Monday, January 23, 2012

Myths about Afghanistan

It is now becoming increasingly clear that President Barack Obama’s administration is almost desperate to forge a deal with the Taliban, against all odds. The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar and the release of high value Taliban assets from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, it seems, are the next steps in a process of so-called ‘reconciliation’ with the Quetta Shura led by Taliban’s Amirul Momineen, Mullah Mohammad Omar. This latest initiative seems to have, at the moment, neither the full support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai nor indeed the Islamabad-Rawalpindi establishment, but this can change quickly if past experience is good evidence.

While it may be prudent for New Delhi to wait and watch, it is critical simultaneously to begin to debunk the myths on the basis of which this so-called peace process is being fostered by Washington and some of its European allies, reckless in their eagerness to get out of Afghanistan. While there are those even within the Indian establishment who are arguing for ‘keeping all options open’, there can and must be no compromise with Talibanism.

Indeed, these ‘western’ myths are built on convenient cultural stereotypes divorced from the reality of Afghanistan’s past and often disconnected from contemporary Afghan politics and society. These cultural explanations are constructed as a useful justification for policies seeking an early exit from Afghanistan.

Myth one: The majority of the Pashtuns support the Taliban; ergo let the Taliban rule Afghanistan. While it is clear that all Taliban are Pashtuns, not all Pashtuns are Taliban. The suggestion that even the majority of the Pashtuns support the Taliban is debatable. Within the complex tribal structure of the Pashtuns, the bulk of the Taliban leadership is Ghilzai which, of course, has historically been at contradictions with the equally powerful Durranis. But even within the Ghilzais, the extent of support for the Taliban has always been contested. Opinion surveys conducted in Afghanistan are notoriously unreliable, but for every survey that suggests majority support for the Taliban there is another which would point to tremendous resentment against them. What is clear is that a large section of the people would support those forces that are on the ascendant or likely to control the power structure. This, of course, is not unique to Afghanistan and similar to any society that has witnessed conflict and violence over long periods of history. It is also clear that outside the Pashtuns, the Taliban have virtually no support among the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras or the smaller minorities.

Myth two: Talibanism is part of the traditional social structure of the Pashtuns; ergo let the Afghans decide what is good for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The savage regime that the Taliban sought to impose on the people of Afghanistan is not native to the people of the country. While the Afghans are devout Muslims, it is the pre-Islamic moral and social code of Pashtunwali that still guides most of the Pashtun tribes. The ethical code of the Pashtunwali, with its emphasis on hospitality, integrity, justice, sanctuary does not resemble the radical code that the Taliban enforced during their short stint as rulers of Afghanistan. In other words, to reject Talibanism is not to reject Pashtunwali or even orthodox Islam. Talibanism was a product of the fanatical zeal of intelligence agencies seeking to produce indoctrinated robots who would follow even the most irrational order, and not rooted in the culturally rich and vibrant history of Afghanistan. To suggest that Talibanism is synonymous with Afghan culture is to show extreme ignorance of the country’s history and to display deep contempt for the people of the country.

Myth three: Violence and war are part of the Afghan way of life; ergo let the Afghans keep fighting amongst themselves. No country, no culture privileges war and violence; neither does nor has Afghanistan. The Afghans have fought invaders and occasionally been invaders themselves. But Afghanistan has an equally strong tradition of peace and non-violence. From the 13th century poet, mystic and theologian Jalaladin Muhammad Rumi to the 20th century statesman Badshah Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, the Afghans have had a tradition of thinking and articulating some of the finest ideas on pacifism and non-violence. To capsule all Afghans as violent men and women who love killing or being killed is to caricature the complex cultural diversity of the country.

Myth four: You can win a battle against the Afghan, but never a war; ergo, let us get out as soon as possible. The Afghans have indeed a fierce sense of nationalism and have fought and won their independence over centuries. But history is more complex than most contemporary commentaries of Afghan wars, including the defeat of the British in the 19th century or the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1990, would suggest. For those who want to take a more cynical view of Afghan valour it is useful to read, for instance, an account of General Hari Singh Nalwa’s campaigns against the Pashtun tribes during Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s time. In any case, these cultural explanations of history are deeply suspect. Modern armies win campaigns based on superior technology, better training, a fuller understanding of the terrain, a more refined strategy and the willingness to put soldiers on the ground. If the Americans lose the war in Afghanistan it will not be because the Afghan DNA is so resilient that it can defeat ‘any superpower’ but because the United States and its allies have neither the patience to fight a long war nor the willingness to take the suffering needed to wage and win wars.

Let us be clear, the return of the Taliban, with or without al-Qaeda and with or without an aggressive foreign policy would be the single most dangerous trend in the region. It would privilege the forces of obscurantism, create the conditions for permanent instability in Afghanistan and potentially become a source of spreading the violence of intolerance across the region. There can and must not be any reconciliation with those who represent, in every sense, the diabolic forces of evil.

(Source: The New Indian Express)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Challenges for China policy

We have entered the year of the Dragon. In Chinese astrology, the Dragon is the most powerful of signs, and an important symbol of the Han people. 2012 will be, in many ways, critical for China and for its relationship with the world. Not perhaps since the cultural revolution of the 1970s has there been as much global concern about China and so many signs of turbulence within. For Indians, the year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, probably the most humiliating in the history of independent India.

Ironically, half a century later we seem to be as muddled about our China policy, as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was in the years before the conflict in 1962. Indeed, there is no greater challenge for Indian foreign policy in this year than the challenge to understand China – in all its complexities — and to frame policies for the next decade. And to do so, not just through the prism of western thinking, but in the light of our own experience.

In 2012, there are four key questions the answers to which may prove decisive for China and for its relationship with the outside world. First, will China’s so-called “resilient authoritarianism” — tied to the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party, unity within the party, and support of the People’s Liberation Army — survive the transition from the fourth generation leadership to the fifth generation? In November this year, at the 18th Communist Party Congress, if all goes according to plan, Xi Jinping should replace Hu Jintao as the President and Li Keqiang is expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier.

Jinping belongs to the elitist Shanghai clique largely of princelings who were born to power and privilege, while Keqiang is from the populist faction who grew through the ranks of the Communist Youth League. But beyond these personalities, is the larger generational transition as well as the factionalism within the Party that will have serious implications for policy. The management of these contradictions, and the growing assertiveness of the PLA may create considerable turbulence and be responsible for increasing incoherence in Chinese policies at home and abroad.

Second, how will China make its slow but important transition from an export driven manufacturing economy (relying on cheap labour and focusing on the coastal regions) to an economy relying on domestic consumption, with an emphasis on services and the development of the hinterland? While it may be easy to dismiss Cassandra-like predictions of the Chinese economy being a bubble waiting to burst, it is obvious that China will probably face this year the most serious challenge to its growth since the late 1970s. Indeed, China’s 12th five-year plan (approved last year) itself has set targets that seem, at least at this stage, unachievable.

Third, will continued political and economic uncertainty and rising expectations translate into mass social and political unrest? 2011 was the year of protests almost across China and this is not counting the uprisings in Xinjiang and Tibet.The most recent incident in November-December 2011in Wukan, a fishing village in the prosperous province of Guangdong, may be a good indicator of growing popular restiveness. The villagers collectively took over the village, protesting against the sale of common land to property sharks. They threw out the local party leaders, and barricaded their villages in an unheard of act of collective defiance. The protests ended only after unprecedented concessions by the Party leadership.

Finally, will an increasingly insecure, new Chinese leadership — faced with growing problems at home — become more aggressive in terms of its foreign policy behaviour. 2011 witnessed a new Chinese assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, as China-watchers claimed that Beijing was abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character mantra of focusing on problems within and not becoming the centre of attention. Richard Haass, the President of the US Council on Foreign Relations, and one of the most astute observers of China recently wrote: “I have been travelling to China for more than three decades, but never have I encountered a Chinese leadership so uncertain of the country’s future. It is little exaggeration to say that the world’s most populous country is on its heels.”

These questions need to be probed in India by the government and independent scholars as much are they being probed by the rest of the world. In 2011, India witnessed what even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as new Chinese assertiveness, reflected in the cancellation of the Border talks over the presence of the Dalai Lama at a Buddhist convention and aggressiveness over the oil exploration pact with Vietnam over the South China Sea. The larger concern about Chinese encirclement of India is also no longer fanciful.

However, the Prime Minister recently dismissed the idea of China attacking India, which brought about a sense of déja vu. Nehru’s forward policy in 1962 was based largely on the intelligence assessment that Chinese would not respond militarily to aggressive Indian patrolling. That inaccurate assessment led to the fiasco of 1962 as an unprepared army had to face the wrath of the PLA.

2012 is not 1962, for a variety of reasons including the fact that the Indian armed forces are capable of meeting strong challenges. As one way of independent scholars to participate in the China debate, in an informed way, the government should seriously consider releasing the Henderson Brookes report, which is the only authoritative in-house study of the military defeat of 1962. If there are parts that are sensitive or have a bearing on the current border negotiation they can easily be redacted. It would be a tragedy if instead of learning from our history, we are condemned to repeat it.

In sum, while tactically India seems to be responding to Chinese assertiveness with firmness, there does not seem to be a clear long-term strategy in place. The challenge of managing China is so formidable that it will require the exercise of most of our military and diplomatic resources, and yet do we have these in place?

(Source: The New Indian Express)