The Kabul chaos and South AsiaIt may not be the Saigon moment, but its reverberations are unlikely to be any less calamitous.
When JB Tuhure, 78, died last week, he was affiliated with the Maoists, but he rose to fame singing songs of awareness to solicit support for the Marxist-Leninists. The undertone of sadness in the revolutionary songs of Tuhure was unmistakable. Tuhure's tunes were simultaneously rebellious and reassuring. It's unlikely that complex emotions crossed the minds of the largely uneducated Taliban fighters that killed singer Fawad Andarabi in cold blood, but hardcore Islamists condemn music and fine arts. Love and fear are said to be the only two primary emotions that drive all human actions.
On the face of it, there is little connection between the destruction of the soaring statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan Valley, and the physical and psychological devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks except that the Taliban were implicated in these heinous acts. Along with the stampede at the airport, babies being thrown over the razor wires by their desperate mothers and a young dentist, among others, falling off the undercarriage of a military plane as it flew out, somewhat less moving pictures of defaced signboards from the streets of Kabul shall remain the defining images of the failed nation-building project in Afghanistan.
The fall of the United States-backed government in Afghanistan may not exactly be the Saigon moment for President Biden, but its reverberations in South Asia are unlikely to be any less calamitous. Metaphorically speaking, the earth shakes even when a big tree falls. An entire mountain of military presence from the crossroads of West, Central and South Asia being moved is sure to rattle the entire neighbourhood.
Critics of the Saigon moment hypothesis are quick to point out obvious dissimilarities. President Biden himself ridiculed all such comparisons. North Vietnam was an organised entity with a motivated army trained in guerrilla warfare. The Soviets as well as the Chinese were behind the Vietcong. The Taliban, on the other hand, are composed of a ragtag band of religious zealots inspiring fear among all its neighbours save its patrons in Pakistan. Similarities lie in the signals emanating from the humiliation of the defeated party—the fall of Saigon blew the myth of the invincibility of the US and the fall of Kabul reveals its increasing vulnerabilities. Saigon finally fell on April 30, 1975, and merely two months later, Indian prime- minister Indira Gandhi declared an internal emergency alleging that foreign forces were conspiring to oust her.
In the newly-independent Bangladesh, military officers conspired and killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in mid-August the same year and introduced Islamist politics in the secular country. Outside links of conspirators were never convincingly established. Anti-Tamil violence and exasperation of the people of Jaffna with Sinhala-only policies of the Sri Lankan government in Colombo were proximate causes, but it's still unclear which foreign forces funded Velupillai Prabhakaran to establish the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in 1976, and then helped decimate him after long years of deadly conflicts. The signals from Saigon reached Islamabad where General Zia ul-Haq, a protégé of prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, seized power through a military coup in July 1977, and intensified the Islamisation of Pakistan's polity, society and institutions.
Across the Durand Line, most observers agree that the intensification of internecine warfare began with the Saur Revolution in 1978 when Daoud Khan was killed in a coup d'état and the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over power in Afghanistan. Alarmed Americans began to clandestinely identify, train and arm tribal fighters who later came to be called "holy warriors" or mujahidin waging war against the godless communists. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to maintain a friendly regime in power, but their offensive merely added fuel to the fire of Islamist fervour that the Americans had ignited in order to give their Cold War adversaries their own Vietnam. After four long decades, Afghanistan remains stuck in the quagmire as it continues to pull all of its putative rescuers into the boggy pit.
There is little basis for the division of the Eurasian landmass into Europe and Asia. The concept of South Asia is even more nebulous which continues to baffle cartographers. Afghanistan and Maldives are member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) while Myanmar and Singapore are with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Negotiators of the Taliban may have promised president Donald Trump that they will not allow their land to be used for any activity against the interests of the US, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be bound by its solemn duty towards the Ummah.
The Tatmadaw junta in Naypyidaw may interpret the fall of Kabul as the failure of the democratisation project everywhere, but the twin risks of an Islamic blowback in the south and ethnic resurgence up in the north are likely to make an already volatile situation of the frontline state of the incipient cold war worse. Bangladesh had barely succeeded in putting the Islamist genie back in the bottle in order to fuel its economic transformation. The impact of the pandemic, the pressure of the Rohingya refugees and the frustrations of West Asian returnees are likely to enthuse militant mullahs that have been lying low and watching developments in Kabul with some interest.
On the teardrop island currently being run as a family enterprise of the Rajpaksa dynasty, fresh conflicts are likely to rekindle memories of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The race between the Chinese and the Indians in the Maldives will perhaps intensify as the exploratory mujahidin begin to look for hospitable bases closer to the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. By all accounts, India is the net loser of the Kabul debacle. India's participation in the US-led democratisation project has gone to waste. Its aid and assistance in strengthening the Afghan Army has proven to be meaningless. Its investments in trade and infrastructure development are at risk. And all of it took place when Indians were heading the UN Security Council. Little wonder, Indians are maintaining a meaningless silence as Pakistanis celebrate the "freedom" of Afghans with glee.
Nepal is likely to suffer sterility in the name of stability just as it did when US ambassador Ellsworth Bunker frequently oversaw the Vietnamese campaign from Kathmandu in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The socio-economic elite of the city have begun to salivate at the expectation of heightened US interest in Nepal to recuperate from the humiliations that they have lately endured in most Islamic countries.