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Afghanistan beckons China, India

By M.D. Nalapat | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-08 08:01

The world is paying a heavy price, three times over, for the mistakes committed by the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the CIA refused to help Pashtun nationalists eager to fight the Soviet Union, and instead confined its largesse to Pashtun (and other) religious extremists.

Historically, the Pashtuns have been a liberal and inclusive community. Until the CIA's war against Moscow in Afghanistan in the 1980s was followed by the US-backed Taliban takeover of the country during 1993-96, there was peaceful coexistence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well between Muslims and non-Muslim communities such as, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist temples existed alongside mosques in Afghanistan.

But all that changed when NATO's support gave religious fanatics the upper hand over moderates. Today, very few non-Muslims remain in Afghanistan, while Shia-Sunni as well as other sectarian conflicts are multiplying. The CIA has converted a largely moderate community into one defined by trained fanatics within its ranks.

The US provided support exclusively for the fanatics and its military partners in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and for the Taliban in the 1990s. And not even the horror of September 11, 2001, was enough for Washington and its allies to change their old habit of supporting religious fanatics and ignoring moderates.

Within two years of the Northern Alliance (albeit with the help of the US) defeating the Taliban in mid-2002, NATO began taking measures to dilute the strength of the anti-Taliban forces and fund and arm religious fanatics. The reason: the Western military alliance believed the fanatics were a "reformed" lot and thus no longer posed a threat to security. Hundreds of millions of dollars were paid as bribe to warlords who subsequently helped re-energize the Taliban. As a result, by 2007 the Taliban had become a threat to NATO.

The US and its allies have met the same fate in Afghanistan that the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s, although skilful media management has thus far disguised this truth. Afghanistan, which was safe enough for NATO troops to travel by road from 2002 to 2005, is now off limits for the occupying coalition personnel. NATO troops now move around only in helicopters or aircraft, and that too in constant fear of being shot down. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan (to be completed next year) is perhaps in the same league as its withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s the inevitable consequence of a military disaster caused by defective strategy and self-defeating tactics.

The arming and training of extremists by the CIA, which began in the 1980s has created a security nightmare across the globe. It has worsened because of the unwise policy of handing over effective control of large parts of post-Muammar Gadhafi Libya to armed gangs, many of which have terrorist links. This mistake is being repeated in Syria.

Moreover, even after the Boston bombings proved once again how dangerous it is to back armed religious insurgents, in this case Chechens, US Secretary of State John Kerry is handing over to several groups $120 million, some of which will certainly end up in the hands of people planning attacks against the US and the European Union. It seems that NATO officials are no different from the Bourbon kings of France: it knows everything but understands nothing about religious extremism and its potential for destabilization.

Being neighbors of Afghanistan, both China and India have a vital interest in ensuring that post-2014 the country will not become a base for armed extremists to operate freely from once again.

Whatever its shortcomings, the Hamid Karzai-led government in Afghanistan is moderate. The same could be said about the opposition elements led by Abdullah Abdullah. In contrast, the Taliban remain a fanatic force, still unwilling to surrender Mullah Omar to justice, and still sheltering hundreds of al-Qaida elements. Should the Taliban retake Afghanistan (the US and the EU seem to be putting pressure on the Karzai government on behalf of the Taliban), the country will again become hell for women, smaller ethnic groups and Shiites, as well as Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the ultra-Wahabi views of the Taliban.

The Afghan people, including the Pashtuns, have suffered under the Taliban's rule and do not want a repeat of the Bill Clinton-sponsored experiment. They should be supported in their effort to safeguard their country against the fanatics who seek to destroy it. China and India both have suffered as a result of religious extremism. Both countries have an interest in ensuring moderates hold the reins of power instead of surrendering first a part and then all their power to the extremists, who seem to be supported by NATO. Afghanistan needs peace which only prosperity can provide, and for which Chinese and Indian investments are necessary.

Indeed, Afghanistan could become a theater for China-India cooperation. All three countries are victims of terrorism and all three seek a strong, multi-faith, multi-ethnic government in Kabul rather than a repeat of the religious dictatorship under the Taliban. It's time Chinese and Indian officials met with their counterparts in Kabul to unitedly prevent Afghanistan from falling into the hands of terrorists again. Kabul can bring Beijing and New Delhi together in a way that few alternatives can.

The author is vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.

(China Daily 05/08/2013 page9)

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