Strategic depth or isolation?
Najam Sethi's E d i t o r i a l - Friday Times
The Taliban's Buddha-bashing is un-Islamic, argue Islamic scholars and religious leaders across the world. It is illegal, claim international jurists. It is unnecessary, irrational, unreasonable, stupid, nay barbaric, say others. Indeed, not one word in defence of this senseless destruction has been uttered by anyone outside Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban are defiant. Why's that?
When the rag-tag armies of the Taliban first swept across the war-ravaged plains and mountains of Afghanistan in 1995-96, they were motivated more by their desire to wage war for the purposes of peace than by any madrassah -inspired zeal to enforce a particular "vision" of Islam. But, prodded and propped up by Pakistan, they ended up conquering nearly all of Afghanistan in the next two years. Subsequently, they sought to acquire legitimacy, or reinvent themselves, primarily in the garb of an Islam in which pre-Islamic tribal custom and primitive rituals, superstition and ignorance, all jostled for supremacy with ordained notions of equality and social justice. Thus, even as Pakistan turned a blind eye or condoned their retrogressive actions, one Taliban decree followed another in banning music, shaving heads, outlawing female education and employment, cutting-off hands, and even stoning alleged adulterers to death. In due course, the inability of the Taliban (and their Pakistani handlers) to erect an efficient, moderate and consensual political and administrative system in multi-ethnic Afghanistan and their increasing frustration at being denied international recognition created a propensity for negative or punitive measures in order to entrench themselves domestically.
Unfortunately, the international community's attitude towards the Taliban hasn't helped in moderating their beliefs. After walking out of Afghanistan at the end of the cold war, the West has made no serious institutional effort to engage the Taliban in the economic and political reconstruction of Afghanistan as a gateway to the mineral-rich region of Central Asia. On the contrary, it has rained cruise missiles on Afghanistan and thwarted the Taliban's attempts to demolish their opponents. In fact, the latest episode of Buddha-bashing may be seen in the light of the UN sanctions on the Taliban regime last January. How's that?
The UN sanctions were applied when drought and famine stalked Afghanistan, when millions were faced with starvation, fuelling the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Pakistan. The aim of these sanctions is to weaken the Taliban's hold on Afghanistan, partly by provoking internal instability and partly by denying them Pakistani military assistance in the forthcoming spring offensive by the Northern Alliance led by former Afghan president Burhannudin Rabbani (whose non-existent government is still recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Afghanistan). These sanctions have been followed by three major acts of defiance, frustration, resentment or anger by the Taliban: Osama Bin Laden's marriage was internationally publicised, as if to say "up yours"; a massacre of Shi'ite Hazaras was blithely condoned, as if to say "who cares"; two women were executed for alleged adultery, as if to say "so what" and now the Buddhas so beloved of the international community have been demolished, as if to say "damn you."
The latest provocation is particularly instructive. Five years ago, Mulla Umar had decried the Taliban zealots who ransacked Kabul Museum and destroyed priceless artefacts; last year he set up a committee to review the case of "idol-worship"; five weeks after the UN sanctions, on February 26 this year, and despite acknowledging that there are no Buddhists in Afghanistan, he issued his fatwa and refused to back down when the world roared in outrage.
Pakistan's cynical attitude to Afghanistan and its opportunist relationship with the Taliban is also responsible for the current impasse. In pursuit of dubious notions of statecraft, Islamabad has relentlessly, and often recklessly, sought to make Afghanistan a subservient client state. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was Pakistan's first blue-eyed boy. But when he failed to deliver, a "historic accord" was clinched with Burhanuddin Rabbani. But when Rabbani demonstrated that he had a mind of his own, Islamabad was quick to clutch at Mullah Umar. Now Mulla Umar has become unpredictable and unreasonable but there is no fall-back or forward position for Pakistan as it writhes uncomfortably in the glare of international censure. Indeed, even though Islamabad claims that it did more than anybody else to dissuade the Taliban from carrying out their threat to demolish the Buddhas, the world has reserved its harshest criticism for Pakistan as the "sole defender and supporter of the extremist regime in Afghanistan". The fear is that Islamabad could be further isolated as moderate Muslim nations scramble to evade the fallout of the Taliban's extremist version of "Islam" that borders "international terrorism", as the European Union fulminates about Pakistan's failure to exercise its "considerable and unique influence" with the Taliban, and as the United States weighs its options to bomb Osama Bin Laden out of Afghanistan.
Pakistan's Afghan policy is an unmitigated disaster. The Taliban blowback in the form of sectarian and jehadi inspired violence continues to exact a heavy toll of civil society in Pakistan. Now it is threatening to push us into the eye of an international storm. The sooner we change our misplaced notions of outreach, the better. The blowback of vague "strategic depth" is certain strategic isolation and despair.
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