Afghanistan, Pakistan and the domino theory

July 26, 2009

In the eight years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, political pundits have used, and largely overused, all the available historical references. We have had the comparisons to the British 19th century failures there, to the Great Game, and to the Soviet Union’s disastrous experience in the 1980s. More recently, it has been labelled ”Obama’s Vietnam”.

The latest leitmotif is the domino theory - the view that Vietnam had to be saved from communism or other Asian countries would go the same way.  In the case of Afghanistan, the argument is that if it falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan too might become vulnerable – an infinitely more dangerous proposition given that it is a country of some 170 million people with nuclear bombs.

Britain’s Paddy Ashdown alluded to this idea in an op-ed in the Independent titled “What we must do to win this war in Afghanistan”. “I start from the proposition that the war in Afghanistan is one we have to fight and must win. The cost of failure there is just too great. It includes the certain fall of Pakistan and the possible emergence of the world’s first jihadist government with a nuclear weapon …” he writes.

In an article in the American Interest, analyst Stephen Biddle spells this out further by arguing that the main reason for the United States to fight in Afghanistan is to prevent it from destabilising Pakistan.

“With a population of 173 million (five times Afghanistan’s), a GDP of more than $160 billion (more than 10 times Afghanistan’s) and a functional nuclear arsenal of perhaps 20 to 50 warheads, Pakistan is a much more dangerous prospective state sanctuary for al Qaeda. Furthermore, the likelihood of government collapse in Pakistan, which would enable the establishment of such a sanctuary, may be in the same ballpark as Afghanistan, at least in the medium to long term,” he writes.

“Pakistani state collapse, moreover, is a danger over which the United States has only limited influence. We have uneven and historically fraught relations with the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and our ties with the civilian government of the moment can be no more efficacious than that government’s own sway over the country. The United States is too unpopular with the Pakistani public to have any meaningful prospect of deploying major ground forces there to assist the government in counterinsurgency.”

Robert Haddick, the managing editor of Small Wars Journal, takes aim at this line of thinking in an article in Foreign Policy.

“Contrary to Biddle’s assertion, it seems equally reasonableto argue that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan provided a relief valve of sorts for Islamist pressure that might have otherwise formed inside Pakistan during the 1990s. And although the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are two distinct movements, the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan may be inciting and pressurizing Taliban activity inside Pakistan. Contrary to what Biddle argues, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan may be increasing rather than decreasing the risk to Pakistan,” he says.

“As Biddle points out, the Barack Obama’s administration will have a hard enough time maintaining public support for the Afghan campaign. Best to leave the domino theory out of it.”

He is perhaps right to say that the domino theory is not a useful comparison, having been so widely discredited in Vietnam. Yet arguably the domino theory went wrong not as a concept but on specifics. The United States failed to notice that the Vietminh/Vietcong were nationalists more than communists while it also misread the intentions and capabilities of the Soviet Union and China when it allowed itself to be dragged into military defeat.

But if the real reason for fighting in Afghanistan is to prevent the destabilisation of Pakistan, should this not be discussed openly?

The questions, as in Vietnam, come down to specifics. Are the Taliban primarily Pashtun nationalists who, if brought into the political power structure in Afghanistan, would cease to be a threat? Or are they primarily a religious force intent on spreading global jihad in which Pakistan would be the next domino? (Most people you ask say both, with the argument being over which characteristic predominates.) And what are the intentions of Afghanistan’s neighbours, and of the United States and its allies? Would success or failure in Afghanistan lead to more problems in the neighbourhood – as was widely assumed in Vietnam – or not?

In one of the more dispassionate articles I have read on this in recent weeks, Dawn columnist Irfan Husain writes that the war in Afghanistan can be neither won nor lost.

But the price of failure, and a Western troop withdrawal would be this: ”… we would be back to the pre-9/11 situation. The only difference would be that the Taliban would be viewed as the force that had defeated the mighty Americans. This would give them an aura of legitimacy and invincibility that would win them many recruits and financial backers.”

“… the victorious Taliban would have their own agenda, and would not be the puppets the ISI think they would be able to manipulate. An earlier generation of jihadis drove out the Red Army, and after defeating the U.S.-led coalition, it is unlikely that Mullah Omar would accept dictation from our generals in Islamabad. Chances are that he and his Pakistani allies would seek to extend their writ across large swathes of Pakistan.

“Encouraged by the success of the holy warriors in Afghanistan, groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba would step up their jihad against India in Kashmir. A re-Talibanised Afghanistan would once again become a magnet for young jihadis from across the world. Al Qaeda would emerge from hiding and renew its war against the West and modernity. Rapidly, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan would become the epicentre of the global jihad to an even greater extent than the region is now.

“Already, there is said to be a strong nexus between the Taliban and the Muslim Uighur separatist movement … The Taliban, ignorant as they are of how the world works, would provoke Russia by openly supporting the Chechen rebels. In short, they would quickly antagonise India, Iran, the West, Russia and China. And as Pakistan would once again be sucked into supporting Kabul, we would be tarred with the same brush as the Taliban. This is the scenario that we and the West need to keep in mind as the war against the Taliban drags on.

“This is a war that cannot be won. But equally, it is a war that cannot be lost.”


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