanted dead or alive" speech only served to underscore an existing policy. Osama Bin Laden was public enemy number one.

 

After September 11, the prospect of US attacks on Afghanistan suddenly became a very real threat. There is also no doubt that the Taleban wanted to avoid being attacked by US military forces. Knowing that they had little hope of maintaining their control of Afghanistan in the face of western military assault, the Taleban twice offered up Osama bin Laden for extradition.

 

The first, at the beginning of October, was barely mentioned in the western press. The Taliban, reportedly with bin Laden's approval, suggested that an international tribunal in Pakistan should be presented with the US evidence against bin Laden (which the US still hasn't let anyone other than its NATO allies and Pakistan see) and decide whether to try him itself or hand him over to the US for trial there. President Musharraf of Pakistan refused the offer, on the rather astonishing grounds that he "could not guarantee bin Laden's safety".

 

The second offer, on 14 October, was more widely reported but just as strongly rejected. This time the offer included finding a third country, to be agreed on by both the US and Afghanistan, to serve as the venue for bin Laden's trial. US President Bush replied, "When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations. We know he's guilty. Turn him over. There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt."

 

The US had decided to oust the Talebans, apparently, for their refusal to handover, Osama bin Laden, unconditionally, to the US. They chose to back the Northern Alliance and use Afghans against one another to overthrow the Talebans.

 

Now the different factions, excluding the Talebans, are meeting in Germany to work on forming a government in Afghanistan. 

 

Will the factions agree and not re-start fighting as they did after the Red Army withdrew?

 

The United Stares likely can force the factions into line with the promise of billions of dollars for reconstruction. As David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, says, “It is going to be mixture of cajolery and bribery that brings people into the government.”

 

But for how long? Time will tell.

 

How about the Talebans?

 

Even if the present leadership is captured or killed, the “terrorists” -who are normally not a government but always opposing the government or waging a guerilla war – will be back again.

 

As Afghanistan’s history is witness, it is a question of time: years, decades or centuries.

 

As for the United States, though it “claims that its military strikes in Afghanistan are inspired by the most virtuous of motivations. But a foothold in Afghanistan will also help the USA achieve its long-term economic goal of securing access to the oil and gas fields of central Asia,” says Bill Hayton in his article The High Politics of Hydrocarbons.

 

***  This weekend, Spain announced it would not extradite suspected Al Qaeda terrorists to the U.S. as long as Bush plans to try such people in military tribunals. We should recall that the Taliban imposed conditions on their extradition offer, too, conditions the U.S. deemed unacceptable. Will Madrid be the anti-terror coalition's next target? 

(The Toronto Star -Thomas Walkom – November 27, 2001) ***