Afghanistan remains a blighted country. Everyone wants to control it, but no one really is able to. The British and the Russians stared at each other across the Hindu Kush in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the Soviets and the Americans who used this hapless country to settle Cold War scores, years later. The country has not known peace since 1979. The bitter legacy of these campaigns is the unending jehad in the Indian subcontinent, an opium and heroin economy in Afghanistan, violence and religious fanaticism that threatens to spread globally.
Five years ago Ahmed Shah Massoud, the ‘lion’ of Panjshir, was assassinated by two men who had transited through Pakistan. In India today, no one recalls Massoud or cares to remember, that, but for this man, Pakistan would have captured Kabul in 1992. In India, it is more fashionable now to talk of al-Qaeda and 9/11 — because the rest of the Western world does so. It was Massoud who prevented Pakistani surrogate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from occupying Kabul in 1992; it was his forces that pushed back Hekmatyar from Jalalabad and it was Massoud who did not admit defeat even when the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, occupied Kabul in 1996. He chose to fight instead.
The only way the Pakistanis could get rid of him was to assassinate the man. The history of the subcontinent would have changed had it not been for the leader in Massoud. But the Pakistanis have not given up yet.
The Taliban are now resurgent in Afghanistan, operating at will, as in the past, from Pakistani bases, trained and equipped there. Ghazni, Khost, Helmand, Paktia (where the governor was assassinated), Kandahar, Paktika, Logar, Balkh and Kunar and now Farah province in the west bordering Iran have been affected. The casualties are high and increasing by the day. Suicide bombings are very common, numbers of no-go zones have increased, weapons are costlier and more and more areas are unsafe for aid agencies.
Today’s Taliban fighter is far more radicalised and sophisticated than the one who was pushed out by the Americans into Pakistan in 2001. While the Afghan army pays its soldiers the equivalent of $ 4 a day, the Taliban pay as much as $ 8 a day. The Taliban fighter is prone to resort to slaughter and beheading and seems to revel in watching DVDs that depict anti-American violence.
It is quite apparent that continental Europe is wary of being sucked into a hopeless war, involving what is really the Pakistani army, with a deniability that the Pakistanis practised on their eastern borders. Whatever the spin might be, the ‘foreigner’ will have to leave. Added to this, Hamid Karzai is being increasingly seen as being helpless and unable to deliver security and development.
It has been this poor experience of governance that has contributed to the phenomenal growth of opium production in Afghanistan. Ninety-two per cent of the world’s opium (6,000 tonnes this year) now comes from this area. The farmer finds it far more lucrative to grow opium. After all, it fetched him about $ 5,400 per hectare last year which is 10 times more than wheat sales. The drug barons are expected to earn $ 3 billion this year. Banning production merely increases the premium. It could take 20 years to control this. In the short term, any curb without commensurate economic alternatives will only drive the farmer into the arms of the Taliban.
The indiscriminate use of the air force, the massive bombings where untold numbers of civilians died as ‘collateral damage’ and the cruelties of the secret detention camps in Baghram have taken their toll on the Afghan psyche. The possibility that this anti-foreigner (Western, chiefly American) sentiment could easily translate into a Pukhtoon national movement will have repercussions on Pakistan with its sizeable Pukhtoon population. It is true that the Pakistani Pathan has better assimilated into the Pakistani mainstream than the Baloch have but there is still a strong nationalist Pukhtoon sentiment coupled with a religious ferocity that is missing in the Baloch.
General Musharraf is right when he says that the Taliban are a Pushtoon force from both sides of the border with some of the tribes living on both sides of the Durand Line, although he conveniently omits to mention that the Taliban owe their genesis to the Pakistanis and their madrasas. Maybe it is now getting out of hand or perhaps, victory is at hand and Pakistanis are hedging their bets.
In the Nineties, the Pakistanis used their jehad experience in the Afghan theatre to apply their skills, finances and manpower in Kashmir. Today, they are able to reverse this and use it in Afghanistan, despite the presence of the US and despite its disapproval.
Militarily, the idea would be to gain maximum territorial advantage before the winter sets in. Politically, meanwhile, Musharraf has tried to distance himself and his country from the Taliban. Much to Afghan annoyance, he said recently, in Brussels, that the Afghans themselves were to blame for the current state of affairs.
A similar Pakistani strategy is unfolding in India where the attempt is to hoist all attacks in India outside Kashmir on the Al-Qaeda banner or to pretend that things are not fully under the control of the army in Pakistan.
Anyone who has studied Pakistan knows that this is not true. And if things are not under control in a military dictatorship of more or less 60 years standing, then that country is falling apart. We all know that it is the Pakistani — essentially the Punjabi Lashkar and the Jaish who operate from bases in Pakistan and are members of Osama’s International Islamic Front — who continue to target India. They are not members of Al-Qaeda which is an Arab organisation.
Musharraf’s peace deal with the Taliban in Waziristan could signify a few important things. First and foremost is that Musharraf has realised that the Taliban cannot be militarily defeated. It is, therefore, better to strike a deal with them as the next force in Afghanistan. In Musharraf’s own army are officers and men reluctant to fight the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, on grounds of conscience. There is also the fear that Waziristan could now become a safe haven for Arab and central Asian terrorists wherein they would enforce the strictest code of Islam. Pakistan is now much more Islamicised and concessions to mullahs are inevitable for political survival in the country, especially with elections due next year. Finally, Musharraf can now redeploy his forces in Balochistan following the ‘peace accord’. That legitimises the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Extreme anger, arrogance of military power and total ignorance of local conditions had spurred the intense response of October 2001, which sent terrorists scurrying for shelter, chiefly in Pakistan. The Big Ones remain untraced till date. Pakistan was enrolled as a stalwart ally. It was like asking a murderer to investigate his own crime.
Should Afghanistan collapse and disappear from the world atlas, like Iraq will, the ethnic constituents of what is now Afghanistan will probably get sucked into their neighbouring countries. On the other hand, if Ralph Peters (‘Blood Brothers’, Armed Forces Journal) is right, then there could be a Greater Balochistan, a Greater Pakhtoonistan, a Greater Afghanistan and another moth-eaten Pakistan.
True, this is highly improbable; but what if...?