Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia

Dilip Hiro
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300173784
Chapter 14: Apocalyptic Futures, pg 294

….Pakistan faces a multitude of grave problems just when its economy is faltering, its civil administration remains incompetent and corrupt, its judicial system untrustworthy, its educational system under-funded, and its major political parties dominated by feudal interests. The only state institution that functions well, and enjoys high prestige among the people, is the military. It is the one that is holding the multi-ethnic country together territorially while the aid from Washington and its allied multilateral financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – keep it afloat economically.

As a rule nothing motivates armed forces better than having a sharply defined foe. Pakistan has one. India has been, is and will be the enemy. That has been the abiding creed of the Pakistani military. Its leaders provide evidence, starting with the independent India’s deliberate delay in dividing the assets of the British India and refusing to transfer cash balance to the fledgling state of Pakistan in 1947. It was Delhi’s complicity with Bengali nationalists which led to the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. There is the running sore of the Muslim-majority Kashmir shackled to India. And there is India’s adoption of the Cold Start strategy in 2004. It consists of eight division size Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) – each consisting of infantry, artillery, armor, and air support – primed to penetrate quickly Pakistan at unexpected points to disrupt its military command and control networks as a response to terrorist attack(s) from the Pakistani territory. Furthermore, India is all set to become the power broker in Afghanistan once the Americans have left. These two elements are an integral part of Delhi’s strategy to crush Pakistan in a pincer move to bring about its disintegration. Therein lies the logic behind the sustained support by Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate for the Afghan Taliban as a counterforce to neutralize India’s malignant design. 

Islam, the leitmotif of Afghan history

Though the ISI played a crucial role in fostering and boosting the Afghan Taliban in 1994, conservative Sunni Islam that underscores the militant movement has a long history in Afghanistan. As early as 1888, Afghanistan’s staunchly Sunni ruler, Abdur Rahman, rallied his fellow-Sunni subjects – Pushtun, Uzbek and Turkmen tribes – to subdue Shia Hazaras inhabiting the Hazarajat mountains in central Afghanistan. 

Equally, the idea of merging politics with religion in the person of Emir-Sultan in Afghanistan also originated with Abdur Rahman. He declared that only “divine guidance” could ensure that the people would choose a true and legitimate ruler (sultan). He thus invested himself with the twin task of furthering the cause of Islam (fi sabil al Islam) and liberating the Afghan soil from the domination of the infidel, foreign forces. In 1896 he published a treatise on jihad. In it he supported his argument that the demands of jihad overrode those of family, clan or tribe by citing 12 verses from the Quran.

When Amanullah Khan offered the nation its first written constitution in 1923, it declared Islam to be the official religion of Afghanistan. Whereas the special Loya Jirga he convened accepted his proposal for a representative government based on universal suffrage, and military conscription for men, it opposed modern education for girls and age limits for marriage. When he persisted in his drive for gender equality and allowed women to discard the veil, he ended up losing his throne.

The constitution promulgated by Nadir Shah in 1931 narrowed the official religion to the Hanafi school in Sunni Islam and decreed that all civil and criminal laws should be based entirely on the Sharia. He consulted senior clerics on all important social, educational and political issues. They disenfranchised women.

It was not until 1953 when Muhammad Daoud Khan, commander of the Central Forces and a cousin of King Muhammad Zahir Shah, staged a coup with a nod from the palace. He set up an authoritarian regime where senior clerics found themselves on the defensive. He succeeded in introducing social reform because he had the backing of a loyal, professional army, built up with the assistance of Moscow.  

The new constitution that Zahir Shah promulgated in 1964 ruled out any law “repugnant to the basic principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” Yet when Daoud Khan seized supreme power in 1973 and abolished monarchy, he claimed that he did so to return the country to “Islamic values”. Such was the popular appeal of Islam. 

After his success in co-opting moderate Marxists and severely weakened nationalist centrists, Daoud Khan found Islamists as the sole opposition force. He repressed them. Then, to monopolize power, he turned against the Marxists. Thus pressured, the leaders of the Marxist People’s Democratic Part of Afghanistan (PDPA), acting against the wishes of the Kremlin, activated the network they had built up in the army and overthrew Daoud Khan in 1978.

Once in power, the PDPA’s moderate and radical factions began quarrelling about the place of Islam in society and the pace of socio-economic reform at the expense of the vested interests. Their differences became irreconcilable while opposition from the traditional centers of power, backed by illiterate, conservative and religious villagers gathered momentum.

Afghan Islamists, calling themselves Mujahedin (plural of Mujahid, one who wages jihad), set up bases in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. In July 1979, the United States administration of President Jimmy Carter began channeling money and arms to these groups in collusion with the military government of General Muhammad Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. He had overthrown the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), in July 1977. Washington hoped that growing Islamic resistance in Afghanistan would tempt the Kremlin to intervene militarily and get bogged down in the way the U.S. had been in Vietnam.

To Washington’s delight, the rising Islamist challenge did not lead the PDPA’s two factions PDPA to close ranks. Instead, the power struggle turned violent, claiming the life first of the top leader of the moderate faction and then of the radical. This paved the ground for the entry of the troops of the Soviet Union whose leaders envisaged a stay of about six months to normalize the situation with the moderate leader Babrak Karmal firmly in control. The U.S. got what it wanted.  

Ironically, it was the split in a leftist, secular party which set off a civil war in Afghanistan in 1979 that has raged since then with varying intensity in which Islam along with ethnic rivalries between the leading groups – Pushtun and Tajiks – has been a major factor.

In the final analysis, the blame for pushing Afghanistan into a civil war lies with the excesses committed by the PDPA’s radical wing. Equally, it was the trumping of the pragmatic approach of negotiations with Moscow advocated by U.S. secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, by the hawkish stance of the National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski – adopted by Carter – which put the U.S. on the path that led 22 years later to 9/11. That opened a new chapter in the Afghan civil strife….

Washington’s Flawed Policy-making Pattern

A fatal flaw in the Bush administration’s strategy for countering terrorism was that it treated Islamist terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors as if it were Communism of the Soviet bloc.

The latter existed as the ideology of several functioning states, led by the Soviet Union, a vast country equipped with thousands of nuclear weapons. Thus the Cold War was waged by two sets of legitimate states with well defined rules of hot war and cold peace. That was not the case with Al Qaida or any of its allied or friendly jihadist factions in Pakistan. True, the Afghan Taliban administered almost all of Afghanistan. But in the international community the Taliban regime was recognized only by three countries, the most important being Pakistan. The conventional military strength of the Taliban regime was miniscule. So the Bush government ended up rallying its massive conventional military might to confront an entity engaged essentially in an asymmetrical warfare.  

This was the latest in a series of missteps taken by the U.S. in this region. The basic drawback that runs through a series of actions taken by U.S. administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, is this: at key points the White House opts for expedient policies with little attention paid to their medium and long term consequences. For instance, following the flight of the Taliban from Afghanistan in December 2001, instead of strengthening the hands of the central government in Kabul, the Bush government decided to work with the warlords in the provinces, thus maintaining the status quo without the Taliban in the capital. Because provincial warlords were in cahoots with drug barons, the growing of poppies and the consequent narcotics trade became embedded in the administrative system of Afghanistan, much to the hand-wringing disappointment of Washington and its NATO allies.

 Other examples date as far back as 1979. Fired by the typically American “can-do” spirit, and resolved to settle the long-running Cold War in its favor, President Carter intervened clandestinely in Afghanistan in order to induce intervention by the Soviet Union – a trap in which the Kremlin fell. In 1981, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had the option either of assisting a group of three moderately Islamic, nationalist, pro-monarch Afghan parties along with a few secular, anti-Marxist factions, or a collective of three fanatical Islamist groups. Bill Casey, director of the CIA, backed the zealots. Why? The leading faction, the Hizb-e Islami (Party of Islam) of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar planned to cap expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan with forays into Tajikistan Soviet Republic to start undermining the Communist system in Central Asia. Casey eagerly bought into this half-baked, ill-conceived scenario. Had Casey backed the moderate Islamic nationalist parties, the history of the region and the world would have been starkly different. Since these factions respected the Afghan traditions in religion and governance (by a king), they enjoyed far more popular support than did the anti-royalist fundamentalist groups who were far too radical for conservative, traditionalist Afghans.

Deprived of the CIA’s largesse, the extremist Afghan factions would have been reduced to a subsidiary role, and the world would have been spared the rise of Frankenstein’s monsters in the forms of Al Qaida and the Taliban.

Equally, the condoning of Pakistan’s nuclear program by the Reagan White House has led to the situation where a country with an arsenal of some 110 atomic bombs is exposed to attacks on its sensitive military facilities by fanatical teams of suicide bombers drawn from a pool of several thousand jihadists. This poses extreme danger not just to the region but the world at large. The jihadist organizations’ failure to hijack a Pakistani atom bomb or its vital parts in transition or storage so far has left intact their overarching aim of souring relations between Islamabad and Delhi to the point of hot war. The fact that the two nuclear-armed neighbors came to the brink of an all-out war at the time of the Kargil Battle in the spring of 1999 and again three years later makes jihadist leaders feel that their objective is realistic.   

This pattern of expedient policy-making persists….

Copyright © 2012 Dilip Hiro