THE US establishment and its toadies have been engaging in an orgy of self congratulation since the military collapse of the Taliban. It’s hardly a surprise that the richest country in the world can conquer one of the poorest. But has the US brought greater peace in its wake?
Certainly it hasn’t brought peace for Afghanistan itself. That wretched country has been handed back to the same gang of rival warlords who tore it apart after the fall of the Russian-backed regime in 1992. The delay in agreeing the terms on which the British-led ‘International Security Assistance Force’ will come to Afghanistan is a sign of the divisions within the new interim government.
Meanwhile a few British soldiers patrol Kabul for the benefit of television cameras that also show women still wearing the burqa – so much for the liberation Western arms were supposed to bring Afghan women. More serious still, the US intervention in Afghanistan is threatening to spark off a war between south Asia’s two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. Of course, this conflict has local roots. Both countries are ruled by corrupt right wing regimes that need an external enemy to distract attention from their domestic failures.
But the India-Pakistan conflict has been for many years subsumed into the global rivalries between the Great Powers. India took a neutral stance during the Cold War but in practice developed military and economic links with the Soviet bloc.
Pakistan aligned itself to China, the only regional power that matched India’s military strength. Particularly after China joined the US’s side in the Cold War at the start of the 1970s, US policy ’tilted’, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, towards Pakistan.
The US-Pakistan alliance became even stronger after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The military regime of General Zia ul-Haq became the main conduit through which the CIA channelled aid to the Mujahadeen guerrillas fighting the Russian occupying forces.
Once the Cold War was over, Afghanistan, and therefore Pakistan, became much less important to the US. Zia’s squabbling civilian successors received little hearing in Washington, although the US tended to back up Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the struggles by different warlords and outside powers to dominate Afghanistan.
The administration of Bill Clinton set out to woo India, potentially a major ’emerging market’. Pakistan, as the weaker of the rival states, was much more vulnerable to the sanctions the US imposed on both countries after they tested nuclear weapons in May 1998. Then came 11 September. Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, had no choice but to back the US war in Afghanistan.
This was a tough decision, given the role the ISI had played in building up the Taliban and the support they enjoyed among Pakistan’s radical Islamists, notably the more extreme jihadi groups. Musharraf was rewarded with generous US aid, but the outcome of the war was still a blow to Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. The victorious Northern Alliance is backed by India, Russia, and Iran-Pakistan’s regional rivals.
Meanwhile India felt threatened by the special attention the US was giving Pakistan. American intervention thus gave both countries’ rulers strong reasons for asserting themselves.
India’s Hindu chauvinist government reacted by increasing the pressure on Pakistan in the disputed but largely Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir. India’s aim initially was probably not to provoke a war but just to attract the US’s attention.
The fighting in Kashmir between Indian forces and radical Islamist guerrillas trained by the Taliban and backed by the Pakistani army provided Indian prime minster AB Vajpayee with an obvious issue.
He sought to portray India as the injured party, engaged in the same ‘war on terrorism’ as the Bush administration. From this point of view the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December, apparently by Pakistani nationals, was a gift to Vajpayee. India put more pressure on Musharraf to clamp down on the jihadis, but there was a limit to which he could respond. The Pakistani military needs the Islamists as allies in its struggle with India.
Whether the result is a shooting war remains to be seen. At best, south Asia is likely to see yet more resources poured into the dangerous and wasteful arms race between India and Pakistan.
The effect of the US’s ‘war against terrorism’ has thus been further to destabilise a region that was already threatened by a growing conflict between two nuclear-armed states. US global hegemony is a source of disorder, not peace.