Air Cdre (Retd) Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury
Should Bangladesh send troops to Afghanistan or not is a question that has raised a controversy over the last few days. Since the news item appeared on 27 September 2010 of the US request for possible military assistance to the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, there has been a spate of comments from different quarters. From an outright ‘No’ to “limited engagement” in Afghanistan – the views have been diverse, and rightly so. I have often spoken in the past about getting engaged both in Iraq and Afghanistan. My view is that we need to get engaged in a substantive way in Afghanistan as soon as possible; indeed we should have been engaged years ago.
Afghanistan is a battle-ground today between the forces of democracy and modernism represented by the people and the Government of Afghanistan and the forces of Islamic extremism and obscurantism represented by the Taliban. In this battle, we must help the Afghan government in whatever way we can to express our solidarity with their struggle to build a better Afghanistan for the future. Our struggle in Bangladesh against the rise of religious extremism and all kinds of fanaticism and our aim to establish a secular, modern democratic polity is quite in line with the Afghan people’s struggle against the rise of the Taliban. The Afghan people, despite propaganda on the contrary, have shown over the years their dogged determination to fight the Islamic extremism in all its forms. Let us examine their achievements and failures since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
When the Taliban rule ended, Afghanistan was the most failed state in the world. It was a country that had no government, no treasury and no currency of any value, no law enforcing agency and no public service of any sort. There were no airlines and road transport system was virtually shattered. It was a country cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed all vestiges of an organised state had ceased to exist or been destroyed during the three decades of war and in-fighting. What has changed over the last one decade? Afghanistan still remains at war, many of its public utility services are non-existent or non-functional, the country is desperately poor and a substantial part of the country is still under the control of the Taliban. US-led NATO forces under the banner of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are fighting an increasingly active Taliban forces.
Over the years, the Taliban has shifted their operating bases from Afghanistan to the tribal region of Pakistan and despite the denial, it is suspected that elements of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency of the Pakistan Army still provide them with financial and logistic support. The Taliban, a force composed of mostly madrassa students of Pashtun origin, was clandestinely created by the Pakistan government in 1992 with a view to set up a government in Kabul that would be pliant to Islamabad and would end the Afghan demand of a separate Pakhtunistan state, west of the Indus River. Pakistan viewed that such a government would provide strategic depth against her main enemy – India. The Taliban enjoy some support within the Pashtun community on both sides of the border. Many Pashtuns view them as nationalist fighters fighting against foreign occupation. They view ISAF as an occupation force much like the way they viewed the Soviet forces in the 1980s. The Taliban provided a relatively corruption-free local administration in areas under their control. Despite their harsh and arbitrary application of the so-called Islamic justice, the Taliban are viewed by many ordinary Afghans as an escape from the age-old dominance of the Sardars, the tribal Warlords. Despite these marginal gains, the Taliban is rejected and despised by most of the Afghan population. The majority, especially the non-Pashtuns, view the Taliban as Quislings, created by Pakistan to serve their grand design. Then there are Shia all over Afghanistan, including many Pashtun Shia tribes, who have a strong dislike for the Taliban ideology; the Taliban, on the other hand, nurture frenzied hatred of the Shias. Beyond these ethnological and ideological divisions, the people of Afghanistan through their political process have shown again and again their support for democracy and the rule of law and rejected theocracy and arbitrary justice. They have voted again and again for Afghanistan that would provide a better future for its citizens.
Soon after the defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, the Afghans set about writing a constitution. The constitution framing, not an easy task for a country that is a diverse mosaic of different ethnic tribes and religious sects, was promulgated by a Grand Council on 4 January 2004. The first Presidential election was held on 9 October 2004. There were 10 million registered voters. President Karzai, then serving as interim President, won the election by securing 54% of the total votes cast. Although many candidates opposing Mr. Karzai had withdrawn from election and charged the government of large-scale fraud, foreign observers reported that the irregularities during the election process did not affect the outcome of the poll. Next, the parliamentary election was held on 18 September 2005. While Pro-Karzai party won the majority in the Upper House, the more powerful lower house went to the coalition of opposition parties. These were the first elections of any kind held in Afghanistan in more than thirty years.
Throughout the last five years, the Afghan parliamentary process showed a growing maturity and a deep commitment to democratic process. For example, in the last Presidential Election held on 20 August 2009, there were allegations of fraud and irregularities against the winning candidate President Hamid Karzai by his main rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, but Dr. Abdullah showed his political maturity by not calling for an annulment of the election nor a run-off. Most foreign observers agreed that the irregularities did not significantly affect the outcome. The Parliament during the last five years displayed strong commitment to democracy. For example, it did not confirm some of the cabinet ministers proposed by the President. The President had to yield; quite unlike Bangladesh where the Prime Minister can easily by-pass the Parliament on important issues, reducing Parliament to a mere rubber stamp. The just concluded second parliamentary elections again showed the political maturity of the Afghan political leaders and the people. Despite the Taliban threat, hundreds stood for the election, thousands thronged the election rallies, turned the election process into great festivities, and on the final day, notwithstanding Taliban threat, millions went to cast their votes. The most significant aspect of the Afghan democratic process has been the large-scale participation of women and ethnic minorities. Despite various social and religious taboos, and above all, the constant threat of Taliban violence, women came out of the Burqa to take to the streets to demand their equal rights under the constitution. In the last parliamentary election, there was even a Sikh lady in the race, not necessarily to win but to let the voice of her community be heard. There were, of course, many allegations of irregularities and the election Commission did take note of those, but that did not make the whole exercise futile. Indeed, one can say the Afghan elections were far more transparent than what we saw in Bangladesh under Gen. Ershad, or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein or what we witness regularly in Egypt, Syria or the farce conducted in Iran. In fine, it can be said that the people of Afghanistan have clearly and unequivocally given their support for a democratic system of governance. The rest of the world needs to support them in their effort.
In the field of economic and social reform and rebuilding too, the Afghans have shown tremendous resilience. Despite three decades of war and destruction, Afghan economy is growing at an average 6-7% annually. The agriculture, the most important component of the GDP, is growing at about 6%. Dams, canals and irrigation system destroyed or damaged are coming back to service. The country has completed a Highway network from north-south and east-west connecting all the major cities and built thousands of miles of tertiary roads to connect the main highways. Schools, colleges and universities are overflowing with students. Demand for new educational institutions is growing all the time. Beside a dozen public universities, there are now half a dozen private universities, including a number of foreign universities in Afghanistan. Number of females pursuing higher education is quite considerable. For example, out of about 6000 students in Kabul University, there are about 1600 females. How can the Afghan people forget the Taliban days when girls were not allowed to attend even primary schools?
Against this backdrop we as a member of the UN, as a member of the democratic polity, a member of the Islamic world and as a founding member of the SAARC, have responsibilities that we cannot shirk from. By now, the world community has a large presence in Kabul. Many embassies are functioning; although Bangladesh is yet to open her own. Many aid agencies as well as the financial institutions are there too. There are at least a dozen foreign banks operating in Afghanistan; BRAC Bank is the only Bangladeshi bank there. BRAC had been a pioneer aid agency from the developing world to venture into Afghanistan in 2003, at a time when others feared to tread. BRAC is providing micro-credit, primary health care, non-formal education and host of other services to the poorest section of the populace. Hundreds of Bangladeshi employees of BRAC, men and women, Muslims, Hindus and Christians, have served in Afghanistan’s remote areas without any security problems – unharmed, unscathed. They all have one common experience to share – the great Afghan hospitality. BRAC University, as a member of the BRAC family, has been training Afghan teachers, health workers and field level public servants for quite a few years. In fact, Afghan government is eager to emulate BRAC concept in their country. A state-run Micro-credit bank has already started operating in Afghanistan.
There are however, far greater opportunities at public and private level of getting involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan that could boost Bangladesh’s image in the world community and at the same time bring financial benefit to the nation. Take massive reconstruction works, for example. Besides American, Japanese, Korean and European companies, millions of dollar worth of construction works are clinched by the Chinese and Indian companies. Even the Russians are back in Afghanistan exploring possible gas and other mineral deposits. Bangladeshi companies could have been involved in the construction projects. Education is another fast growing sector. We need to open our educational institutes to the Afghans, especially those related to science, technology, agriculture and medicine. Indians are offering thousands of scholarships to the Afghan students, we do not have to match them, but we need to do something. These are our investment for the future. The students graduating from Bangladeshi institutions could be our brand ambassadors in Afghanistan.
Now coming to the crux of the problem, “Should we get militarily involved or not.” My answer is, yes, but with qualifications. Like the civilian institutions, the military in Afghanistan had to start rebuilding from the scratch. By now, it has reached a point where it is increasingly taking the load off the foreign forces. Army is trained to use sophisticated night fighting devices, laser guided weapons, artillery and mortars. Recent report that the Afghan army special forces, with the help of the CIA, is operating inside Pakistan speaks of the level of tactical sophistication that they have reached. Now they are recruiting women officers for their army. The Air force too has been raised; young Afghan pilots are flying Russian transport planes and helicopter gun-ships. President Obama’s declaration that the US troops will pull-out by mid-2011 might sound like an alarm bell, but the administration has made it clear that there might be down from the surge level of 150,000 US and NATO troops by next summer, but the time-table is subject to the situation on the ground. I can foresee a situation somewhat like Iraq, where as the local Afghan forces organize themselves and increasingly take charge, the ISAF relinquish their command and hand over the responsibility to the Afghan forces. However, unlike Iraq where there was no significant external support for the insurgents, in Afghanistan there is a support base in Pakistan – in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), in the rest of Pakistan among the population, especially those right-wing religious parties such as Jaamat-e-Islami and even within the Administration and Army. Americans have openly hinted on the link between ISI and the Taliban. That link is providing the Al-Qaeda and Taliban with safe haven for the training bases, logistics and armaments. Unless that supply route is cut-off, there will be no end to fighting. The Americans are twisting the arms of the Pakistani civil and military leaders to get them on board. They are launching increasingly open attack on the Taliban bases inside Pakistan. In fact, the ball is now in the Pakistani leadership’s court, the message is “Either you stop your territory being used as a launching pad for attack on Afghanistan, or we shall stop it.”
In this backdrop, what are our possible options? First of all, we need to decide should we go or not. If we decide to go, we can have an MOU with the Government of Afghanistan or go under the banner of the UN. Our commitment could be taking up training of their forces. The training could be done in Afghanistan or part of it, especially Officers’ Training, could be done in the military academies in Bangladesh. We can hire retired officers and JCOs or send active service personnel for imparting training in Afghanistan. About inducting combat element into the theatre will also depend on our political leadership. However, if we decide to go in we should be ready to take casualties; there will be no cakewalk. Any blood shed on the Afghan soil fighting the Taliban will be worth fighting for because the rise of the Taliban there will jeopardize the security throughout South Asia and beyond. Bangladesh’s participation in Afghanistan will be welcomed in the West as well as in the East. The Russians, Chinese and Indians who are involved in civil reconstruction project would welcome any added strength to stabilize the country. Bangladesh’s pioneering role might inspire Arabs and Southeast Asian Muslim countries, such as Indonesia or Malaysia to come forward with substantial commitments. Only objection I foresee will be from Pakistan, because they still consider Afghanistan as their backyard and any intrusion there by Bangladesh might be construed as an Indian proxy. This we need to overcome thorough mutual dialogue. We need to let them understand that we have a common enemy in the Af-Pak border and we need to fight it together, for “Together we stand, divided we fall”.
The author is a Security Analyst from Bangaldesh