After Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the bureaucracy that oversaw NATO faced an existential crisis. The alliance had been set up to counter the menace of the Red Army, and that force had melted away. Was it possible that the careers of the Cold War specialists were over? Would NATO be downsized or disbanded, to be replaced with other security mechanisms that were of greater relevance in an evolving situation?
Nothing of the kind happened. NATO simply broadened its sphere of operations to include the entire globe. Given that, it was obvious that its strength had to be enhanced – even as its Soviet-focussed analytical and military leadership searched for another enemy to confront. China was too big and too much a part of the economic DNA of the US and the EU to take the place of the USSR.
Osama bin Laden solved that problem for NATO by bringing down the WTC Twin Towers in New York. From then onwards, the alliance had its foe: the jihad against “unbelievers” and “crusaders” conducted by the more militarised segments of the Wahhabi International. NATO planners are known to have the same degree of depth as French military planners in the 1930s , who passed up three chances to launch a pre-emptive strike against Hitler-run Germany (once when he occupied the Rhineland in 1936; and in 1938, when Germany threatened Czechoslovakia; and finally in 1939, when the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland left it almost defenseless against strong French and other forces on the western front.) All three opportunities were passed aside even as vast amounts of money got spent on static defenses, rather than on the mobile armoured forces suggested by Brigadier DeGaulle. Hitler acted upon these suggestions in the creation of his Panzer (Tank) Corps.
Battling groups of jihadis is very different from fighting a conventional force; as the USSR discovered in Afghanistan and the US in Vietnam where it was defeated by lightly-armed guerrillas. Fighting a terrorist force united by religious fanaticism calls for a concentration of attention on mind war, and on ensuring that local populations do not fall victim to the siren call of the extremists. This cannot be achieved by conventional military forces. It requires resorting to the setting up of schools and camps where curricula is taught that show the young to become productive citizens in the international marketplace and the fatal effects of future lives as Jihadists. However, schoolteachers are in short supply within NATO while ordinary troops are not. Hence, the tactics adopted were designed so as to fit the mix of assets already available within NATO, rather than on the re-configuring of priorities that is essential if a military is to win an unconventional war. It is no accident that the very Israel Defense Forces that made such short work of multiple Arab armies in 1948, 1967 and finally even in 1973 are still struggling to overpower insurgencies in Gaza and the West Bank, after having withdrawn in defeat from Lebanon in 2000. Indeed, the very instruments of conventional war – tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft – become counter-productive in a context in which the strategic objective has to be not the subduing by force of a population, but winning it over.
About the only military that has understood this lesson is India’s, which has avoided the use of air power, heavy artillery or tanks to fight the Pakistan-fuelled insurgency in Kashmir. When 9/11 made the War on Terror the central theatre of operations for NATO, the alliance needed to acquire the skills and mindsets needed to battle such an elusive foe. Instead its commanders soldiered on in the way that they had been taught at military school – thereby once again proving that its generals are best at fighting the last war while helpless in the present. After a decade fighting the Taliban, and at an expenditure of more than $1 trillion, that ragtag force has regained effective control of at least 48% of the land area of Afghanistan, and has brought NATO to silent hysteria that is manifested in repeated efforts to locate “good” or “moderate” Taliban from within the ranks of Mullah Omar’s followers. If such is the expenditure of time and effort spent on fighting a numerically small force in a mid-sized country, it would be difficult to underestimate the problems that NATO would face were the GCC Sheikhdoms to get convulsed by the same unrest that the alliance has stoked in Libya and Syria. Now that NATO has shown the way, it is a realistic prediction that Syria, Lebanon and Iran will decide that attack is the best form of defense and stoke tensions and turmoil in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait in order to divert NATO’s attention away from themselves.
Qatar and other regional players who have sown the wind by facilitating insurgencies in Libya and Syria could soon be reaping an Iran-Syria-Lebanon whirlwind within their territories – in the shape of the latter countries backing the significant opposition groups within the GCC US allies.
Initially, the US was content to operate from the skies, ensuring the softening up of Taliban defenses that led to the Northern Alliance victories of 2001-2. However, quickly the pernicious effects of the Cheney-Powell policy of outsourcing much of the planning and operations in the Afghan theatre to the Pakistan army began to manifest themselves. The Northern Alliance was even warned from entering Kabul by the US. When its commanders nevertheless did so, there was consternation within the Powell-led State Department at the anguish felt by Islamabad over such a development. Soon afterwards, the ISI succeeded in ensuring that the US halted the Northern Alliance from entering South Afghanistan ( from Kandahar and beyond),by informally warning them that such a forward thrust would be met with US bombing of their positions. Because of this disastrous policy, of refusing permission to the NA to clear out Taliban nests in the south, the Taliban were enabled to create a sanctuary in the region with the help of Cheney-Powell’s regional ally of choice against the militia – the Pakistan army. Subsequently, the US funded numerous Pashtun warlords (identified by the ISI) who used the help provided to strengthen the Taliban.
A final blow in support of the Taliban was the 2003-5 NATO policy of winnowing out Northern Alliance commanders from positions of authority in Afghanistan, and replacing them with Pashtuns chosen by the ISI – almost all of whom were Taliban sympathisers. Several of the latter were also inducted into newly-created Afghan military units. Looking at the record of NATO in its pacification campaign, it is clear that this was doomed from the start by the alliance policy of seeing Pakistan as the fire brigade rather than as the arsonist who needed to be countered. The Taliban have once again become a potent force precisely because of the help given to their leading elements by NATO, the same military that allowed the ISI to exfiltrate more than three thousand Taliban commanders from Kunduz and other theatres during 2001-2. Had there been any real accountability within the US, both Dick Cheney and Colin Powell would have faced trial for the catastrophic mistakes that they were directly responsible for in the Afghan theatre. These errors were continued by their successors; Granted Admiral Muke Mullen has had his moment of enlightenment. However, this has come after a delay that has been immensely painful to the Afghan people and very advantageous to the Taliban and their benefactors in Pakistan.
There is much chatter on BBC, CNN and other NATO media about the “corruption” of the Hamid Karzai administration. Given that less than 17% of the funds spent in Afghanistan are under the control of the Karzai administration, the rest being disbursed by NATO through its own channels, this is a ridiculous charge. The fact is that it is overwhelmingly the personnel from within NATO that are guilty of padding expenses and squandering money on protection and other charges for ind
ividuals whose only “contribution” has been to exacerbate the situation. The only way the Taliban can be fought is to (1) take steps to stanch the support given to it by the ISI (2) be ruthless in going after key elements in the militia (in the manner of the Sri Lankan army against the LTTE) (3) ensure that the Afghan uniformed services get cleansed of the Taliban elements that have been inducted into it courtesy of Pakistan and (4) arm and equip enough of the Afghan people to ensure the creation of a 350,000 -strong army that can take on the Taliban. Only Afghans can win this war, certainly not NATO.
After a decade of disasters, that seemed to be propelling Hamid Karzai towards the same fate as befell former president Najibullah in 1996, the Afghan administration is finally showing the independence needed to free itself from the clutches of the disastrous policies of NATO. It would be laughable – if it were not so painful – to watch Germans, Poles, Australians and sundry others attempt to fit the Afghans into the procrustean bed of their own experience and institutions. In contrast, India offers a framework far better suited to the country, as well as personnel who are culturally close to the Afghans and can be expected to deal with them without the condescension and cultural insensitivity shown by NATO personnel. Now that India has entered into the task of training the Afghan uniformed services, there appears to be hope that the errors caused by Cheney-Powell policies may yet prove to be less than terminal to a moderate and democratic Afghanistan.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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