Terrorism and Afghanistan:
linkages and significance

Columnist MB NAQVI discusses the role of Pakistan & Afghanistan for the Great Game in the future

It is possible to view the visit of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Chief Executive, to Afghanistan in a short-term perspective: it can be construed to mean that it may have been motivated by Pakistan's desire to ensure that US President Bill Clinton does not fail to visit Pakistan during his upcoming March visit to India and Bangladesh. The linkage is via the issues of Osama bin Laden, 28 other persons wanted by the Americans for narcotic offences, some of whom may be hiding in Afghanistan and the general question of Taliban government's support to Jehadi groups, viz. what India calls Afghanistan's linkage with the cross border terrorism in Kashmir. But there is another and longer-term perspective.

Needless to say the victory of Taliban over the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani -- the main strength of which is the famous warlord Ahmed Shah Masood of the northern area of that mountainous country -- had brought about a sea change in the strategic equations in southern and central Asia. It is true that some of these changes had already taken place way back in early 1990s when pro-Soviet President Dr. Najibullah threw in the towel. For, the governments of Professors Mujaddadi and Rabbani were made in Islamabad. But each of them had persistently tried to assert an independence that had little basis in power -- until they were all thrown-out by the Taliban. The Taliban are seen by friend and foe as being authentically pro-Pakistan. Their victory over others -- barring the northern redoubt of Ahmed Shah Masood -- has converted Afghanistan into what is seen elsewhere as a protectorate of Pakistan. As men like Gen. Hamid Gul have argued, it has given Pakistan a strategic depth that it did not have before. It has also brought Pakistan into the big league that is busy playing a new Great Game in central Asia. Doubtless, the really big Game is being played by truly big powers, mainly by the US, EU, Japan, China, Russia and in descending order Turkey, Iran and the six or seven Muslim central Asian republics. Pakistan has joined this latter league for the new Great Game. At stake is strategic raw materials, especially oil and gas, and high technology needs of central Asia for both modernisation and development. In addition to many other minerals, central Asia is going to be a huge market for investment capital.

It will be fanciful for Pakistanis to think that they are co-veal with America, EU and Russia for competing for this market or for the control of strategic raw materials. Pakistan is much too underdeveloped, weak, and small to dream dreams of this kind. And yet it has placed itself on the strategic map. With some stretching and hope, it can regard itself as strategic equal to Turkey, Iran and other central Asian republics.

These equations are not quite as simple or non-controversial as would appear from this bald statement. A lot of qualifications have to be made. Pakistan's arrival on the scene has been resented and has caused controversies. While its strategic stature has registered a rise, it is accompanied by heavy political costs. These costs have to do with both the intrinsic value and worth of the traditional buffer state of Afghanistan and also the stunning newness of the perception about Pakistan playing seriously the power game. Its strategic gain in Afghanistan has in point of fact shocked all others not excluding the traditional friends and supporters of Pakistan: China, Iran and even Turkey. Russia and other Central Asian Republics had adopted from the very beginning a more negative attitude of strong disapproval with intimations of adversarial relations with Islamabad. Iran felt offended, and quite seriously too, at its interests in Afghanistan were wholly neglected or ignored. It is probably too much to say that Iran has been alienated. But if nothing is done to accommodate it suitably in the strategic picture, it might become true. Even China looked askance: puzzled and unhappy. There is however more to it than mere unhappiness.

Most of us tend to ignore India with its considerable weight and ability to articulate. India and Russia began to play on the wounded pride of Iranians. After floating the idea of a new axis comprising itself, Russia and Iran -- and in time China -- New Delhi withdrew itself from an active role. It listened to the more intoxicating songs sung by the US for an Indo-American partnership, involving a building up of India as a counterweight to China. But the idea of a basically anti-American axis caught on and China picked it up with enthusiasm and tried to beef it up with a Sino-Russian partnership. Iran remains integral as other CARs have stayed loyal. This significant development is not a good news for Islamabad. True, China is neither so blunt or brash as the US nor purely preoccupied with short-term advantage. The nature of the Sino-Pakistan relations owe much to China's longer-term preoccupation with South Asia: it has tried to build Pakistan, purely unilaterally, as a bulwark against or check on Indian ambitions. It is cooperating with Pakistan, irrespective of Pakistan's own policies -- even its membership of anti-Communist alliances did not deter China. Nevertheless, this one sidedness of bilateral ties should not make Pakistan too smug about the potentialities of the new grouping. Then there are other reasons for worrying.

The political visage and character of Taliban has something to do with the foregoing reactions. Pakistanis should not kid themselves into thinking that the Americans remain as their solid supporters as they had been through the cold war years. The plain fact of the matter is that nobody in the wide world likes Taliban. They are seen as religious bigots, ruthless, intolerant and prone to violence. Their Islamic character, while it is regarded as authentic by most orthodox Muslims, is seen as extreme and indeed fanatical even by the ordinary Muslims everywhere. The worldwide perspective on Taliban as narrow-minded fanatics is a disabling circumstance for Pakistan itself. The Taliban shot themselves in the foot by their treatment of women, shutting down girls schools, driving female employees out of offices and brutal treatment of minorities, mass killings and all. Since Taliban's self-image of being wholly uncompromising enforcers of Shariat, as they perceive it, has enabled them to emerge victorious in Afghanistan, they are unlikely to change their style of ruling on foreign advice, including Pakistani. But more presently on this.

Let us take up and dispose of the short-term issues on which Gen. Musharraf will have to negotiate with Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Taliban supremo. At the head of the agenda would of course be Osama bin Laden, whose arrest has become a prestige point for the Americans, followed quickly by others wanted for various offences in America, not excluding the general question of narcotics trade. While the issues of the arrest of those wanted by American justice cannot be underrated in the short run, their significance is transitory. Insofar as the abiding American rhetoric about heroin and other narcotics trade is concerned, it is a sort of constant with which all can live, with minor adjustments in policies. Fortunately, the Americans do not seem to be too perturbed about the inherent qualities of Taliban, though they feel uncomfortable with, indeed despise, them. But when the chips are down, they would let them and Pakistan be; they would pragmatically deal with them for mutual advantage as the need arises. That cannot be said for either Russia or China or most others. Except perhaps Iran whose dislike of Taliban is ambiguous; they like their commitment and strict adherence to Shariat as perceived but dislike their intolerance of Shia sect. They also dislike their extreme rigidity that goes the length of wholly disenfranchising women in all the senses of the term. This is a serious political cost in short as well as in the longer term for Pakistan.

Islamabad expects that some kind of modus operandi can be found over Osama while some more arrests in Afghanistan and Pakistan can mollify the Americans' current insistence. Americans are not overly worried about what other powers are doing in or about Afghanistan so long as Taliban rule because serious competitors like EU, China, Russia and Japan can scarcely abide by such a Medieval regime; the Americans think they are unlikely to be preempted in the huge market of tomorrow (central Asia and Russia) -- maybe they are well ahead of others to worry overmuch.

From the longer-range point of view, it is a moot question whether the strategic gain in the shape of Afghanistan is really a gain or a heavy obligation that Pakistan may not be able to sustain for long. It may have come too early in its economic and political development. Strategic gains and political instability and economic debility do not gel. Possible benefits of a concrete nature from the strategic gain cannot be denied -- in theory. At the end of the tunnel there is much light and rich pickings to be made. But there is this long tunnel to be traversed. Can Pakistan manage it? It would involve overcoming the current economic anaemia, becoming free of the need to shell out billions of dollars every year to meet the gap in balance of payments and in debt servicing to begin with. It would also involve political stability. A road map of sorts is available to reach the El dorado. But it is not easy. The nation has to make quite a few heaves.