The war on terrorism would require more careful strategies of nation building and economic reconstruction of countries like Afghanistan than massive use of force driven by primitive impulses of revenge. There are fears that the war on terrorism that has invoked considerable support around the world and among the regional countries bordering Afghanistan may loose political steam, and even backfires if it turns out to be merely revenge motivated by anger against the Taliban regime and their Arab guests. There are two reasons for this fear. First, the sole attention of the international coalition against terrorism is on these two elements, one suspected of involvement in the tragic terrorist atrocities in the United States, and the other giving them protection, and refusing to hand them over for trial.
This is understandable for the palpable evidence that the investigating agencies in the United States have dug, and are now sharing with the coalition partners. Those who have seen the evidence, including Pakistan, believe that there is enough evidence to indict Mr Osama bin laden. A person with open mind and some degree of neutrality would understand the reason why the focus of international community has turned against the suspected Arab terrorists and their Afghan hosts. But in a climate of distrust, deep grievances and hostility, political agenda overshadows the question of evidence. To one side what would appear to be concrete, convincing and unquestionable, to the other it would be concocted.
It would be natural for the Taliban and their supporters, as it appears to be in their counter strategy, to use all arsenals in their political armoury. Emotions, rhetoric, Islamic sentiments and the ‘clash of civilisation’ are being put into effective use to maintain the solidarity of their constituency. It is as much a war of winning the hearts and minds in the Muslim communities, as it is to win the real battle in the barren landscape of Afghanistan. The outcome of the military battle may be settled quickly, as there is no match between the forces wanting to crush the Taliban and the defenders. There are serious doubts if there would be those traditional military encounters where you can really know from which direction the adversary would come and with what. The battle of the hearts and minds will be long drawn, more difficult to determine its outcome and would require more resources and careful planning if the tide of growing militancy in Islamic societies is to be stemmed. We will revert back to this point little later.
The second reason for fear that war on terrorism may degenerate into revenge is the structure of forces that are being assembled in the Arabian Sea and around the region. In addition to task force 50 that is routinely in the region with 15-35 ships, the United States is deploying four carrier forces. More than 30, 000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, and about 300 military aircrafts of various types are estimated to be in the region. The military build up now underway is going to be formidable giving the US multiple choices. At the moment, two carrier battle groups, one led by the USS Carl Vinson and the other by the USS Enterprise, have moved closer to Pakistan’s coast from where they can conduct air strikes. It is estimated that each carrier has 75 aircrafts aboard, including F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats. Numerous ships in these groups are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The third carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, which left Norfolk, Virginia September 19 will move into the Indian Ocean after completing multinational exercises near Egypt. It has 14 warships and 15, 000 sailors and marines. B-52 bombers and B-1 bombers as well as tanker refuelling aircraft, U-2 reconnaissance planes and RC-135 surveillance aircraft also have been moved to the region along with air force ground support personnel. The fourth carrier USS Kitty Hawk is on its way from the Pacific. The United States will be using these forces in combination with the staging facilities, logistical and intelligence support from some of the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan that have declared open support to America’s war on terrorism.
We hope that this lethal force with overkill capability is not unleashed on Afghanistan. There is not much left to be destroyed in a country that has already been devastated first by the Soviet Union and then by the civil war. Immediately, after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC and the fingers pointedly fixed on Afghanistan, the risk of using massive force in revenge is greater now after some cool reflections. The fears, however, about revenge aspects of the war linger on for another reason also; that so far, the mission of the forces that are going to be used has not been clearly spelled out, except, taking Mr Laden ‘dead or alive’.
There are questions about how and when the Taliban regime will be removed. It is not difficult to understand why, and also, there is little hope it would survive the combination of forces that are now zeroing on them. Its unravelling has already started with defections, fluid loyalties of remote commanders and large-scale migration of Afghan people. This is happening under the looming threat of American military strikes. Building a political coalition inside Afghanistan with the support of expatriate Afghans with social and political base in the country would be a better alternative to the emerging anarchy and the opportunistic move of the Northern Alliance that is preparing to make a run for the capital Kabul when the military strikes begin.
In our estimation, removal of the Taliban regime may not require massive application of forces that are being assembled in the neighbourhood. A proportionate, measured, and appropriate force against the military targets would provoke lesser anger and reaction than wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages that already wear a deserted look. The political and economic aspects of war on terrorism in the long run would be more important than the reliance on military means. Perhaps, the tragedy in the United States might have been averted if these two aspects had been paid some attention after Moscow pulled out of Afghanistan. In the hindsight, the benign neglect of a cold war ally, fatally wounded and unable to cure itself, was a self-defeating policy. A country without state institutions, a political centre and a viable economy was allowed to slip into a deadly civil war, which sucked in all kinds of elements with different motives from the near and far. As Afghanistan became the epicentre of transnational movements, it affected all around it, and far beyond its immediate boundaries.
We hope this time around, the United States and its coalition partners do not confine themselves to the military part of the strategy against terrorism. The real task is to reconstruct the Afghan state, rebuild economy and rehabilitate the millions of internally displaced persons and lure the refugees back from Iran and Pakistan. In the present crisis it is not only the question of reviving Afghanistan as a normal state, but stability of the entire region around it. This would require better wisdom, deeper reflection, intensive and constructive engagement on sustained basis to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans who have paid heavy price of others wars and of their own. The twin pillars of peace and stability would stand only on the sound foundation of economic and political reconstruction.