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Bombs, Blow-back and the Future

by Tariq Ali  (October 2001)

For the last three weeks Pakistan's military rulers have been trying to convince the Taliban to hand over Ossama Bin Laden and avoid the castastrophe which was being prepared. They failed. Since Ossama is the son-in-law of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, this was hardly surprising. The more interesting question is whether Pakistan, after withdrawing its own soldiers, officers and pilots from Afghanistan managed to split the Taliban and withdraw those sections of the Taliban totally dependent on its patronage. This would have been a key aim of the military regime to maintain its influence in a future coalition government in Kabul. Relations between Pakistan and the Taliban have been tense this year. In an effort to cement friendship, Pakistan despatched a football team six months ago to play a friendly against Afghanistan. As the two teams faced each other in the stadium at Kabul, the security forces entered and announced that the Pakistani footballers were "indecently" attired. They were wearing football shorts whereas the Afghan team were wearing long shorts which came down well below the knees. Perhaps they felt that the heaving thighs of the Pakistanis might cause upheavals in the all-male audience. Who knows? The Pakistani team was arrested, their heads were shaved and they were all flogged in public while the stadium audience was forced to chant verses from the Koran. This was Mullah Omar's way of firing a shot across the Pakistan Army's bow.

The bombing of Kabul and Kandahar by the United States and its loyal British ally will not have affected the fighting strength of the Taliban-minus-the Pakistani faction plus Bin Laden's special brigade, consisting exclusively of Arabs from his Jihad International, as far as bodies are concerned. The combined force is now reported to consist of 20-25,000 hardened veterans. Nonetheless the Taliban are effectively encircled and isolated. Their defeat is inevitable. Both Pakistan and Iran are ranged against them on two important borders. It is unlikely if they will last out more than a few weeks. Obviously some of their forces will go to the mountains and wait till the West withdraws before attacking the new regime likely to be installed in Kabul with the octogenarian King Zahir Shah moved from his comfortable Roman villa to less salubrious surroundings in the wreckage of Kabul, where the Hotel Intercontinental is the only undamaged building.

The Northern Alliance being backed by the West is marginally less religious than the Taliban, but their record on everything else is just as abysmal. Over the last year they have taken over the marketing of heroin on a large scale, making a mockery of Blair's claim that this war was also a war against drugs. The notion that they would represent an advance on the Taliban is laughable. Their first instinct will be revenge against their opponents. However the Alliance has been weakened in recent days by the defection of Gulbudin Hekmatyar, once the favourite "freedom-fighter" of the West, welcomed in the White House and Downing Street by Reagan and Thatcher. This man has now decided to back the Taliban against the infidels. Sustaining a new client state in Afghanistan will not be an easy affair given local and regional rivalries.

A major worry is that the Taliban, cornered and defeated in their own country, will turn on Pakistan and wreak havoc on its cities and social fabric. Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi are especially vulnerable. By that time the West having scored a "victory" will turn a blind eye as usual. As for the supposed aim of this operation --- the capture of Ossama Bin Laden --- this might be less easy than it appears. He is well-protected in the remote Pamir mountains and since he has had three weeks to plot his course, he might well disappear. But victory will still be proclaimed. The West will rely on the short memory of its citizens. But let us even suppose that Bin Laden is captured and killed. How will this help the "war against terrorism". Other individuals will decide to mimic the events of September 11 in different ways. More importantly the focus will shift to the Middle-East.

In Saudi Arabia fierce factional struggle within the royal familiy is in progress. The dying King Fahd and his entourage left the country in three large planes for Switzerland, evidently to avoid a palace coup. This leaves the Crown Prince Abdullah in charge and his main rival Prince Sultan, weakened. Saudiologists insist that the Crown Prince is close to the Wahhabi clerics. Even if that is the case he will be confronted with a very angry street. Likewise Hosni Mubarik in Egypt. He too is concerned and has kept a distance from the NATO-alliance, insisting his troops will not be used. The street in Cairo is very angry. If there are eruptions in these two countries, Washington might have no choice, but to push through the creation of a independent Palestinian state. It is, however, too early to map the consequences of September 11.

- published on ZNet

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revised 18 November 2005