Abdul Rashid Dostum's Northern Alliance, propped up by tacit support from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan, and by the physical presence of approximately 20,000 Russian troops north of Afghanistan's border, can still influence the final military outcome in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan eventually breaks up on an ethnic and linguistic basis, the Pakhtoons in Afghanistan will surely turn to their Pakhtoon brothers in the North-West Frontier Province who are already clamouring for a homeland of their own which they call Pakhtunkhwa.
One of the highlights of the strategic partnership agreement signed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 3 October 2000, was the convergence of views between India and Russia on jointly combating the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. In fact, the continuing civil strife in Islamist fundamentalist ruled Afghanistan poses perhaps the most serious threat to peace and stability in the Southern Asian region. Perhaps Samuel Huntington was right and Afghanistan is the first fault-line war that may eventually lead to a clash of civilisations.
While the Pakistan-supported and equipped Taliban militia has consolidated its hold over large parts of Afghan territory, Ahmed Shah Masood is still holding out in the Panjshir Valley. Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Northern Alliance, propped up by tacit support from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan, and by the physical presence of approximately 20,000 Russian troops north of Afghanistan’s border, can still influence the final military outcome in Afghanistan. Iran had massed over 70,000-troops along its eastern border with Afghanistan in 1998-99 and a substantial number of these are still in their deployment areas. In view of the continuing bloodletting and Shia-baiting in Afghanistan, the hood of the present impasse breaking out into an armed conflict cannot be entirely ruled out. An Iran-Taliban war would inevitably snowball into a Shia-Sunni conflict, irretrievably destabilising the entire region.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with Pakistan’s ISI, the Afghani mullahs and terrorist outfits supported by them continue to spread their rabid brand of virulent Islamist fundamentalism in a wide swathe from India’s Jammu and Kashmir in the east, through the CARs and the Caucasus, to the Balkans in the west. Though the United Nations Security Council deadline to hand over Osama bin Laden expired on 15 November 1999, the Taliban is still sheltering him in Afghanistan. Since bin Laden is again the prime suspect in the terror-bombing of the United States warship USS Cole in October last there is a strong possibility that the US may once again launch cruise missile attacks on his terrorist hideouts inside Afghanistan. This will further aggravate the already vitiated regional security environment.
For many centuries Afghanistan has been a battleground where several nations have struggled to gain influence. The first “Great Game” was played out during the 18th and 19th centuries between the Russian and British Empires in a period of imperialist expansion. The present Great Game concerns the rivalry between the US, Russia, China and Pakistan for access to the rich natural resources of the CARs. Since the independence of the CARs, Afghanistan’s strategic importance has increased manifold as it is on the transit route between the landlocked CARs and the littoral states of the Arabian Sea. India too has a major interest in the region as the CARs are an emerging market for Indian exports and it would be cost effective for India to tap their large hydrocarbon reserves. On the other hand, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two of the only three countries that have recognised the Taliban regime (the third is the United Arab Emirates), are seeking exclusive access to these markets as well as de facto control over oil supplies from the CARs. However, it appears unbelievable that despite such high stakes, the international community is unwilling to get its act together to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan and continues to show a callous disregard for human rights violations and the oppression that the Afghani people are being subjected to.
The Soviet pull out from Afghanistan and the end of the Cold War saw the proud Afenans return to their quarrelsome ways. Since then, changes in fortune have been fast paced and precipitate. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Communist Uzbek warlord and the head of the Junbish-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement), had toppled President Najibullah in a mutiny in 1992. Dostum fought against Pakistani protege Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later supported him against Burhanuddin Rabbani. A quintessential soldier-of-fortune, Dostum blames the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 on the failure of the Rabbani-Ahmed Shah Masood alliance to bring his Jombesh into the government. The Nothern Alliance now includes the Jamiat-i-lslami of President Rabbani and Ahmed. Shah Masood and is Tajik dominated. Two Shia factions, the ethnic Hazara Hizb-i-Wahdat Islami (Islamic Unity Party) and the Harkat-i-Islami, are also part of the alliance. The ethnic Tajiks are Persian speaking and the Hazaras who inhabit the area west of Kabul are Shias.
It was during former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s tenure that the ISI had dropped Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and inducted, armed, equipped and inducted the (literally meaning religious students) under Mullah Mohammed Omar into Afghanistan. Supported by the Pakistan military and flush with Saudi money, the Taliban captured province after province, usually by buying opposing commanders.
Where a fight did become necessary, Pakistan openly provided operational and logistics support. Despite vociferous Pakistani denials, between 1,000 to 2,000 Pakistani regular soldiers and airmen have been actively involved and have fought shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban. How else would a motley array of ill trained students have manned and maintained T-54/55 tanks, multi-barrel artillery rocket launchers and long-range guns and flown MIG-21 fighters, AN-32 transport aircraft and Mi-17 helicopters? In fact, according to Anthony Davis of Janes Defence Weekly, the Taliban campaigns during the Summer months of 1998 and 1999 were “characterised by several relatively sophisticated manoeuvres across a fluid and fast-moving battlefield”.
Pakistan is playing for high stakes in Afghanistan. Besides the obvious commercial windfall that it hopes to reap, Pakistan’s interests include the gaining of strategic depth vis a vis India and making Afghanistan a surrogate state that will allow it to play a larger role in the Southern Asian region. In the interest of short-term tactical gains, Pakistan is being extremely shortsighted in ignoring the dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The abiding lesson of history is that it has proved impossible for outside powers to rule Afghanistan. The British learnt it at great cost during the first two Afghan wars; so did the Soviets during the third. Pakistan is being naive in believing that it can rule Afghanistan by proxy through the Taliban. The ‘Taliban militia is a motley array of petty minds, repressive and spiteful religious teachings, primitive ideology and an unbridled lust for power that has no base except among the Pushtuns. It is an amateurish medieval experiment in state making that is foredoomed to failure.
Pakistan is also, amazingly, paying no heed to the Talibanisation of its own society, particularly the northwest. The madrasa-narcotics-Kalashnikov culture has taken deep root and a well-entrenched local military commander-police-mullah warlord-narcotics mafia-smuggler-criminal nexus is ruling the roost. The Krankenstein monster that Pakistan has created will eventually boomerang on it and destroy it. If Afghanistan eventually breaks up on an ethnic and linguistic basis, the Pakhtoons in Afghanistan will surely turn to their Pakhtoon brothers in the North-West Frontier Province who are already clamouring for a homeland of their own which they call Pakhtunkhwa.
India must work for an early solution to the Afghan crisis and must ensure that Afghanistan’s unity and territorial integrity are maintained.
Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan must be seriously countered and the Taliban experiment must not be allowed to success, or else the virulence of Islamist fundamentalism will soon spread all over the Southern Asian region, including the CARs. The installation of a truly representative, duly elected government in Kabul should be a national security priority. India and Russia must take the lead in finding a negotiated solution in consultation with the regional entities and all parties to the conflict. Because it lacks a contiguous border with Afghanistan, India is neither part of the UN six plus two initiative nor of the Shanghai Five working group. As a country that is directly affected by the terrorism emanating from the Taliban-Pakistan nexus, India must leverage its newfound strategic partnership with the US to gain representation in all negotiations to resolve the Afghanistan problem.
So far, India has provided only political and diplomatic support to the Northern Alliance and little else. Clearly, India needs to adopt a more pro-active strategy to ensure that the Taliban militia is disbanded under international supervision. India must push vigorously for a strong UN peace enforcement operation in Afghanistan and should be willing to contribute up to a brigade group (5,000 personnel) for a chapter seven intervention. Meanwhile, the humanitarian and medical assistance being provided to the Northern Alliance must be upgraded to the provision of military equipment and ammunition and logistics support. The campaign for a strong and stable Afghanistan under a truly representative government has to be fought on all fronts — political, diplomatic, moral and, if necessary, military. An aspiring regional power cannot shy away from investing in safeguarding its national security interests. Moreover, greater involvement in Afghanistan will also relieve pressure on the Kashmir front.