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White Man's Arrogance

White Man's Arrogance

Author: Prem Shankar Jha
Publication: Outlook
Date: November 26, 2001

Introduction: The NA would want to develop its own terms with Pashtoon leaders and Pakistan, not have terms dictated to it.

The great powers of the western 'coalition' seem incapable of learning, either from history or from their own past mistakes. The Taliban are down but not yet out. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are still very much at large and the dead of September 11 remain unavenged. There is still a lot of fighting ahead and if there is one thing the Americans have learned in the past month, it is that this is best left to the Afghans. Despite that, every western country has already begun trying to dictate what kind of government a post-Taliban Afghanistan must have.

Even as the Northern Alliance (NA) was beginning its headlong rush to Kabul, the 'coalition' warned its leaders not to enter the city but wait outside till they, or the now conveniently remembered UN, could come and fashion an interim government. The NA treated this 'advice' with the contempt it deserved and stormed into Kabul. Here, the first cameramen faithfully captured the rapture of the people-the unveiled women, the jeans-clad teenagers and the barbers doing brisk business in beards. They also captured the sharp contrast between the civilised behaviour of the Uzbek and Tajik troops and the brutality of the Taliban when they took Kabul in 1996.

But this did not suit the larger agenda of the Great Powers, which was to impress upon the world that the Afghans are warlike adolescents who need to be nannied to ensure they do not get into trouble again. The cameras thus began to focus more and more on the few bodies of Arab and Pakistani Taliban fighters who had not got away, and to describe their end in gory detail, while the commentators sounded carefully-scripted doubts about how long the shaky alliance between the often barbaric northerners would hang together. Then, predictably, they cut to Kofi Annan addressing the UN Security Council, telling members in his measured tones exactly what the US and its allies wanted him to do-that without immediate and active UN intervention, Afghanistan was likely to slip back into internecine war and unending human misery. Then began an effort to sell the idea of a UN peacekeeping force for Afghanistan whose purpose would be to keep the peace while the Afghans worked out the future composition of a broad-based, multi-ethnic government. And in a crowning irony, the end of this exercise is to be a western-style democratic election-in a country more than half of whose population is Pashtoon and has been dominating the other half for the past 300 years.

One can see what the 'coalition' is trying to do. It wants the south to be left in Taliban hands while it woos Pashtoon leaders away from Mullah Omar. It hopes these 'moderate' elements will hand Osama and Omar over to the 'coalition' and thus qualify for inclusion in the next government. This will minimise bloodshed and maximise the chances of all parties working together to restore political stability to Afghanistan. Since all this will take time, it wants to introduce an international force that can act as a buffer between the Taliban and the NA.

But this grand plan has a fatal weakness-it makes a mockery of both history and psychology. The NA has been at the receiving end of unspeakable Taliban brutality in Kabul, Herat, in and around Bamiyan, and Mazar-e-Sharif for seven long years. It assassinated their supreme commander Ahmed Shah Masood only two months ago in an attack regarded as deceitful and cowardly. Now that the NA has the arms and the support it needs to defeat it, how can the commanders stop their men from going for a complete victory and exacting at least some revenge?

The NA knows that any Pashtoon elements foisted on it as its partners in a future government would be Pakistan's surrogates.When it blames Pakistan for virtually all of its misfortunes-first because it instigated and supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's attack on Kabul and then because it switched its full support to the Taliban-how does the coalition expect the NA to accept a third set of surrogates now?

Lastly, the 'coalition' and Mr Annan were obviously not paying much attention to what Pashtoon mujahid leader Hamid Karzai said to the BBC on the telephone a few days before the advance on Kabul. Karzai, who probably had been rescued from the Taliban by a US helicopter, went out of his way to deny it and claimed that he was forewarned by the villagers and fought his way to safety. He then went on to say that he wanted to free Afghanistan of foreigners. He mentioned Arabs and Pakistanis but clearly meant all foreigners, including the Americans. What he voiced was the common yearning of all Afghans, not since 1979, but 1839. Karzai knew that this goal could unite all Afghans and was clearly sending a message to the NA via the BBC. How anyone sitting in Washington or New York can believe that the Afghans will exchange the Russians, the Arabs and the Pakistanis for Turks, Malaysians and Bangladeshis defies understanding.

The NA is perfectly capable of managing its own affairs. After the fate of the first Rabbani government, it knows that it will simply not be able to rule Afghanistan without coopting a number of important Pashtoon leaders into the government. Its members also know that no matter what Pakistan may have done in the past, they must learn to live with it as they have learned to live with the Russians.

There is a world of difference, however, between choosing their partners from among the Pashtoons and having partners chosen for them. The 'coalition' and the UN want to do the latter, while the NA will only settle for the former. Similarly, it will one day want to negotiate the terms of its future relationship with Pakistan. What it will not stomach is having them dictated to it. The 'coalition' needs to cultivate patience, and just a touch of humility.

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