US helicopter in Afghanistan (photo: AP)
Ten Years after the Start of the War in Afghanistan

The Spirits They Invoked

The US-led "War on Terror" began on 7 October, 2001. Afghanistan quickly developed into a military nightmare, and its neighbour Pakistan is today viewed as a "failed state". But the historical responsibility of the West for the state of the "AfPak" region is often overlooked. By Marian Brehmer

When David Cameron was interviewed in April during a state visit to Pakistan to discuss the conflict over Kashmir, he remarked that "Great Britain is responsible for many of world's problems."

Cameron is right. There is indeed a common thread running through all the world's notorious conflicts, no matter how much they differ with regard to causes, progression and protagonists. Whether it is Kashmir, the Middle East, North Africa, Iran, Iraq or the Hindu Kush: all these regions were colonised for short or long periods of time, or have been tossed to and fro in a short-sighted game of western interests.

This is especially true of Afghanistan and Pakistan, now seen as generators of solely negative headlines since the beginning of the 'War on Terror' a decade ago. In view of the many thousands of civilian and military deaths, the achievements of the 10-year campaign are modest to say the least. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has not been defeated, nor has the fragile security situation improved, while reconstruction and democratisation have largely remained illusions.

Unprecedented destabilisation

Over the past few years, neighbouring Pakistan has undergone an unprecedented process of destabilisation. Large swathes of the nation became Taliban areas of operation, sectarian and radical forces have been able to increase their influence, while ethnic and social conflicts have escalated.

Taliban fighters in Pakistan (photo: AP)
Operative base Pakistan: During their rule in the 1990s, the Taliban was primarily financed by Saudi Arabia and supported by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI. Many recruits were educated and radicalised in Koran schools in Pakistan

​​For the US and NATO countries, tribal regions in northwest Pakistan are the focus of the anti-terror campaign. This is also the location of the fragile Pashtun heartland, which is at once the homeland and retreat of the Taliban. Unsurprisingly then, the region is often attacked by US drones, most recently in August. The strikes regularly inflict civilian casualties, and the reputation of the US among Pakistanis has been on a continual downslide as a result.

One reason for the plight of the stricken province is a border conflict that has eluded resolution to this day. The origins of the problem lie in the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century, in which Britain attempted to extend its sphere of influence from British India into the Pashtun territories.

When it became apparent that a military invasion was pointless, the British played their colonial "divide and rule" game and instigated the dismemberment of Pashtunistan into more easily manageable provinces. They appointed well-disposed rulers and in the year 1893, established the "Durand Line", aimed at demarcating British India and the Afghan territories.

The Durand Line still serves as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and cuts right through tribal regions, dividing villages. Locals pay virtually no heed to the frontier, the territory is dominated by drugs and weapons smuggling and to date, Afghanistan has not recognised its border with Pakistan. Just like the Kurds in the Middle East, those drawing up the border completely ignored the Pashtuns, who still feel today as though they have been excluded by history. The anti-terror war has stigmatised them as an entire people.

Battle for land assisted by religion

All this generates popular support for the extremists and makes it easier for them to find new recruits. Their battle is also a battle for land assisted by religion. But Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters also have their role in the story – and this time we don't even need to turn the clock back quite so far.

photo: dpa
Three billion dollars for a caretaker job: Pervez Musharraf, key partner of the US in the region, was President of Pakistan from 2001 to 2008. Pakistanis nicknamed him "Busharraf"

​​When President Bush sealed an alliance with General Musharraf after 9/11, it was a case of déjà-vu for Pakistan. Bush appointed Musharraf caretaker of the region for an annual salary of three billion dollars, and for the Pakistanis, Musharraf became "Busharraf".

This wasn't the first time that the Americans had entered into a similar pact with Pakistan's military. The last time was in the 1980s, when the Cold War was in high gear and the Soviet Union sought to extend its influence to Afghanistan. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan with the aim of sustaining the Communist regime in power there at the time. In a bid to resist the occupier the mujahideen was formed, loose and internally divided alliances that found common ground in their desire to liberate Afghanistan from the "godless Soviets".

The mujahideen were trained for the holy war in camps and madrasas located in the tribal regions. These were established under the command of General Zia ul-Haq, who became President of Pakistan in a 1977 coup d'état. General Zia pursued his vision of a total Islamisation of Pakistan with an iron fist. He ordered the execution of his civilian predecessor, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and introduced public whipping as a punishment.

Explosive seeds

For the US under Reagan, Zia was a welcome partner and the mujahideen promising henchmen for the task of forcing the Soviets back. Together with Saudi Arabia, the United States provided Zia with billions of dollars, thereby helping to equip the mujahideen both logistically and ideologically.

There was a familiar name among them: in the mid-1980s, Osama bin Laden joined the jihad on the Hindu Kush with a group of Arab fighters. Although it was still in its infancy at the time, this group would later become the global terror network Al-Qaeda.

photo: AP
Godfather of international terrorism: Osama bin Laden joined the jihad on the Hindu Kush in the mid-1980s with a group of Arab fighters. Although still in its infancy at the time, this group would later become the global terror network Al-Qaeda

​​When the Soviets were defeated and the war came to an end, the United States lost interest in Afghanistan. The seeds for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the biggest thorns in the side of the US today, had been sown. Afghanistan descended into a civil war from which the Taliban emerged as the strongest force, one that assumed control of the nation in 1996.

This was the start of an archaic era for the Afghans but for the first time for decades, the Taliban also ushered in a period of stability and order, even if it was of a brutal sort. After 11 September 2001, the US and its European allies launched a war against the spirits that they had once invoked.

Pakistan's explosive seed has also sprouted in the last few years. Whereas Zia previously operated around 1,000 extreme-orientated madrasas, today there are more than 10,000 – the negative spin-offs of Zia's Islamic legacy that now present a serious threat to Pakistan's cohesion.

David Cameron was sharply criticised back home for his admission of colonial responsibility. "If there is one thing we are entitled to expect from our Prime Minister when he is overseas, it is that he should not run down his own country in order to ingratiate himself with his hosts" was the view expressed in the Daily Telegraph.

But Cameron's words simply represented a cautious step towards a self-critical historical analysis of the West, which is something the US under Obama would do well to consider.

"Ignoring its imperial history licenses the West to repeat it," wrote leftwing commentator Seamus Milne in The Guardian in April, referring in his article to the NATO mission to Libya. We can as yet reserve judgement on whether once the West has pulled out of the region, Afghanistan and Pakistan will again go down in history as the victim of its self-serving actions.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2011

Transdlated from the German by Nina Coon

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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