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Pakistan's debacle in Afghanistan

Pakistan's debacle in Afghanistan

Author: G Parthasarathy
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 22, 2001

Speaking on Pakistan's independence day on August 14, General Pervez Musharraf proclaimed: "The Taliban are the dominant reality in Afghanistan and the international community should engage, rather than isolate them". There were good reasons why General Musharraf could then smugly make this assertion. The mutually reinforcing ISI-Taliban nexus was providing his Government the "strategic depth" to promote "jihadi" violence by groups like the Harkat ul Mujahideen, the Jaish e Mohammad and the Lashkar e Toiba. The Islamist elements in his armed forces establishment fathered by the likes of General Hamid Gul were delighted at their role in promoting terrorist activities worldwide in the name of Islam-from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya to Algeria, Egypt the Philippines and Indonesia. There was also good money for his military establishment from narcotics grown in Afghanistan.

Things changed dramatically after September 11. Faced with an American ultimatum that if he did not extend unconditional support, his country would be made bankrupt and his nuclear arsenal taken out, General Musharraf quickly fell in line and became the darling of the western world. Rulers from President Bush to Tony Blair and Chancellor Schroeder rushed to embrace him. The UN Secretary General gave him a seat on the high table. Promises of huge economic assistance were made. Pakistan was once again given the status of a "frontline state" in promoting western strategic objectives. The hitherto isolated Musharraf started believing that he was Pakistan's new Messiah, destined to lead his country to prosperity and a leadership role in South and Southwest Asia. All this was also so heady for the author and architect of Kargil, that he even brashly asserted that India should "lay off" Afghanistan. In the process he forgot that his predecessors like Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan and General Zia ul Haq had also traversed this road and come to grief.

General Musharraf's calculation was that American military power would quickly eliminate Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and his close associates and the Al Qaida terrorist network. He would then get the Americans to establish a Government headed by some "moderate Taliban" leaders like Jalaludin Haqqani (the Taliban military commander) and Foreign Minster Mutawakil. In the meantime, the ISI's continuing contacts with the Taliban and the assistance of its jihadis to the Taliban would ensure that the Northern Alliance (NA)would be kept in check and independent-minded Pashtuns like Abdul Haq eliminated. What is surprising is that despite his Kargil misadventure, Musharraf still remained a babe in the woods in both his military and diplomatic assessments. It should have been evident to Musharraf that the soft and reassuring words he heard from Secretary of State Colin Powell alluding to American reservations about the NA were meaningless once the Pentagon found that its military objectives of degrading and destroying the Taliban and the Al Qaida could not be achieved without the support of the NA. And this is precisely what happened. Backed by the might of American air power, the NA cut through the Taliban defenses and overran resistance in crucial centres like Mazaar e Sharif, Kabul, Taloqan and Herat. Even in Pashtun dominated provinces bordering Pakistan like Nangarhar, the Taliban has been driven out and replaced not by Musharraf's nominees, but by local Pashtun commanders allied in the past to the NA. Haji Qader, the brother of the betrayed and slain Abdul Haq has been nominated as Governor of Nangarhar Province with Jalalabad as its capital. The new Pashtun leadership in the Southern Provinces who are taking on the Taliban comprises warlords who have deeply distrusted each other in the past. All this has been accompanied by outpourings of anti-Pakistani sentiments within Afghanistan being shown daily on global television networks. Hundreds of Pakistani jihadis have been killed in American air strikes and by the NA. Gruesome scenes of Afghans rejoicing over the bodies of slain Pakistanis have been seen on TV by ordinary Pakistanis. What must have been particularly shocking to them was that such contempt and hatred for their countrymen was not being manifested by the much-reviled Indians or Americans, but by fellow Muslims for whom they believed they had made many sacrifices. The Punjabi dominated Pak army has massacred Bangladeshis, Baluchis, Sindhis and Mohajirs in the past. But, Musharraf's betrayal of his erstwhile Pashtun Taliban allies will raise misgivings in the minds of Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.

As the America-led military operations intensify close to Pakistan's borders, fears have grown about the influx of armed Taliban fighters and their Arab, Chechen and Pakistani associates into the tribal areas of Pakistan's NWFP. Following a meeting with the Governors and Corps Commanders of the NWFP and Baluchistan on November 16, General Musharraf has ordered the setting up of a stringent three-layered security cover on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan to check illegal cross-border movements. Formations of the Pakistan army have been moved to frontline positions in the tribal areas, Chaman and in the Torkham belt near the Khyber Pass. They will reinforce personnel of the Frontier Force and other paramilitary formations. The military rulers in Rawalpindi are obviously getting jittery about the prospects of the American war against terrorism spreading to Pakistan. This is also evident from the manner in which Pakistan has unilaterally withdrawn the facilities accorded traditionally to landlocked Afghanistan for duty free imports.

While the rapid disintegration of the Taliban has shocked the supporters of these so called brave "Islamic Warriors" in Pakistan, what has been even more galling is the feeling that in its desire to gain international strategic importance, Pakistan has sold itself cheap yet again. The unkindest cut of all amidst all this has been the growing international recognition that India has a constructive role to play in the emerging events in Afghanistan. What Pakistan's military establishment repeatedly fails to understand is that a country that cannot govern itself in a civilised democratic manner and requires constant injections of foreign economic assistance to avoid bankruptcy, cannot aspire to play a role beyond its status. Despite pledges of foreign assistance, the Pakistan economy is unlikely to grow at a rate significantly higher than the 2.6% it achieved last year. Clarion calls for jihad and so called "freedom struggles" are not exactly the tonics that will promote foreign and domestic investment.

The campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaida has yet some way to go before one can assert that Afghanistan is no longer a breeding ground for international terrorism. The NA may have established itself in Kabul, but has yet to prove that it can show the requisite statesmanship for genuine political accommodation or for effective governance. Pakistan and other players like Russia and Iran have conflicting priorities and interests. Thus, even as we stabilise our links with the NA, it is important for India to reach out to those who wield influence amongst the Pashtuns. It would best serve our interests to adopt a low-key and behind the scenes role in the efforts to establish a broad-based government in Afghanistan. At the same time, it is imperative that mechanisms are put in place to ensure that our economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan starts immediately. Moreover, it is imperative that medical personnel, equipment and funds are provided to re-establish the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul as the premier medical centre in Afghanistan. Similar assistance could be extended in centres like Jalalabad, Herat and Mazaar e Sharif. Our interests are best served in Afghanistan when its people feel we are a non-interfering, non-intrusive and helpful friend.

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