Friday, March 6, 2009

ZAKARIA'S AFGHANISTAN STRATEGY: SALVAGE OR SURRENDER?

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria believes, as do almost all analysts, that America's war in Afghanistan is not going well. Almost all trends, he says, are moving in the wrong direction but it is not a quagmire yet. To salvage the situation, he thinks that US policy needs to be "overhauled in four steps, each more complicated than the last".

The first of these steps outlined by Zakaria in an article in the Newsweek is the moving of the emphasis away from aggressive and punitive operations towards what the Indians calls the "winning the hearts and minds of the people" approach while simultaneously getting local forces to take on an increasing role in conducting operations. The second step is the strengthening of the Afghan government and increasing its legitimacy among the people by holding elections, reaching out to tribal leaders etc. There is not much to argue about the merits of these two basic steps.

But Zakaria steps into a veritable minefield with the last two steps which have the potential of making America end up leaving the region a far more dangerous place than it was before 9/11.

"Talk to the Taliban", says Zakaria, and "make a distinction between Al Qaida and Taliban". It is the Al Qaida which needs to be defeated to prevent terror attacks on the US. As far as the Taliban are concerned, essentially what Zakaria is saying is that the US should cut a deal with elements of the Taliban who have no links with the Al Qaida, effectively hand over Afghanistan back to them and withdraw its troops from that country.

Zakaria also believes that the rising tide of radical Islam is a reality about which not only can nothing be done, but it should not even concern the US because not all Islamists advocate global jihad and most Taliban want Islamic rule locally only. In support of these somewhat specious arguments, Zakaria highlights the fact that no Afghan has participated in any significant level in any global terrorist attack over the last ten years. Using the same line of reasoning, he supports the recent deal that the Pakistan government has struck in the Swat valley as an effort to divide the camps of Islamists between "those who are violent and those who are merely extreme". It is these "extreme" Islamists, it must be added, who were responsible for killing and beheading Pakistani journalist Mosa Khankel just after they signed the peace deal.

If Afghan nationals have not been involved in global - that term does not include India - terror attacks, it is not because they are concerned only with a share of the spoils and a measure of local power. It is because decades of war and ruin have ensured that there are very few educated Afghans living in the West. Therefore, picking suitable and motivated operatives to successfully carry out terror attacks in the West is virtually impossible. Afghans may not have been the visible face of global terror but it must be remembered that they provided the logistic and training bases that made it possible.

The last step suggested by Zakaria to ensure a lasting solution is to "pressure Pakistan" into dismantling jihadist networks, and to get India and Afghanistan to respond with concessions to ease regional tensions. That is another way of saying that India, which he believes has been "bled at very low cost" by Pakistan in Kashmir, should accept what will appear to be the victory of terror, and that Afghanistan should accept being treated almost as a notional nation whose purpose is to provide Pakistan the "strategic depth" that it has been seeking in its territory. That will happen in any case if the Taliban take control of that country again.

Would America want Afghanistan to revert back to the same conditions it was in before 9/11, minus the Al Qaida? If Zakaria's formula is followed, Pakistan, the epicenter of the terror that has been unleashed regionally and globally for decades, will again get to keep Afghanistan and also score some sort of a victory against India over Kashmir! And that handsome reward, in conjunction with the dismantling of jihadist networks that exist in Pakistan, will, as per Zakaria's assessment, ensure everlasting peace and brotherhood in the region and the world.

Also, since there is an un-checkable rising tide of radical Islam all over the world that actually does not threaten the world, Zakaria seems to suggest that the US should not be concerned if the whole of Pakistan is run over by "extreme" Islamists. All that it needs to do is to ensure that they keep the barrels of their AKs pointed towards their own people "who will weary of radical Islam quickly" as Islamists "lack the answers to today's problems". Can that ever be realistically done over time?

In the end, says Zakaria, it will be America's most powerful weapon, "a worldview that can satisfy the aspirations of modern men and women", that will defeat the Islamists, including the Taliban, not its military might or the combined will and efforts of other nations.

Zakaria should have known that aspirations of men and women stuck in a medieval time machine are not the same as of those who live in the 'decadent' West. For radical Islamists, their time machine is divine, questioning which means swift death. In any case, America's worldview has been on view for many decades. How come we are still witnessing the rise and sustenance of the radical Islam that should have never have risen in the first place, if Zakaria is right?

Zakaria's whole argument is based on the flawed premise that most radical Islamists are concerned only with petty local issues and not global jihad. They have to be concerned with those issues in any case, but the gaze of many is beyond the horizon and those of the remaining will quickly shift there too, when the conditions are right. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a Delhi based Islamic scholar, says that the ideology of jihadists is that "that Islam is a political system and that it is the duty of of all Muslims to establish the political rule of Islam in the world". He also says that a large number of Muslims have taken to violence to achieve this objective thinking it to be their ticket to paradise; even if they cannot eliminate non-Islamic rule, they can at least destabilise it and pave the way for Islamic rule.

This means that radical Islamists are not in it for the short haul. Bernard-Henry Levy, like many others, also believes that one can't distinguish between the Al Qaida and the Taliban. The artificial distinction that is being made by Zakaria between the "good" Taliban and the "bad" Taliban to justify the case for striking a deal with them and for rewarding Pakistan will not salvage the situation in Afghanistan. It will tantamount to surrender there. The defeat of both super powers to jihadists will be just the tonic they need to re-energise their jihad and attract more recruits globally into their holy war against America, the Great Satan, and other non-believers.

Whether we like it or not and no matter where in the world we live, we need to realise that we are all part of a historical battle between misguided radical Islam and not just the West but all the rest. Therefore, if the US cuts a deal with the Taliban and leaves Afghanistan with their ideology and AKs in place, there will not even be the illusion of peace. Attacks on India will continue without a pause and with renewed vigour. And, after a short hiatus which they will use to reorganise, re-group and re-strategise, the victorious jihadists will re-launch their global jihad with unprecedented ferocity.
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Readers may also read:
1. Understanding and defeating the ideology of terror
2. India needs to ready itself for a post-Pakistan scenario
3. Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of the same terror coin
4. Tackling Islamic terrorism: What India needs to understand