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Central Asia/Russia

Stinger in the tail of US policy
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - One worry for United States forces considering any aerial assault on the bases of Osama bin Laden is the arsenal of deadly Stinger missiles provided by Washington during the Afghan war in the 1980s.

The shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are part of a stockpile of infantry weaponry worth more than US$8 billion that has been a source of worry to Indian troops fighting jihadis (warriors) in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

According to security officials, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made desperate efforts following the end of the Afghan war with the pullout of the Soviet army in 1989 to buy back at least some of the 1,000 Stingers it had supplied to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. But they met with limited success, they say.

The Stingers and other weaponry and the Mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation, now transformed into the Taliban that rules most of Afghanistan, are turning out to be the fateful seeds of policy that Washington sowed in the region, along with support from Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).

Experts say that when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA pumped in $2.1 billion over a 10-year period to create an anti-Soviet resistance that included 200,000 fighters garnered from 20 Muslim countries. Bin Laden was one of those who joined the Afghan jihad (holy war).

India's leading defense specialist, K Subrahmanyam, says that the Saudi fugitive bin Laden, based in Afghanistan and identified by the United States as a prime suspect in the September 11 terror attack, had himself warned his American benefactors that once the Soviets were ejected, it would be the turn of the other superpower to feel the heat of jihad.

But no one took bin Laden seriously, and with the Cold War over, Washington shut its eyes to the Afghan Mujahideen and the ISI and allowed them to spend their energies on Kashmir, a dispute simmering between Pakistan and India for more than 50 years, analysts say.

Pakistan itself began to suffer a backlash, with the Taliban extending and exerting influence among the influential clergy and various Kashmiri militant groups based within the country.

This despite the fact that the Taliban owes to the ISI its huge military success in confining the United Nations-recognized opposition, the Northern Alliance, to about 5 percent of Afghanistan in the far north of the country.

By the mid-90s, the Americans were showing alarm that Taliban-ISI activities had found a new source of funding in growing, processing and trafficking heroin, according to the South Asia Analysis Group, an independent New Delhi-based think tank.

In July this year Brigadier Imtiaz, who led the heroin operations for the ISI, was convicted and jailed for eight years for holding unaccountable bank assets worth $40 million, apart from owning vast properties.

Writing in the Pakistani daily The News, the analyst H K Burqi blames all the major ills that Islamabad now faces on the "swashbuckling years of the Afghan jihad."

"The heroin, the Kalashnikovs, the Afghan refugees, the sectarian lashkars [jihadists], the all-consuming corruption, nationwide outbreaks of violent crime, they were all bequeathed by the Zia regime. The dictator [Zia ul-Haq] knew all about it. He wanted to keep the officer corps happy and loyal," Burqi writes.

Evidently, Islamabad has had to pay a heavy price for acting as a frontline state for US interests during the Afghan war and at the end of it, trying to convert military gains into "strategic depth" for itself in the region by continuing the ISI-Taliban relationship.

Other people in the region have had to pay a price as well. The Kashmiris for one are now suing for peace at any cost and have been reduced to resisting attempts to "Talibanize" the valley by militants - mainly, recent news reports say, requiring women to wear the burqa (veil) on pain of having their faces disfigured or legs shot at.

During the July summit with Indian leaders at Agra, Pakistan's military ruler President General Pervez Musharraf, when reminded of the heavy civilian casualties in Kashmir through a decade of armed militancy, remarked that this was normal to all freedom struggles.

But ordinary Afghans have had to flee in droves to Pakistan and other neighboring countries such as Iran and India and have even turned up recently in places as far afield as Australia, simply because they are unable to live in their own blighted homeland, where, according to UN figures, four million people are starving because of US-led sanctions.

With the US now ordering an embargo on oil and food supplies over the Pakistan border and planning to launch aerial assaults, even more of the long-suffering Afghan population is pouring over the Afghan borders.

Musharraf has now been asked by Washington to help dismantle the very structure it was encouraged to set up in Kabul on the suspicion that the Taliban's Arab guest, bin Laden, was behind last week's terrorist attacks.

The general has naturally balked at the prospect, but cannot play the same game of asking for "convincing evidence" to show that bin Laden was actually involved, as Pakistan did after the earlier bombing attack on the World Trade Center.

This time, Washington is clearly in no mood for protracted debates or legal niceties, such as waiting for a UN mandate for an attack on Afghanistan.

Musharraf has his own problems from jihadists operating in his country. So far he has been able to ignore their activities, including sectarian murder under justification of providing support for armed militancy in Kashmir, the liberation of which territory from Indian rule is a hugely popular issue in Pakistan.

In addition to that, he has been under international pressure to restore democracy in the wake of his 1999 seizure of power through a coup.

"General Musharraf has sought American indulgence of his deviation from democracy on the grounds that he plans to act against Islamic extremists," writes Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani commentator and former information minister, in an article published in the Indian Express newspaper.

But last week's suicide attacks on New York and Washington have left Musharraf with little room for prevarication. The elimination of terrorism is now on top of Washington's agenda - making the Kashmir issue, restoration of democracy in Pakistan and even nuclear proliferation in South Asia secondary issues.

(Inter Press Service)



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