Two developments from central Asia dominate the news: on the one hand, there is the higher pitch of battle in Afghanistan, where the new ‘surge’ strategy by America and its allies seeks to regain control over the wayward provinces and political stability, and on the other hand there is the nuclearization of Iran during a time of internal strife in that country. Just now, coalition forces together with the hastily drummed up ‘Afghan National Army’ are assaulting a Taliban stronghold in the backward and dangerous province of Helmand, attempting to dislodge the Taliban from the southern provinces and regaining the political initiative. This latter point is relevant because of the fiasco of the recent elections for the Afghan Presidency. These elections were widely suspected to be fraudulent, including by the foreign commission to supervise them, but more importantly perhaps the turnout for them was vastly lower compared to the first elections not long after the defeat of the Taliban. The cynicism which saw Hamid Karzai retain power despite the fraud and the manner in which he managed to call the Americans’ bluff when it came to replacing him over it will do nothing to reinvigorate the flagging Afghan confidence in their new government structures. Karzai in the meantime is attempting to consolidate his now more independent position. He has always been much more favorable to the warlords and more inclined to compromise with the old forces than the West and its supporters in the region enjoyed, but now the Americans have shown themselves unwilling or unable to find an alternative to his rule, he can more safely afford to ignore their political demands in the domestic arena. This is shown in practice by his proposed electoral law changes, which would make candidates for office highly more dependent on external financing (i.e. robbery and drug trade, like the warlords) and reduce the participation of women in national politics, much disliked by the traditionalists whom Karzai persistently seeks to win over.(1)
All of this therefore makes it clear that the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan have to make a good showing on the scene to regain the initiative and the attention of the Afghans. Everything depends on the degree to which the Afghan population overall perceives the current situation, including occupation, as superior to the alternatives. This is now becoming clear, if ever so slowly, even to the military leadership in Washington, which has issued instructions prioritizing the well-being of local civilians over defeating actual insurgents, or so the story goes. If this is indeed true, it is a wise move and long overdue – not only is it impossible for any occupying force to maintain its position long in a country of this kind without the support of the population, but relieving the population from oppression and terror was after all the rationale for the war and occupation in the first place. The Taliban know very well they cannot defeat the Americans c.s. in open battle, and also that they have little popularity in the country as a whole. But they also know that they can recruit a virtually unending number of unemployed young men for a paltry sum in a country where a couple of dollars a day can make the difference between fighting on the Taliban side and on the government side. All they need to do is provoke the occupying forces long and often enough that they will retaliate with more force than is wise, turning the civilian populace against the invaders. This is an old guerrilla tactic, and the onus is on the Americans and others to make it not succeed. The fact that the current campaign in Helmand started inauspiciously with the bombardment of a civilian shelter makes one wonder whether the Americans will manage this task. It is frustrating for the soldiers on the ground to not be able to definitively pursue their elusive enemies and instead have to act as buffers, drawing fire without returning any. This situation is familiar to UN peacekeeping forces, which from the get-go have the same priorities as the American military leadership is trying to enforce now, and perhaps it will make it more clear to the Americans why such peacekeeping forces act as they do and what their use is, including in places like Afghanistan. But in the short term, it is only the hateful ideology of the Taliban itself and the evil memories of their rule that prevent the Afghans from preferring them over their occupiers, as long as they themselves have not been targeted by ‘precision bombings’.
As the Obama administration is now wisely noticing, Pakistan plays a significant role in this situation also. Traditionally the Pakistani military class and their reactionary tool, the ISI intelligence agency, have favored islamists and traditionalists like the Taliban as long as they would not act against the central government in Islamabad. The idea was that support for such islamists can guarantee Pakistan’s security in the effectively ungoverned border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as support the Pakistani cause in their perpetual war against India in Kashmir as well as India itself, making use of the fact that India is a majority non-muslim country.(2) Musharraf’s mostly secular military dictatorship did this no different than the religious reactionary one of Zia ul-Haq had back in the day, and nonetheless it received the support of the United States, which was fearful of instability in the country. Only when the whole undertaking backfired and the Pakistani ‘Taliban’ decided to invade the Swat Valley from their uncontrolled ‘tribal’ borderlands, thereby threatening the summer villas of the Pakistani elite as well as the military’s strategic position, did Islamabad strike back against them. Musharraf’s foreign and domestic support was withdrawn when he consistently failed to either reform the corrupt Pakistani political system or combat the support for islamists in the borderlands and Afghanistan itself, and as a result he was replaced by a government headed by the notoriously corrupt businessman Asif Ali Zardari. This government however has the advantage of not only allowing a greater degree of democracy, although the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has shown how meaningless this can be in such an intensely divided society, but moreover that it does not have the same incentives to support islamism. The government has driven the islamist militants from Swat with much show of force, and in fact even pursued the offensive into South Waziristan, a region of the borderlands that is traditionally a ‘no go area’ for the central government by their policy of not-so-benign neglect. This show of force however has also had the same problems of overkill and counterproductiveness – although many of the clans of the borderlands detest the actual Taliban and Al Qaeda-associated organizations because of their destruction of the traditional clan leadership patterns, the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the warzone will not be too enthousiastic about Islamabad either. The only way to more permanently root out Al Qaeda and Taliban activity in this area is in any case to fully integrate the borderlands into centralized government control, whether it be in Islamabad or on the basis of a much-needed redrawing of arbitrary colonial borders. This the Zardari government has not been willing or able to do, and the NATO allies have given them no support or incentive for this either. The result is that the problem is simply shifted around while civilian casualties mount, and already the series of bombings in other parts of Pakistan against mainly Shia targets are being seen as the retaliation of the ‘Taliban’-related groups.
What makes propping up Pakistan of course so important is not just its borderland, but also the fact that it is a state with nuclear weapons. The threat of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is no longer as effective as a free pass to implement whatever domestic or foreign policy the Americans like, but nonetheless the issue of nuclear proliferation is taken seriously even by anti-imperialists, and with good reason. The persistent struggle of the Iranian government to refine uranium is therefore all the more worrying in this regard. There are, as always, multiple sides to this issue. On the one hand, it is clear that since Iran’s shaky economy is highly dependent on oil, its export and transport, a diversification of energy sources with an eye to a less oil-reliant future makes absolute sense. Nuclear energy, although highly expensive is nonetheless a fairly clean and particularly reliable way of providing energy, and is a sensible part of a economic development and modernization program in any country where there are few ‘green’ alternatives. The Americans’ offer to provide the necessary fuel for a nuclear plant themselves has been rejected, and this should not be read as a sign of the unreasonableness or irrational hatred of the Teheran government. No government can accept becoming entirely dependent for its energy or other primary resources on an avowedly hostile foreign power, and one would not expect the Americans to accept the reverse either.
Of course, the islamist regime in Iran has been striking down its rebel movement much more brutally and rigorously than expected, and even going so far as jailing former cabinet Ministers and muzzling dissenting clerics themselves. The rebel movement in Iran can now effectively be considered defeated. But all indications are that a remilitarization of the country is the result, with the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, which is both the military and the economic support pillars of the islamist structure, effectively being in control of political events. This is a highly retrograde development which makes the opportunities for reform in Iran look much worse than when the protests first started. However skeptical about the protest movement the more considered analysts have justly been, the Iranian government has clearly shown itself to reject entirely the way of reform that is neither clerical nor subject to the West, and instead has opted for the route of direct confrontation. This has destroyed what democratic structures existed in Iran. If in the future the contradictions leading from this, such as for example the dissension among the (partially conscripted) Revolutionary Guard rank-and-file(3), lead to revolt or civil war in Iran, it is all the more important that an eye is kept on the nuclear situation. Nuclear proliferation is beyond any doubt a bad thing, whether it is in the West or elsewhere: given that a current average nuclear weapon has about a thousand times the explosive power of that used on Nagasaki, which killed some 100.000 people, it is clear that even as a weapon of defense against outside aggression it is too risky a proposition for the global populace to accept. Various countries, from Sweden to South Africa, have for this reason opted to not deploy nuclear weapons despite a capacity to do so. There is no reason why Iran should be any different. Now it must be said that Iran itself has given no decisive indication yet that it is in fact pursuing nuclear weapons, and has insisted on desiring peaceful energy-related use of uranium and other components only. There is no evidence that they have the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon, and there is also no reason why they are not to be allowed to develop a peaceful nuclear program. But at the same time, a great deal of skepticism towards the promises of a government so intent on showing its repressive and reactionary side is warranted, and one would trust Ahmadinejad’s promises no more than one would trust Franco’s. Iran itself has however always pursued a policy of stability in Afghanistan, and there lies an opportunity. If the regional powers, recognizing their mutuality of interests, can come to an agreement on containing the islamist forces in the region while at the same time thereby obviating the need for Western invasions and occupations in that area, then this would be good for the region’s leaders as well as for the local population. But this requires that the Western countries understand the internal contradictions in Iran as not just between the ‘good’ rebels and the ‘bad’ government, but also understand that Iran has more potential ways of reform than just the ways of the Shah or Khomeini, and that regardless of its government it has certain interests to maintain that one simply cannot expect it to give up. The sooner a diplomatic approach based on these understandings is preferred to military solutions in that region, the better it will be for all involved.
1) Joshua Partlow, “Afghanistan’s government seeks more control over elections”. Washington Post (Feb. 15, 2010).
2) See: Ahmed Rashid, De Dreiging van Chaos (tr. Ap van Rijsoort. Amsterdam/Antwerpen 2009 ), passim.
3) See e.g., Greg Bruno, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards”. Council on Foreign Relations (June 22, 2009). http://www.cfr.org/publication/14324/