Back to home page NATO's failure portends a wider war فارسی

Saurce: International Herald Tribune
Published: November 30, 2006
Author: Ahmed Rashid

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The abysmal failure of NATO countries at the Riga summit meeting this week to commit more troops to Afghanistan will further encourage a countrywide Taliban offensive, and portends much greater interference by neighboring states - all staking their claims as they see the West giving up the ghost on Afghanistan.

In the future annals of the spread of Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda, the NATO meeting this week will almost certainly be considered a watershed. Germany, Spain, Italy and France, which refused to allow their troops in Afghanistan to go south to fight the Taliban, and other member states who refused to commit fresh troops or equipment, may well be held responsible for allowing Afghanistan to slip back into the hands of the Taliban and their Qaeda allies.

Such desperately depressing considerations arise from the fragile state of the Afghan government, the massive surge in Taliban attacks this year, the collapse of civil authority in wide swathes of the country and the rise in opium production, which is funding not just the Taliban, but a plethora of Afghan, Kashmiri, Central Asian, Chinese and Chechen Islamic extremist groups based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Last summer the Taliban planned to capture Kandahar - the second-largest Afghan city - and set up an alternative government. They were only just thwarted by the sacrifices of NATO British, Canadian, Dutch and American troops and their Afghan allies, who fought pitched battles with battalion-size Taliban units - battles the likes of which the West had not experienced since the Korean War.

Tribal leaders in Peshawar and along the border now say that the Taliban are recruiting thousands of fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a full-scale, multipronged offensive in the spring, which will open so many fronts in southern Afghanistan that present NATO forces will be unable to cope. This time the target is Kabul and the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban will fully understand and exploit NATO's failure to respond to these threats. NATO's inaction will also cause massive demoralization among the Afghan people and encourage warlords and drug traffickers to prepare for the coming anarchy.

Most significantly, NATO's decision will pave the way for further interference by neighboring states, which helped fuel the civil war in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s.

Pakistan's military regime, which provides clandestine support to the Taliban and has refused to accept NATO and U.S. plans to arrest the Taliban leaders on its soil, has long calculated that in time the West will walk away from Afghanistan. Pakistani officials are already convinced that the Taliban are winning and are trying to convince NATO and the United States to strike piecemeal deals with the Taliban in the south and east, which eventually could develop into a Pakistani- brokered Taliban coalition government in Kabul.

Such a plan would never be tolerated, however, by the swath of other neighbors who in the 1990s supported the former Northern Alliance in their war against the Taliban. To beat back Pakistan and the Taliban, Russia, Iran, India and the Central Asian states may step up their support for Karzai's government, but they will almost certainly look for alternatives, such as rearming and mobilizing their former allies - the warlords of the north.

As in the 1990s, such a scenario could develop into an ethnic civil war between the Pashtun Taliban in the south and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north. At Riga, NATO demonstrated that it does not have the will to stop such a civil war, which could lead to the partition of Afghanistan along north- south lines.

Many fear that despite the wishful thinking of the Pakistani military, a civil war in Afghanistan will have devastating effects on the integrity of the Pakistani state. The regime of President Pervez Musharraf already faces a full-blown separatist insurgency in Baluchistan Province. And a wave of Talibanization is sweeping Pakistan's Pashtun belt, which the military is not attempting to stop, but rather conceding to, through so-called peace deals that leave the Taliban-Qaeda groups in place.

Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas have already proved to be the training ground for the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London and the thwarted Heathrow Airport plot this year.

The situation in Afghanistan is not just dire, it is desperate. The struggle against Islamic extremism will be lost not in Iraq, Iran or even the Palestine territories, but in Afghanistan. It is here that Al Qaeda wants to regroup and rearm itself to continue its global jihad and it is here that NATO countries are failing the world.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."