No walking away from terror in Afghanistan

by Subhash Chopra

Dealing with global terror spilling out of Afghanistan was the subject of a lively dinner debate at London’s Reform Club, organised this month by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne in association with The Democracy Forum. Speakers offered a variety of viewpoints on the causes and consequences of violence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the USA, the retaliatory response in Afghanistan and the eventual role of Pakistan. 

Firing the first shots, as it were, was Professor Anatol Lieven from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He opened with his observations on the variety of bombing operations in Afghanistan, followed by remarks on Pakistan as ‘a failed state’, which he quickly rephrased to ‘a potentially failing state’.  He pointed to the widespread belief in Pakistan that the post-9/11 action in Afghanistan and elsewhere was an American-Israeli conspiracy.  And he rejected another belief in certain circles – namely, that the British army was fighting in Afghanistan in revenge for defeats suffered in previous centuries – as ‘rubbish’.

 

Professor Lieven perceived Pakistani and Afghan Taliban sympathy and the war against the Soviet forces as ‘legitimate’, but the US-British initiative was of a different kind, he said.  While most Pakistanis did not support Taliban ideology or its extension to their own country, nonetheless an overwhelmingly large number of people continued to sympathise with the Taliban. Indeed, any direct intervention or bombing of Pakistani territory by NATO held the potential to spark a mutiny within the Pakistan army against America and its allies.

 

America, Britain and other NATO allies must assure the Afghan people that they are there to help them and train the Afghan forces to defend themselves, warned Prof. Lieven. And above all, NATO allies must show determination and spread the message that they are ‘not walking away’ from the struggle and abandoning the people of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Dr Gareth Price, of Chatham House, dwelt on the efforts to establish a judicial system and set up a ministry of justice in Afghanistan, while Lord Dholakia spoke of his own visit to Afghanistan and the need to root out corruption in the Afghan administration, to train the Afghan army and to disabuse the Taliban of its ‘over-confidence’ about winning the war and its rejection of overtures for peace talks.

Dr Steve Tsang, of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, addressed the oft-repeated question: ‘Why are we (the British) there in Afghanistan in the first place?’  He went on to differentiate between al-Qaeda and the Taliban and suggested that ‘our’ fight is not with the Taliban but with al-Qaeda, hinting at a strategy of weaning the Taliban away from al-Qaeda, the outsider in Afghanistan. A fascinating analysis, perhaps, against the ground reality of al-Qaeda and the Taliban being two sides of the same coin.

 

Mr Mohamed Sarwar, Chief Editor of Urdu weekly newspaper The Nation, in his brief speech said thatPakistan,India andAfghanistan must be brought together by theUS for any lasting peace in the region. A valuable suggestion, though one at variance withPakistan’s long-held strategy of keepingIndia out ofAfghanistan. Also, American efforts to convincePakistan that there is no danger to its security on its eastern flank fromIndia have failed so far.

 Lt-Gen. L. Lillywhite sought to correct the impression that the situation could be seen as comparable to one which once prevailed in Malaysia, where the civil government was able to take over after the ground had been cleared by combat forces. In Afghanistan, he said, there was no trained civil network and the conditions posed a long-haul challenge.

Dr Ajay Sahni, of the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, firmly held the view that the seeming failure (of  NATO efforts) in Afghanistan was very much reversible and the al-Qaeda-Taliban combination could be defeated. The experience of several countries suggested as much, a point which Dr Sahni had elaborated at a recent seminar in Bombay,  when he underscored the failure of al-Qaeda forces to capture power in any Islamic country from north Africa to Malaysia and Indonesia in the last decade, in spite of its violent and headline-grabbing activities since 9/11.

Baroness Nicholson played the perfect host to the evening by giving others the chance to speak while restricting herself to stressing the importance of the global democratic struggle against terrorism. The Chairman of the Democracy Forum, Mr J S Bains, presented each of the main speakers with a special gift, while all the attendees at the dinner received a copy of Composite Culture, a book of seminar speeches published by Urdutahzeeb.net.