Tag Archives: Taliban

‘Good’ Taliban, ‘bad’ Taliban, and a need for stability 1 July 2014

‘Good’ Taliban, ‘bad’ Taliban, and a need for stability     1 July 2014

The Pakistan military has finally decided to confront anti-social elements located in North Waziristan, one of the seven tribal agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This military action has been named ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’, which apparently means a ‘sharp and cutting strike’. This refers to the sword that Prophet Muhammad used in two significant battles while attempting to consolidate Islam. This historic term seeks to refute those hardline elements in FATA who consider themselves more religiously pure, or Islamic, than most Pakistanis, and who consider themselves above Pakistan law. They are now being ‘struck’ by a stronger, more capable, Islamically-inspired force. One hopes they see the irony.

To date, military activity has included air strikes against militant strongholds and ammunition dumps in North Waziristan. These actions follow a ‘convenient’ strike by a United States’ drone that killed a high-level Haqqani operative and which, while condemned by the Pakistan Government, was surely welcomed by the Pakistan military, and possibly done in conjunction with it. For some time, Pakistan has publicly complained about US drone strikes while privately welcoming their results that have eliminated some significant anti-Pakistan militants.

Ground forces apparently are waiting to move into North Waziristan once the Pakistan Air Force completes its work. However, to avoid the fighting, actual or potential, some 430,000 Waziris have fled to Bannu and other parts of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, or in lesser numbers—some 65,000 people—to Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces. Unfortunately, some of the elements that the Pakistan Army is trying to subdue or kill may have been part of this human exodus. It is very difficult for all security forces—Afghan, Pakistani or those in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—to determine which men are actually hardline, anti-social elements. Most Pukhtoon/Pushtoon males, who predominate in FATA, dress in a similar way. They certainly don’t wear uniforms that identify them as ‘terrorists’.

The agitated human ‘collateral damage’ fleeing the military action hopes to return to North Waziristan once the Pakistan Army has cleared their region of ‘rebels’. Many of these refugees will likely have to rebuild their homes on their return. These displaced people add to the large numbers of Afghan refugees still located in Pakistan and to refugees from the 2009 military action in Swat. This is an enormous economic, social and emotional burden for Pakistan to bear, particularly as its economy currently is very weak. Afghanistan now has a similar problem, although not of the same magnitude as Pakistan’s.

In a positive development for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistan military has finally decided that it will attack all anti-social elements in North Waziristan, regardless of whether they either are, or previously have been considered, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Generally, ‘good’ elements have been Pakistanis and other pro-Pakistan men allowed to live in Pakistan and who often have been used in Afghanistan, either against its government or against Indian assets. These armed elements include the Afghan Taliban (based around Mullah Omar and the so-called ‘Quetta shura’ that he leads), the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistan Taliban), al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network. Lesser elements include Uighurs from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement  and Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. China, particularly, will be happy to see Pakistan striking Uighurs, who have been causing it problems in Xinjiang. Similarly, Afghanistan and India will be pleased to see the disruption of the notorious, capable and long-lived Haqqani network.

Conversely, ‘bad’ elements comprise those Pakistanis who have been brutally and incessantly attacking the Pakistan state and Pakistanis. These elements now chiefly comprise the Pakistan Taliban, whose strongholds are largely in FATA. The military has lost control of this extra-legal element—its ‘good Taliban’ have increasingly been morphing into ‘bad Taliban’—as most recently highlighted by the attack on Jinnah Airport, Karachi. This is a problem that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate presumably did not foresee: when one creates or supports a monster, it may develop a life of its own and seek to devour its creator. Regardless of their characterization as good or bad, Taliban elements clearly have their own agenda. This overrides that of the Pakistan or Afghanistan governments and their militaries—which the Pakistan Army now has finally realised.

A further factor in the current operations is cross border relations with Afghanistan. In a complete reversal of roles from a few years ago, some Pakistanis now are blaming Afghanistan for not doing enough to patrol, control and conduct surveillance along the (notoriously porous) Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to limit the ability of anti-Pakistan elements to obtain sanctuary in Afghanistan. To control, then destroy, the menace that groups such as the Taliban pose, both nations will need to genuinely coordinate their efforts. Should this occur, it will be good for both nations and their citizens—and bad for the Taliban.

While all of this activity is occurring in north-western Pakistan, some nearby developments pose some wildcards. First, India’s new government may choose to be assertive against Pakistan, although I think that Prime Minister Modi really wants India to develop economically before he becomes belligerent. However, given its current workload, the Pakistan Army’s ability to respond to any Indian provocations in Jammu and Kashmir, or elsewhere, will be limited. It could, however, deploy other proxies, such as the ‘good’ Lashkar-e-Toiba that still appears to be functioning largely unhindered in Punjab. Second, the result of Afghanistan’s presidential elections are still unclear—except that Abdullah Abdullah won’t accept any result in which he comes second. That, plus some resurgent Taliban activity, suggests there are plenty of issues yet to be resolved in Afghanistan.

The need of the hour in all three nations is stability—stability for India while it develops economically; stability for Pakistan while it deals with its unsavoury elements and an array of other issues; and, stability for Afghanistan as it enters its uncertain post-ISAF phase. This need might moderate the actions of the leaders in all three nations—except against their anti-social elements.

The opinions in this blog are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organisations, professional or otherwise, with which I am involved or associated.

Christopher Snedden
1 July 2014



Pakistan: difficult times 20 February 2014

Pakistan: difficult times     20 February 2014

The current situation in Pakistan is disturbing. While delegates from the Pakistan Government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been negotiating, other hardline Taliban elements have been continuing to attack innocent Pakistanis. The Taliban’s latest victims were 23 kidnapped Frontier Corps soldiers executed on Monday in Mohmand Agency, one of the seven agencies that comprise Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These executions apparently were in revenge for operations undertaken by Pakistani forces in FATA. The killers’ intention also may have been to scuttle the Government-Taliban talks. They succeeded, with the talks now suspended, possibly never to resume.

The Taliban, which has some popularity among poorer, disadvantaged Pakistanis, has long used violent, illegal and non-constitutional methods to push for the imposition of an Islamic, Sharia-based Pakistani society. The Government-Taliban talks have empowered, and further emboldened, them. They mean that the Taliban has been formally recognised by the Pakistan Government as a ‘player’ of significance. They also suggest that the debate has now moved from ‘How Islamic should Pakistan be?’ to ‘How much Sharia law should Pakistan implement?’ (The old discussion of ‘Whether Pakistan should be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state?’ ended long ago.)

The current talks have also, to some extent, legitimised the Taliban’s methods of operation—and denigrated past excesses for which they have not been held accountable. For an organisation whose purpose supposedly arises from Islamic scriptures, teaching and practices, the Taliban’s tactics surprisingly have included murder, intimidation and destruction. Since 2007, they have killed some 40,000 Pakistanis, and maimed and injured thousands of others. Ironically and tragically, the vast majority of these Pakistanis have comprised innocent fellow Muslims. Some Talibs may see these people as ‘collateral damage’. Equally, others may have engaged in the practice of takfir, by which they piously and without compassion decide who is or isn’t a pukka Muslim, with Shias or Ahmadiyyas expendable as apostates and others insignificant because they are kafirs (unbelievers or infidels). (The word takfir itself is derived from the word kafir.)

The Pakistan Government’s talks with the Taliban show that it is unclear about how to deal with these serious, and de-stabilising, anti-social elements. Admirably, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to be trying to be conciliatory and inclusive by engaging widely with many Pakistanis, including the Taliban. Perhaps he did learn something from his time out of power in exile. Equally, it is far cheaper, and easier, to talk with the Taliban than to send in troops. Conversely, Mr Sharif also appears to be consulting the Taliban because he does not have the ‘stomach’ to fight and defeat these serious extra-legal elements who, we should remember, in 2007-2009 conquered and controlled Swat, then entered Bajaur, close to Islamabad. Even more seriously, since September 2013, the Taliban have killed a further ‘308 civilians, 114 military personnel and 38 police officers’ (www.dawn.com/news/1088104/army-says-over-100-soldiers-have-died-in-five-months-of-fighting). In other words, give the Taliban ‘an inch and they’ll take a mile’.

In defence of Mr Sharif, he has a lot to deal with. The Pakistan economy is struggling, with low growth, insufficient revenues, and serious shortages of energy and electricity. Pakistan has major political problems, especially with volatile Karachi and seriously disgruntled Balochistan. Relations with India remain poor, despite Sharif’s overtures, while events surrounding Afghanistan are deeply concerning. Sharif’s (silent) mantra seems to be ‘give me stability’, so that he, and Pakistan, can consolidate, deliberate, then deal with these major issues. Equally, perhaps Mr Sharif is being clever. Now is a bad time to fight the Taliban as it is winter in FATA. He may be stalling while the Pakistan Army, Air Force and paramilitary forces prepare to launch counter-offensives or targeted operations when warmer weather and better ‘fighting’ conditions return to this remote, backward and difficult-to-access area.

It seems inevitable that, given the Taliban’s inflexibility, brutality and sheer bloody mindedness, Pakistan will have to fight, and defeat, them. This will be difficult. More than once, I have heard Pakistan Army officers proudly and defiantly state that, since 2004, over 3,000 soldiers have been killed in anti-militant operations against the Taliban, al Qaeda and other such elements, in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa. These soldiers know that their enemy is serious and that it operates in difficult areas. (Equally, the Pakistan Army’s losses could suggest that its counter-insurgency capabilities have been underdeveloped, partly because of its excessive focus on fighting a conventional war against India.)

It is difficult to know where, when and how the Pakistan Taliban will stop their ruthless attack on Pakistani society. Moderate Pakistanis—which is most Pakistanis—are feeling severely threatened by these anti-social elements. Particularly vulnerable are moderate people in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa bravely opposing the Taliban. Also vulnerable are non-Sunni Pakistanis, including Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Christians and Hindus, with some of the latter apparently feeling pressure to convert to Islam or to leave for India. Many other Pakistanis are moderating their behaviour to makes themselves less of a Taliban target.

In 2009, I suggested that Pakistan become a secular state as this would ‘reduce the volatility of the issue of Islam’ there (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2009/07/19/is-a-secular-pakistan-the-answer/). One respondent suggested, correctly, that this would only occur when the majority of Pakistanis wanted it—something most unlikely. I also suggested that Pakistan’s battle with Taliban-type elements ‘will continue for some time, including for as long as neighbouring, and Taliban-infested, Afghanistan is highly unstable’. This remains so. Indeed, Sharif’s indecisiveness in quelling the Taliban is possibly because he is terribly concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan after ISAF withdraws and how this will impact on Pakistan. As noted, Sharif’s major desire is for stability in Pakistan so that he can address the major issues confronting this nation. This means that we may see further efforts to engage the Taliban in order to try to bring them ‘in from the cold’. However, the current trend suggests that Nawaz Sharif will need to deploy Pakistan’s powerful military to deal with this major menace. Given the Taliban’s intransigence, he has few other effective options.

Christopher Snedden 20 February 2014


Is there a J&K Identity? 7 February 2014



Is there a J&K Identity?     7 February 2014

A big South Asian issue is people’s national identity. Individuals, states, or disgruntled citizens aspiring to acquire statehood, all have some factor that encourages, causes or forces them to cohere. This factor may be shared history, geography, religion, culture or language—actual or perceived. Sometimes, however, people’s identities, and their associated aspirations, are contested, unrequited or suppressed by the state. Some subcontinental instances include Sikhs in India, Pakistani Muslims, and J&K-ites in militarily- and politically-divided Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Historically, as the British departed the subcontinent in August 1947, they imposed new identities on subcontinentals, all of whom previously had been ‘Indians’. Local politicians, chiefly in the Congress Party and the Muslim League, agreed to this imposition. One significant group that lost out in 1947 was Sikhs, with large numbers (along with Hindus) moving from western Punjab, which became part of Pakistan, to join brethren located in northern India. The Sikhs’ move occurred partly because, unlike Hindus and Muslims, they failed to obtain a separate homeland in 1947. Given their stark choice of staying in ‘Islamic’ Pakistan or joining ‘Hindu’ India, Sikhs in western (Pakistani) Punjab chose India. They felt more compatibility with Hindus than with Muslims, partly because many Indians considered the Sikh ‘religion’ to be a sub-set of Hinduism, even though Sikhs had sought to assert themselves otherwise from the 1900s. Some Sikhs thereafter displayed disgruntlement with New Delhi a number of times. In 1966, the Indian Government placated this identifiable, and militarily- and economically-important religious minority by dividing greater (Indian) Punjab into a smaller Sikh-dominated state of Punjab, and the neighbouring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. In the 1980s, motivated by religion and feeling alienated, some Sikhs sought an independent Sikh nation of Khalistan, or the Land of the Pure, a slight to Hindus’ desire to practice ritual purity and to the Urdu meaning of the word ‘Pakistan’. In 1984, New Delhi militarily defeated these Sikhs by storming the Golden Temple and, thereafter, by utilizing effective, but often brutal, police actions. Placated, Sikhs currently appear to be content being Indian citizens.

Sometimes a group’s identity may be contested. This is currently happening with considerable violence in Pakistan. For many years after 1947, Pakistanis debated whether Pakistan should be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state. During General Zia’s rule of Pakistan (1997-1988), Pakistanis increasingly appeared to want Pakistan to be an Islamic state. In recent years, the debate has been to determine the version of Islam that Pakistanis and their nation should follow. Concurrently, Pakistani Muslims of various persuasions and intensities have been seeking to impose their interpretation of Islam on the nation and its people, 95 per cent of whom profess to be Muslims. Some groups, such as Sufis or moderate Muslims, have engaged in a non-violent struggle. Other groups comprising Sunnis, such as the Taliban or the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba (the Army of the Prophet’s Companion), motivated by ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations of Islam such as Deobandi, Salafi, Wahabi, Ahl-e-Hadith or even Barelvi (which supposedly is more tolerant), have been seeking to impose their will by violent means. Increasingly, these hardline Islamic elements have brutalised Pakistanis. Particular targets have been Shias, who comprise some 20 per cent of Pakistanis, and Ahmadiyyas, both of which groups are considered to be apostates by hardline Sunnis. Sometimes Christians and Hindus have been targetted, including by invoking Pakistan’s (pro-Islam) Blasphemy Law. In some areas, Islamic hardliners also have targetted liberal or moderate Pakistanis engaging in activities deemed to be unacceptable. This includes ‘shrine worship’, dancing or movie-going. Similarly, deadly terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, collaterally have killed or harmed innocent Sunni Pakistanis. The Taliban’s violent anti-social campaign has been so successful that its representatives are now engaging in peace talks with the Pakistan Government.

Although the issue of how ‘Islamic’ the Islamic Republic of Pakistan should be is far from resolved, the Pakistan Government-Taliban talks legitimize and empower the Taliban. Conversely, they make moderate Pakistanis—who comprise the bulk of Pakistan’s citizens—nervous. The serious issue of Taliban-type violence could claim further ‘victims’, physically and politically, in Pakistan. Caution is required. As disgruntled East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis showed in 1971, Islam is not a monolith. Similarly, disgruntled Muslim Balochis, some of whom, despite their religion, want independence from ‘Islamic’ Pakistan, could further split this nation. The Balochis’ cause would be enhanced if ever the Pakistan Army has to fight its various opponents—Taliban; Balochis; Indians; anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan; even hardline Islamic elements in Punjab—concurrently on numerous fronts. Time will tell.

Sometimes a group’s identity may be foisted upon it. Consider India’s Untouchables or Dalits and Pakistan’s Mohajirs (refugees from India and their descendants). A third ‘group’ is J&K-ites whose circumstances since October 1947 have compelled them to regard themselves as Indians or Pakistanis. Recently, when talking in Islamabad with some J&K-ites from both sides of the Line of Control (LOC), I (surprisingly) discovered that they have a sense of a distinct J&K identity. This arises because their forebears were subjects in the unified princely state of J&K that existed from 1846 to 1947. (Interestingly, J&K’s total ‘age’ of 101 years makes it a third older than post-partition India and Pakistan.) Over time, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s pursuit of independence for all of the former princely state has helped to rekindle a J&K identity. J&K-ites have been coalesced by India and Pakistan’s inability to resolve the Kashmir dispute—to J&K-ites’ detriment. A final, and important, factor has been the India-Pakistan agreement to open crossing points in J&K to allow J&K-ites to travel to, and trade with, the other ‘side’. This has enabled J&K-ites to get know one another again.

Any development of a post-1947 J&K identity has ramifications for India and Pakistan, particularly should this identity become widely entrenched among J&K-ites. Both nations may find themselves having to deal with an increasingly ‘together’, in more ways than one, group of J&K-ites. This, vicariously, could weaken their respective positions in relation to obtaining control of this bitterly contested region.

Christopher Snedden
7 February 2014

Line of Control, Contention and Contestation 7 November 2013



Line of Control, Contention and Contestation               7 November 2013

Recently, the Line of Control (LOC) dividing contested Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has again become contentious. The ceasefire that Indian and Pakistani military forces declared in November 2003 has been essentially abrogated, while the number of cross-LOC incidents has increased to pre-ceasefire levels. The reasons for the increase in incidents are unclear, but there are a number of possibilities.

According to the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24700088), India claims almost 200 LOC violations this year. Pakistani counter claims of Indian violations are similar. (See http://tribune.com.pk/story/622293/loc-violation-indian-firing-injures-three-in-sialkot/). Even though the United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan was established to observe and monitor LOC violations, it does not publicly report or discuss these. Therein, therefore, lies one of the great challenges of India-Pakistan relations: verifying exactly who did what to whom and when.

LOC incidents seemingly start for no reason, after which there is an equivalent response by the other side’s militarily. Exchanges involve small arms fire, artillery barrages and, lately, deadly sniper fire, including against civilians. Last January, my blog piece titled ‘A LOC-al affair …’ etc. (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2013/01/25/a-loc-al-affair-and-india-lacks-a-covert-capability-for-use-against-pakistan/) discussed why there had been increased ‘aggression and hostilities’ over the LOC, including in relation to the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier. I predicted, correctly on this occasion, that ‘if history tells us anything, there indubitably will be more [incidents] in future’.

With the benefit of a further nine months of cross-LOC incidents, a number of factors appear to be promoting the current upsurge of violence. On the Pakistan side, a new Chief of Army will be appointed later this month. Possibly, some ‘rogue’ commanders either have been operating pro-actively or they are trying to impress leaders in Islamabad. Equally, the Pakistan Army may be trying to show Pakistan’s politicians, especially Nawaz Sharif, who is currently serving as the prime, foreign and defence ministers, that the military is the paramount power in relation to India-Pakistan relations. Sharif, who wants civilian control over the military, has a battle on his hands that he may win, but probably only on the margins. The Pakistan Army is too big and powerful to be tamed by Pakistani politicians.

Another factor may be Muslim Taliban-type militants, ‘encouraged’ by their Pakistani religious and military ‘supporters’. With Indian forces having made the LOC almost impenetrable, these men from south-eastern Afghanistan or north-western Pakistan may be proxies fomenting problems for ‘Hindu’ India on the LOC. This seems unlikely. Afghanistan is currently so unstable that Taliban-type elements need to be there to militarily advance their own group’s position, particularly as the bulk of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will leave Afghanistan next year. Equally, the Pakistan Taliban is under significant pressure, as Hakimullah Mehsud’s recent death shows. It has little spare capacity to operate outside north-western Pakistan. Only militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba appear able to do so, although they currently are keeping a low profile, possibly to help Pakistan appease the US. Equally, these groups’ leadership may be waiting to see how Pakistan fares under the new Sharif government or they are keeping their ‘powder dry’ in order to influence events in Afghanistan in 2014.

Increasingly, Islamabad is becoming anxious about the post-ISAF situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan is nervous about its neighbour’s future stability and about whether the Afghan regime will be sufficiently amenable towards Pakistan. A more pressing problem is whether the United States and other Western nations, such as Australia, will still be interested in Pakistan after 2014. Islamabad is realising that Pakistan may become strategically isolated and/or irrelevant. Such feelings are heightened as India-US relations converge, because India-Afghanistan relations are strong, and as India and China normalise their relationship, including via strong bi-lateral trade and, most recently, the signing of their Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.

Put simply, Pakistan is again feeling deeply insecure. Many Pakistanis have felt this way since 1947, particularly in relation to India. One cost-effective way for Islamabad to shore up Pakistan’s strategic situation and keep the world interested in this economically- and socially-troubled but nuclear-armed nation is to try (to again) internationalise the Kashmir dispute. This crude strategy worked in 1999 with the Kargil War, after which Washington sought to ramp down tensions in J&K. This time, the strategy seemingly involves creating incidents along the LOC. Thankfully for Islamabad, the active Indian (and foreign) media is happy to publicise such incidents. In response, Islamabad claims mis-reporting, Indian bias, or bellicose Indian nationalism.

Two factors drive India. Politically, next year’s national election is making both the Congress-led government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition want to appear to be strong about defending the nation. With the BJP currently appearing to be the electoral front runner, Congress may be ordering the Indian military to be pro-active and respond strongly to all Pakistani provocations. Militarily—and this may be the most significant factor—after the beheading of the Indian soldier in January, India’s Chief of Army, General Bikram Singh, told his troops to be aggressive when replying to any Pakistani violations of the LOC. For Indian soldiers, this unacceptable Pakistani act was not just ’cricket’. It went beyond the pale of what was acceptable on the battlefield. Indian soldiers have taken Singh’s order to heart, as evidenced by the recent statement by Major-General V.P. Singh (photo above), who is commanding forces in Indian J&K, about giving a ‘befitting reply’ to Pakistan at a time and place of India’s choosing. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGaMejgcxE4&feature=c4-overview&list=UU6RJ7-PaXg6TIH2BzZfTV7w.)

Consequently, the Line of Control is now a ‘line of contestation’. This situation is unlikely to change until after India’s elections next May. Then, a new, more politically-secure, Indian government may tell the Indian military to tone down its rhetoric and LOC activities. This may partially help Pakistan deal with its anxieties of feeling isolated and left largely alone to deal with an increasingly buoyant and self-assured India.

Christopher Snedden
7 November 2013

Unleashing Monsters 29 October 2013

Unleashing Monsters                                                                    29 October 2013

It is interesting teaching undergraduates. My students generally are young—mostly under twenty-years old—with little knowledge about many world issues or events that I take for granted. One matter is the long finished, but strategically challenging, Cold War. Many young people do not realise that, in 1988, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had 45,000 nuclear warheads. Its competitor, the United States (US), ‘only’ had 22,000, although these apparently were technologically superior. Both superpowers could deliver these highly-destructive weapons using long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Surprisingly for my students, the USSR had probably targeted Australian cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. A certain target was the important Australia-US intelligence facility at Pine Gap, Northern Territory. Some Western strategists considered that, given the closeness of Australia-US relations, Moscow could send a strong message to Washington by ‘nuking’ an Australian city. The Soviets may have believed that such an act might not have provoked any US retaliation. Thankfully, this ‘monster’ was never unleashed. Nevertheless, my students’ unease continued when I told them that Russia, the chief inheritor of all things Soviet, still has 8,000 nuclear weapons. (The US ‘only’ has about 5,000 nukes.) Post-Cold War, a Russian nuclear attack against Australia is highly unlikely. Equally, Australia’s ability to deter any nuclear attack has not improved one iota. Australia still does not have nuclear weapons, while North Korea, India and Pakistan are now possible nuclear threats. Canberra still considers that Australia is under the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, and therefore is protected. What this arrangement fully entails has never been tested.

Another matter that my youthful students know little about is how some nation-states create organisations that come back to ‘bite’ them. Consider Al-Qa’ida (‘the Base’). Western nations, including Australia and the US, funded, armed and/or trained mujahideen fighters who fought, and ultimately defeated, the Red Army that the USSR deployed in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. In the context of the Cold War, Afghanistan offered Washington a great opportunity to use proxies to weaken its global rival. The US also may have been seeking revenge for its defeat by Communist forces, supported by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, in south Vietnam. Thus, the US used Pakistan as its chief conduit to funnel arms and ammunition to the vehemently anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen. Soon after the USSR withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the ‘evil [USSR] empire’, as Ronald Reagan called it, collapsed and the Cold War ended. The resilient mujahideen had played an important part fighting the Red Army, draining the USSR’s exchequer, creating war fatigue among Soviet citizens, and in showing that the USSR was not as strong or benevolent as its propaganda suggested.

Interestingly, some mujahideen had been inspired to go to fight in the anti-Soviet jihad (holy war) Afghanistan by Muslims living there. This included two men in Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK; ‘Services office’), a group formed in 1984: Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian ‘father of global jihad’, and Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi Arabian. Their intention was to garner funds and gather Muslims to fight the ‘Godless’ Red Army. More importantly—at least in the current context of world terrorism—MAK morphed into Al-Qa’ida. It benefitted from MAK’s network, contacts and skills, which have produced ‘kills’. This ‘monster’ was responsible for the complex and well executed—but terrible and tragic—terrorist incidents that stunned US and world citizens on 11 September 2001.

In explaining Al-Qa’ida’s motives, my students struggle to understand some things. First, that a small number of Muslims on the extreme fringe of this generally peaceful religion are so disenchanted that they plan and attack innocent civilians. Second, that these anti-social Muslims justify their stance because they believe that the West has long exploited, suppressed or denigrated Muslims and/or has excessively, unquestioningly supported Israel or repressive pro-US regimes in the Middle East/South-west Asia. Third, that the morals and activities of the West are not always superior to those of the terrorists. Indeed, the Wests’ pursuit of the ‘moral high ground’ is sometimes questionable, as evidenced by the current spying saga involving the US’s National Signals Agency’s spying on supposed US allies. (Equally, in the West’s defence, we know about such activities because Western citizens generally enjoy a free media, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.)

Al-Qa’ida is not the first organisation, or ‘monster’, unleashed on people that has come back to ‘bite’ its initial supporters. In the 1980s, a Sikh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and his followers who sought an independent Sikh state of ‘Khalistan’ in north-western India, allegedly were creations of Indira Gandhi—as Bharatiya Janata Party leaders again recently claimed. The Sikh bodyguards who assassinated India’s prime minister in 1984 did so because Mrs Gandhi had ordered the Indian Army to enter Amritsar’s Golden Temple and ‘remove’ Bhindranwale holed up there. Similarly, India may have trained dissident Tamils from Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. These Tamils, particularly those in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, nevertheless willingly killed soldiers in the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent by New Delhi to pacify northern Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. Most significant is the Taliban. In the 1990s, Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate ‘empowered’ talibs (religious students) in north-western Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent times, Islamabad has clumsily classified these men as ‘good Taliban’, comprising those who support Pakistan’s position in/re Afghanistan, and ‘bad Taliban’, who attack Pakistanis and destabilise Pakistan. The bad Taliban’s ‘successes’ possibly include the devastating assassination of Ms Bhutto herself in 2007. Most recently, they may have been responsible for assassinating Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Law Minister, Israrullah Gandapur. Unleashing brutal covert organisations whose members are loyal chiefly only to themselves can be dangerous.

Christopher Snedden
29 October 2013

The future of Afghanistan? 27 May 2013



Since late 1979, most Afghans have experienced enormous and extraordinary levels of violence, disruption and insecurity.  The biggest question now confronting this nation is how will it fare after the 50-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraws during 2014?  Will high levels of violence and instability continue, or will Afghanistan become stable?

In 2014, three major events will take place concerning Afghanistan.  First, on 5 April, there will be a Presidential election.  This could be a positive process, provided that campaigning and the elections are conducted in a free and fair way, a factor that many Afghans increasingly seemed concerned about.  Fear will be another factor, with many Afghans worried about participating in the next election either as a candidate or, more pointedly, as a voter.  (See The Asia Foundation’s ‘Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People’.)  Similarly, all parties will need to accept the result.

Second, during 2014, the bulk of ISAF’s 100,000 forces will leave Afghanistan.  (Some will remain to mount special operations, and to support or train Afghan forces.) The 195,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) and the 157,000-strong Afghan National Police (ANP) will then be responsible for Afghanistan’s security.  However, non-Afghans will need to fund these security forces that ISAF has massively enlarged until Afghanistan’s weak economy can pay for them.  A huge risk for Afghans post-2014 is that the United States and other Western nations involved in ISAF will quickly lose interest in Afghanistan, like they did after the mujahideen defeated the USSR in 1989.  Afghans then endured considerable violence and instability until the Taliban took control in 1999 and established peace, albeit brutally, particularly for women.  It also was in this religiously austere and regimented environment that ‘terrorists’ such as al Qaeda flourished.

Post-ISAF, the Afghan security forces might struggle to control Afghanistan.  The ANA and ANP are ‘low tech’ bodies that lack ISAF’s significant military assets, including operational helicopters, night goggles, strong anti-explosive capabilities, heavy weaponry, and state-of-the-art medical evacuation facilities.  This differential partly explains why 2,986 Afghan military and 6,890 Afghan police have been killed between 2007-2012 compared with 3,261 ISAF personnel between 2001 and-2012.  (See Brookings ‘Afghanistan Index’, 19 March 2013.)  Both bodies also apparently suffer from high attrition rates, from some members being more motivated by having a job than by mounting security operations, and by corruption, nepotism and drug abuse.

Conversely, the Afghan security forces’ opponents, who potentially comprise an unknown number of both Taliban and/or warlord elements dispersed around Afghanistan, appear to be better organised, more mobile and more motivated.  These opponents, particularly the chameleon-like Taliban, also are battle-hardened.  Conversely, the ANA and ANP have not yet had to engage single-handedly in sustained security operations throughout Afghanistan.  These two bodies almost certainly will not be able to prevent Taliban retribution against Afghans perceived to have assisted ISAF.  They probably also will struggle against tough, capable Afghan warlords operating locally in their strongholds.  However, given that some 52 per cent of Afghans consider that, since 2001, Afghanistan has been moving ‘in the right direction’ and that the economy has developed, as a result of which many Afghans feel better off, the Afghan security forces will have strong Afghan support to prevent a full Taliban return to power.  Whether these forces have sufficient will to successfully oppose the Taliban will be a big test.

Third, regionally, there have been, or possibly will be, changes that will impact on Afghanistan, with post-ISAF Afghanistan likely remaining a ‘playground’ where foreigners feel the need to meddle.  China has new leaders, as does Pakistan.  The former will want stability in Afghanistan so that China can exploit Afghanistan’s natural assets, especially its minerals.  (One Afghan I know has mused that China will be the next ‘empire’ to invade Afghanistan and ‘bite the dust’ there.)  The latter will want to ensure that Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan is paramount and that India’s is minimal.  For Islamabad, this will mean supporting pro-Pakistan warlords, such as the Haqqanis or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Taliban.

Iran’s Presidential elections on 14 June and India’s general elections before the end of May 2014 also could be important.  The victory of more strategically strident candidates in either nation could impact on Afghanistan, plus make relations with Pakistan difficult.  Certainly, both (Shia) Iran and (secular) India will not want the (hardline Sunni) Taliban to return to power.  Both nations also will want to minimise Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan—as possibly does Kabul, with President Karzai recently giving New Delhi a military ‘wish list’. That said, all surrounding nations want a stable Afghanistan.  None really wants this nation to fail.

Post-2014, Afghanistan is likely to be unstable for some time.  Some Afghans seem to agree.  There is an increasing and significant movement of money and wealthy Afghans from Afghanistan to safer, more stable places.  ISAF personnel are not the only people choosing to leave Afghanistan.