Taking it to the next level
Afghanistan has been the abode of war, violence and terrorism for a good 33 years. First, under the supervision of the US and Pakistan, there was the series of violence against the Soviets and the Afghan government. After that, the terrorist groups that carved up Afghanistan into domain of their own conducted violence and terrorism against each other. And then the US and the army of 48 countries invaded the country. To date, hostilities and guerrilla warfare continues with US, Nato and their local supporters on one hand and the Taliban on the other.
During this long period, the Afghan security forces have never had the ability to stop these organised attacks. Small scale activities had always been countered but the way they acted against the recent spate of activities on a widespread scale has exposed a new side to the ability of the Afghan forces. The world was under the perception that the Afghan security forces were inept, weak-willed and scared; that they were shy of countering the Taliban. The same was thought of the foreign forces that they were abdicating to the insurgents in disillusionment. But the way these forces countered the activities of the Taliban in Kabul, Jalalabad, Gurdez and Logar and killed many terrorists points to a substantive change in ground realities.
Their performance dispels many impressions and refutes some long-held views: firstly, that the forces are a ragtag, lily-livered bunch; secondly, that many of them sympathise with the Taliban; third, that their training was lacking and that they are not yet fully equipped and capable; and lastly that these forces harbour ill-will for the Karzai government and the supporters of the occupying forces. All these things were disproved and shown to be mere propaganda and it was clear that the Afghan security forces are now well-set to protect sensitive places and displaying the requisite ability.
The same day when Afghanistan was subjected to this spate of activities, Pakistan too saw its own major terrorist activity. This was perhaps the biggest operation by raiders in the history of Pakistan. A cavalcade of almost 60 or 70 cars laden with militants armed to the teeth reached Bannu jail without being noticed by anyone. This jail had been built according to modern systems and held some very dangerous prisoners captive. About 20 of the inmates were on death row and were being kept in special protection cells. Obviously, since this was a new and modern facility, all the requisite security measures must have been taken. North Waziristan is not very far from Bannu and a war is going on there and the Pakistan army is conducting retaliatory activities there.
The number of militants who attacked the Bannu jail was said to be around four or five hundred. How did this horde manage to reach Bannu jail obliterating the security system? How did they breach the steely gates of the prison? How did they reach the different cells and barracks housing the prisoners? If reports are to be believed, they stayed a good four five hours in the prison having a good time, meeting up with their friends, cheering and celebrating their feat. Another report states that the man who conducted the attack on Musharraf was garlanded like a groom and then this procession of almost 400 people crossed the border successfully.
But nowhere in the reports is it stated how the administrative staff of the jail retaliated? How many guards were killed? How many were injured? How many terrorists were killed or injured? Was this a jailhouse or a rest house? It seems like it was a regular ‘ol Five Seasons given the ease with which the terrorist freed hundreds of inmates and left with impunity. This is incredulous in this day and age. Incredulous were also the attacks on the GHQ, PNS Mehran and Abbottabad. But this is a whole new level of incredulity.
What does this show what we have learnt about security matters (after all, we have been party to the war on terror for quite a while now)? First, I am not very hopeful that the US will leave the region. They have occupied the region for a decade and announced to stay for a further two years. And a withdrawal in 2014 does not in any way mean a complete US evacuation. What was called ‘withdrawal’ in Iraq was the callback of personnel involved in direct combat. Apart from that, official and technical staff, American companies and diplomats security details, the trainers and technical assistant staff of the Iraqi forces, reconnaissance details, communications surveillance staff, this entire network remains fully functional.
Even in Afghanistan, when the US forces will withdraw after some sort of evacuation agreement with the Taliban, the administrative machinery and security system that the US has built will remain as it is. The state structure that the US has built will be populated with new people but the American will not up and leave. But for the first time in history, Afghanistan will be a semblance of a modern state and this state shall evolve according to local imperative and circumstances. And the protection for this evolution process will come from the US and its allied forces. If circumstances so permit, other regional forces may also be let in this act of Afghan state building.
Pakistan never harboured, nor harbours, any kind of wish for direct military action against Afghanistan. We have conducted military activities in Afghanistan unofficially by proxy. But after the recently foiled activities of insurgents, it is clear that Afghan security forces will now be fully able to counter such proxy offensives. These abilities will only get better with time. The school of thought that talks of ‘strategic depth’, do they see any hope for that doomed notion? If terrorist networks on our soil keep conducting activities in Afghanistan, this could take a turn for the worse.
Our ruling establishment has always needed an enemy so they can use them as an excuse to loot and plunder and also to use the pretext of national sovereignty and integrity to ask the public to make sacrifices. Uptil now, the chosen one for this mantle was India. Now the honours are shared by the US and anti-Americanism is being fuelled and calls for jihad to defend national honour against the US are being made. But no attention is being paid to the entire country in our backyard i.e. Afghanistan. We have ticked all the boxes to turn that country into our enemy. If after US withdrawal, cross-border activities from our side continue in Afghanistan (and they cannot be stopped), then what will be the consequences? If Afghanistan starts retaliatory activities, what will our policy be? Do our policy makers have the Afghanistan of the future in mind? If we compare the Afghan security forces’ ability and our security forces’ ability in light of recent events, what picture emerges? We have been self-destructing in the name of national honour and sovereignty in the name of sixty four years. How long will it continue?
The writer is one of Pakistan’s most widely read columnists.