Afghanistan — not so great games
Columnist Hamid Hussain does a
detailed analysis of the present situation.
The post-September 11 events of cosmic proportions have resulted in world focusing on Afghanistan. Renewed interest of many local, regional and international players has resulted in surge of writings on Afghanistan. Policy makers of different countries are looking at the past, present and possible future of Afghanistan more closely. The task is difficult due to the convergence of various complex factors including internal, regional and international involving broad strategic, ethnic, economic and security areas. A closer look at the last twenty five year traumatic history of the region clearly illustrates the complexity of the problem due to clash of divergent aims and objectives of several parties. Neat ideological or rhetorical statements belie the underlying stresses of the society, which is caught in the eye of the storm and trying to control the events, which are beyond its grasp. This article will briefly deal with the interplay of these factors in the last twenty-five years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.
When the war is over, I want to read Persian poetry and go somewhere where there are no damn mountains.
Afghanistan over the centuries had incoherent relationship with the external world. However, on domestic front, it exhibited a degree of internal flexibility, which has ‘dampened more extreme turbulence within this multi-ethnic, linguistically heterogeneous, historically composite, and never entirely logical nation-state’.1 The external relationships of Afghanistan are still incoherent but the events of last twenty-five years have shattered that internal flexibility. The relationship between tribes and adjoining states of Pakistan and Afghanistan is a complex one. ‘The relationship is not of war or peace, black or white, but shades of grey; one that reflects the continuing socio-political dynamics of a special, indeed unique, situation that has prevailed in the region’.2 The 1978 Communist coup in Afghanistan changed the country forever. The brutal repression by the government of different segments of the society started a chain reaction of violence, which was going to haunt the Afghans for years to come.3 Despite a popular revolt and little control over the countryside, the Kabul regime was able to maintain the semblance of a central state with working institutions. In 1992 after the fall of Najibullah, Afghanistan gradually fragmented into city-states resembling the medieval model and traditional link between banditry and trade re-emerged. In this slip into disintegration and disorganization, people tend to gravitate to their more primordial beliefs and attachments of clan, tribe and ethnic identity. The state disintegrated and the stage was set for the next level of civil war, which will be more brutal and bloody. The scene is well summarized by one astute observer of Afghan scene in these words, “Billions of dollars worth modern weapons that had outlasted the strategic interests of their providers circulated in a devastated country with neither national institutions nor national identity”.4
The core supporters of many leaders were only their ethnic kins. Burhanuddin Rabbani’s close associates and armed guards were from his native Badakhshan province, Ahmad Shah Masud’s close confidants were Panjsheris while Abdul Rasheed Dostum’s Jowzyani Militia was predominantly Uzbek. De-tribalized Pushtuns were aligned with Gulbadin Hikmatyar while tribal Pushtuns rallied around their traditional heads in the form of local militias. The rise of tribal militias was a complex phenomenon.5 In early 80s, minorities, clans, which were weaker or defeated by their rivals and lower strata of the tribal society, joined the militias. The interior ministry ran the Sarandoy militia. This phenomenon had a devastating effect on the internal cohesion of Afghan society. The clan, tribal and ethnic bonds became stronger at the expense of already weak Afghan nationalism. The alliances were formed and broken at a dizzying speed due to local factors. In Kunduz province in early eighties, fighters belonging to Jamiat-e-Islami killed many civilians on the suspicion of collaboration with the government. The result was that the whole population of the valley went over to the government and became the strongest group of militiamen. In Ghor province, a large number of fighters belonging to Harkat-e-Inqilab joined government militias to fight more effectively against their local rivals belonging to Hizb-e-Islami. In 1986, continuous fighting between Hizb-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Islami in northern area alienated the local population and 3,000 Uzbek families switched side to the government and became militia members.6 The orgy of bloodshed which followed was unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan. The fall of Khost in March 1991 was a classical example of the reincarnation of medieval thought process of the resistance. Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) deferred to the wishes of local commanders and modified their plans and reached an agreement about the distribution of the booty prior to assault. After the fall of Khost, everything went up in the air and resistance groups pillaged the town rather than administering it.7
After the fall of Najibullah in 1992, the interim set up was predominantly non-Pushtun. Pushtuns resented the coalition of Rabbani-Masud-Dostum which was entrenched in Kabul. Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat was aligned with Rabbani. Hikmatyar made the history by being the only Prime Minister in the world history who rather than coming to capital to assume his post preferred to encamp in the city suburb and periodically shell his capital with barrages of rockets resulting in much death and devastation. The former communist Pushtun defence minister, General Shahnawaz Tanai had earlier defected to Hikmatyar. Later, Pushtun supporters of Najibullah switched their allegiance to Hikmatyar.8 The ethnic and regional polarization was finalized with the defection of Khalqi Sarandoy Militia to Hikmatyar ranks. In 1994, Hikmatyar joined hands with Dostum to oust Masud from Kabul. Hizb-e-Wahdat conveniently dumped Rabbani-Masud government and jumped on the Dostum-Hikmatyar bandwagon. By that time, thoroughly disgusted by the fratricidal war, Pakistan was wooing Taliban in the south. Hikmatyar furious of being unceremoniously dumped by Pakistan did a somersault, joined Rabbani and came to Kabul in June 1996 to assume his post of prime minister. Later, when the Taliban came to the Kabul doors, he left for Iran. Nangarhar Shura led by Haji Abdul Qadeer governed the three eastern provinces. In an ambush, 70 of the key commanders of shura were killed and few hours later Taliban stormed the Jalalabad.9 In the north, in September 1997, a four way duel was going on between militias belonging to Dostum, Abdul Malik, Masud and Hizb-e-Wahdat in Mazar Sharif. The northern seesaw of battles ended when Taliban pacified the region with only remnants of resistance in small pockets.
The rise of Taliban was partly due to Pushtun frustrations. It was the historic phenomenon of coming together of Pushtun tribesmen at the time of crisis. Pushtuns of different inclinations either openly supported or approved of them. They created an ‘artificial unity among Pushtuns’.10 They started in the southern part of the country. After stabilizing their base in Kandahar, they moved outwards, first taking eastern cities and later Kabul and north of the country. The initial dramatic successes were partly due to the frustrations of general populace regarding total anarchy and infighting. Taliban rule brought the much-sought peace. The problem started when Taliban became more closely aligned with radical foreigners mainly Arabs and started to strictly enforce their version of religious law totally ignoring Afghan traditions. In this, Taliban resembled more like their communist predecessors. ‘Just as the isolation of Kabul based Marxist leaders from the lives of the rural poor led them to formulate unrealistic social programmes, so the cloistered society of the all-male madrasa has led the Taliban to create an idealized vision of Afghan villages unmoderated by the domestic influences of women, families, elders, and the everyday realities of tilling fields, tending flocks, and raising children’.11 After the September 11 attacks in United States, US came to Afghanistan with a heavy might to wrap up Taliban and flush out Osama bin Ladin and his network. The total rout of Taliban surprised everybody except those who are well versed with Afghan history. As one correspondent rightly pointed when he was watching US bombing from Northern Alliance frontlines that, ‘the cost of one of these bombs probably would have been enough to purchase the defection of every single Taliban commander in the trenches opposite’.12 Many non-Afghans who were fed on the stories of rhetoric and propaganda didn’t have the knowledge of inner dynamics of Afghan society. While a small core of committed individuals is still attached to Taliban leadership, the majority of general cadres had simply switched the sides to Taliban when they were in firm control. One Pakistani fighter who made it back to Pakistan after the fall of Taliban expressed his frustrations but correct ground realities in these words, “The only people who fought were the non-Afghans. Mullah Omar and his regime would not have fallen if his lieutenants were men of character. Afghans are venal”.13 It was ironic to see the pictures of Taliban fighters with black turbans, carrying same AK-47 rifles and riding in the same pick up trucks. The only difference was that instead of the white flag of Taliban, the old Afghan flag was wavering on the pick up truck and the fighters were smiling accompanied with US Special Forces personnel who were sharing the pick up truck with them. In December 2001, seeing the imminent demise of Taliban, several ministers and close associates defected and showed up in Pakistan. They formed a new party, Khuddamul Furqan Jamiat (KFJ). They publicly supported the interim Karzai government and stated that they will work with the Karzai government to ensure national reconciliation inside the country.
The post-Taliban Afghanistan is as complex and unpredictable as it was before. Various groups, factions and clans with different visions are put under one roof. In Kandahar, after initial tussle between Gul Agha and Maulvi Naqeebullah, Gul Agha emerged as the governor. He tried to get support of American troops to move against Ismael Khan in Herat but Karzai’s skills prevented that. In Paktia, the showdown between Badshah Khan Zardan and Saifullah Khan ended with Badshah Khan becoming governor of Paktia. His brother Kamal Khan is trying to outsmart his rival Zakim Khan Zadran in Khost. Interestingly, Kamal is from Paktia and Zakim is from Paktika thus complicating the regional and clan relations.14 Haji Abdul Qadeer is again the governor of Nangarhar province. In north, Dostum and Fahim are strengthening their position. In the media, only the fighting is getting the coverage. Behind the scene, many Afghans from all over the globe with different skills are trying to start the healing process of their devastated homeland. Many expatriates including teachers, doctors, economic experts have come to Afghanistan to help to re-build their country. The involvement of Afghans of different ethnic backgrounds and with variety of skills has rekindled the hope of a better and peaceful future for Afghanistan.
The former Chief of Staff (COS) of Zia, Lt. General (r) Syed Rafaqat pointed to the complex and conflicting aims of various regional players, “... Some neighbouring countries are supportive of various ethnic group’s claims and ambitions. The external states are using the ethnic and geographic fault lines of Afghanistan to mirror and advance their own geostrategic interests”.15 Many regional countries, which saw an unstable Afghanistan as a threat to their national interests tried to intervene for variety of reasons. This exercise rather than stabilizing the region resulted in more widespread involvement of external forces. The backing of different Afghan factions further fractured the Afghan society as various players could not accommodate the genuine desires of their competitors.
‘Pakistan may have to co-exist with a new government in Afghanistan that is not to its entire liking’.
General Khalid M. Arif
After Soviet invasion, Pakistan’s involvement with Afghanistan was limited to training, equipping and planning of operations for the resistance fighters to tie down Soviet Union in Afghanistan as no one expected that Soviets will leave. Later, when it became clear that Soviets may leave, Pakistan became more ambitious and worked to have a government in Afghanistan which is friendly to Islamabad. In 1988, when the Soviet withdrawal was imminent, ISI and CIA predicted that after Soviet withdrawal, the Najibullah regime will crumble quickly. In May 1988, Zia promised Congressman Charles Wilson that ‘I will give you Jalalabad as a Christmas present, with Hikmatyar in charge’.17 In 1989, during Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s first term in office, ISI embarked on the Jalalabad offensive to take the city as a base for interim government. At that time, both United States and Pakistan agreed on this plan but for different reasons. It was the wish of some hawkish Americans to see the outright bloody assault on major cities and seeing the humiliation of Soviets clinging to their helicopters as this would be the befitting revenge of Vietnam. On Pakistani side, some born again ‘holy warriors’ of defence establishment were dreaming of heading the victory parade and entering Kabul as modern day Saladin and to earn the lofty title of ‘Victors of Kabul’. ISI Chief, Lt. General Hamid Gul told the Afghan Cell (the meetings were attended by Prime Minister Benazir, her National Security Advisor, Iqbal Akhund, Chief of ISI and US ambassador) that the city could be taken in a week ‘if the government was prepared to allow for a certain degree of bloodshed’.18 Pakistanis were not too much concerned with the nuisance of bloodshed as it was mainly Afghan. Some astute Afghan commanders on the field were furious about ISIs decision of frontal attack of the city. One commander considered it a ‘dumb’ idea as it was dumb to lose ten thousand lives.19 In one commentator’s words, ‘a major Afghan war decision was taken by the Pakistanis with no Afghans present, but with the US ambassador looking on’.20 Many Afghans resented this blatant interference and several commanders were alienated. In October 1990 meeting of national commanders shura in Kunar, Afghans blocked the participation of ISI Chief Asad Durrani and opposed the ISI plan of direct attack on Kabul.21 By 1994, Pakistan was disgusted by the civil war and disappointed due to constant failures of their main ally, Hikmatyar and started to look for new ‘potential Pushtun proxies in Afghanistan’.22 Initially Benazir Bhutto’s Pushtun interior minister, Major General (r) Naseerullah Khan Babar did the ground breaking work. Later, ISI took the charge of providing logistic support and broker alliances of General Dostum, General Shahnawaz Tanai and former commander Jalaluddin Haqqani with Taliban. These alliances were vital and provided Taliban with necessary material and technical edge to defeat their rivals. In addition, the close alliance of Taliban with religious seminaries in Pakistan provided them with enough foot soldiers to fight at different fronts in Afghanistan. ISI instructed provincial governments of Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.) not to allow any political activities of Afghans who were against Taliban. Many anti-Taliban individuals were asked to leave Pakistan thus preventing any organized opposition to the Taliban.
After the September 11 attacks, when United States decided to take care of Osama bin Ladin and Taliban, Pakistan had to make a difficult decision. General Musharraf decided to distance itself from the fire in Afghanistan and supported US war efforts in the neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan after the unsuccessful attempts to convince Taliban of the gravity of the situation, worked with US in toppling them. In view of the dramatic shift in the Afghan policy, Pakistan now allowed anti-Taliban elements to organize their activities and open offices in Pakistan.23 Pakistani intelligence helped bring together various groups in Peshawar and Quetta and several members of Afghan diaspora in Europe and United States. This included pro-Zahir Shah elements, former commanders Abdul Haq, Haji Zaman, Syed Ahmad Gilani, General Rahim Wardak and Hamid Karzai. These efforts of Pakistani intelligence in coordination with CIA and the generous amount of money provided by US were crucial in neutralizing the southern and eastern Pushtun areas.
The main aim of Pakistan’s Afghan policy was to have a friendly government in Afghanistan to secure the Western border. Unfortunately, the policies, which it adopted, had exactly the opposite effects. None of the Afghan element was willing to subordinate its actions to Pakistan’s wishes. In fact, many Afghan groups developed contacts with various political groups and state institutions of Pakistan giving them leverage. In addition, Pakistan’s Afghan policy roused the suspicion of Pakistan’s traditional friends, i.e. China and Iran due to instability of the region. Ironically, some in Pakistan like Qazi Hussain Ahmad of Jamaat-e-Islami, who has worked closely with Afghans and Pakistani defence establishment are blaming the intelligence agencies with the benefit of hindsight. He stated, ‘Pakistan did not want to see the Afghan people deciding their fate independently’ and ‘were skeptical that if all Afghan people united under one leadership they would become master of their own fate, which in turn, could create trouble for Pakistan’.24 The events had a sobering effect on Pakistani establishment and have resulted in much pondering about the wisdom of following a shortsighted policy.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In early eighties due to its war with Iraq, Iran was not actively involved in Afghanistan. Iranian activities in Afghanistan quickly increased after the ceasefire with Iraq. The Shia groups who were bitter due to meagre financial and military support from Pakistan became close to Iran. Later some moderate Sunnis including Syed Ahmad Gilani, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Sibghatullah Mujjaddadi also became close to Iran. The eight resistance groups formed a ‘Coalition Council’ in Tehran. They told Cordovez in 1988 that they will not recognize any interim government set up in Peshawar.25 After the emergence of several Central Asian Republics (CARs) as independent countries in 1991, Iran was worried about the increased US influence in the area. This concern was legitimate as US has publicly announced several times its policy of isolating Iran. It was in this context that emergence of Taliban was seen with deep suspicion. Iran believed that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and US were cooperating in consolidating Taliban, which will be detrimental to Iranian interests in the area. This prompted more active Iranian financial and military support of the groups opposing Taliban. In 1998, the murder of Iranian diplomats when Taliban swept Mazar Sharif brought two countries to the verge of armed conflict.
When United States decided to attack Afghanistan, Iran knowing the proximity of a grave danger to its interests gave verbal support to US efforts. When Gulbadin Hikmatyar issued statements against the interim Afghan government, Iran moved quickly to close his offices in Iran. Iranian interior minister said that opponents of the government of Hamid Karzai ‘who take advantage of the security they enjoy in Iran to say what they like, could create tension between Iran and Afghanistan’.26 Hikmatyar was later asked to leave Tehran. Iran gave active financial, economic and military support to Ismael Khan who is well entrenched in Herat but stayed well away from any measure which would bring US ire. Iran also helped to set up direct contact of Ismael Khan with Pakistan government.
The main concern of the three CARs (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) bordering Afghanistan was the spill over of militants into their territories. They joined hands with Russia and China to forestall the destabilization of the whole region. Uzbekistan and Turkey had contacts with Dostum. Dostum took refuge in Turkey when Taliban ran over his fiefdom. Recently, Turkish government helped bridging the gap between Dostum and Pakistan.
Many countries especially United States and Saudi Arabia had played a large role especially in the last twenty years in the events in Afghanistan. Russia though major player until 1991 had markedly reduced influence since its disintegration into many independent states. It has given limited military help to the Taliban opposition and deployed troops in Tajikistan near the border of Afghanistan. It is suspicious of increasing US influence in the area traditionally seen by them as their area of influence but not in a position to challenge the US in any meaningful way. In addition, it is also concerned with the increasing influence of militant Islamists in Chechnya and Daghestan.
We expect men to be wrong about the most important changes through which they live.
In late seventies, Saudis were facing severe criticism for their close alliance with US both from Arab governments not in line with US policies and Iran. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Saudi-Iranian relations became hostile. Saudis used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a springboard to portray their commitment to Muslim causes and brush up their Islamic credentials. In early eighties in close cooperation with America, Saudi Arabia provided a large amount of financial aid for military and humanitarian purposes for Afghanistan. Several humanitarian organizations of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikdoms opened offices and ran clinics and hospitals in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia was able to develop direct relations with some resistance groups especially Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Hikmatyar. During the Gulf war, the support of Iraq by Hikmatyar and Sayyaf brought the ire of Saudis and they worked on new proxies. In 1991, about 7,000 tons of captured Iraqi military arms and ammunition including heavy equipment was delivered to Mujahideen.27 Pakistan had close working relations with all Sunni groups, most of them based in Peshawar. They never tried to bring Shia groups into the coalition to avoid friction with Saudis. After the cut off of US funds, Saudis became the largest provider of funds for Afghan adventure. The direct role of Saudi Arabia also dramatically increased. Chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki developed close relationship with ISI and some Afghan factions. He travelled frequently to Islamabad and Afghanistan. In July 1996, he visited Kandahar and Islamabad and was actively involved in the planning of fresh offensives of Taliban in close consultations with Taliban and ISI. Later, the warm relations between Taliban and Saudis hit the bottom when Taliban refused to cooperate on Osama bin Ladin issue. Saudi Arabia also funded many charitable institutions and religious seminaries in Pakistan. Saudis funded the most conservative individuals and organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ironically, most of them turned against the Saudi royal family and had openly criticized the royal family for its close relationship with US.
All wars end. I think that’s a universal rule. So one of these days this war too will end. Then I believe the pipeline will be secure. John Maresca, Vice President of UNOCAL for International Relations commenting on Afghan civil war in February 1998
President Carter had signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of pro-Soviet regime in Kabul in July 1979, about five months before the Soviet army entered Afghanistan. His national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote to him the same day that this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. When Soviets finally came in December 1979, Brzezinski wrote to Carter that ‘we now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war’.28 And the rest is history. Large-scale supply of arms and ammunition to Afghan resistance during the eighties was largely the CIA not so covert operation. After the Soviet withdrawal, CIA let ISI deal with the ugly mess of Afghanistan.
After the emergence of Central Asian Republics (CARs) as independent countries in 1991 and the prospects of availability of huge oil and gas reserves in the area brought that area to the attention of various energy corporations. In 1997, a multinational consortium, Central Asia Gas Pipeline Consortium (CentGas) was evaluating the construction of a gas pipeline. The proposed 790-mile pipeline will link Daulatabad gas field in Turkmenistan, pass through southern Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan. In the next stage, from Multan the pipeline will reach Delhi for the growing energy market of India. UNOCAL of California and Delta of Saudi Arabia was working on another 1040 mile long oil pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to a port to be constructed on the coast of Pakistan.29 Many members of President Bush team and Afghans involved in current situation have links with energy corporations. President Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice has been former member of the board of Chevron, a large US oil firm. Vice President Dick Cheney has headed Halliburton, a large oil pipeline construction firm. Laila Helms, an Afghan-American and niece-in-law of former CIA director Richard Helms was contact person between Taliban and UNOCAL and arranged for the visit of Taliban representatives to United States. The interim chief, Hamid Karzai has been an advisor to UNOCAL. He has been involved in negotiations of UNOCAL with Taliban. The former Reagan National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane runs a K-Street oil-consulting firm. He was working closely with Abdul Haq in the region after September 11. In fact, when Haq was trapped inside Afghanistan, McFarlane made frantic calls to CIA to rescue him. Taliban promptly executed Haq to discourage other potential troublemakers. This did not deterred Hamid Karzai who worked with various groups inside Afghanistan. The gathering of Afghans from all over the world in Bonn resulted in the temporary agreement on an interim government which will pave the way for the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) to deliberate on the future of Afghanistan. The dilemma of present interim government is that it has to have a sufficient distance from its American supporters so that Afghans do not perceive it as a puppet of US.
The major problem of Afghanistan is the relatively low level of Afghan nationalism. The internal conflict of last two decades with atrocities committed by all sides on ethnic rivals and forced displacements will make the task of rekindling the flame of nationalism more difficult. Only educated urban Afghans have enough nationalistic fervour to overcome strong underlying sub-national sentiments. This political instability is the major hindering factor in the resolution of differences among different groups. Political reconstruction is the essential pre-requisite for the economic reconstruction of the country. Afghanistan is at a major crossroad of its history today. The chain of events, which has led to the present situation, was beyond the control of Afghans. But now, it is Afghans who will have to do soul searching and make some difficult choices. It depends a lot on what are long-term objectives of United States. If their aim is short to medium range that after stabilization to a reasonable level, they will pull their troops out and may leave it to an international force dominated by Turkish troops, then Afghans may be more independent in their decision making in near future. On the contrary, if US decide that American troops are going to protect the potential oil and gas pipelines passing through Afghanistan, then choices for Afghans will be limited. This will ultimately bring the clash between US and some Afghan groups. The second scenario is less likely as due to domestic concerns, US may not be able to keep troops in Afghanistan for long even if it wished. Second, economically, the oil and gas pipelines are mainly corporate concerns and not US national concern, therefore the broad national support for continued long term troop deployment will be limited. The potential pipelines are mainly for emerging energy markets of Asia, not much for the rest of the world. Recent decision of British to gradually hand over the peacekeeping responsibility to Turkish troops is a sign that British and US would limit their direct troop involvement. Afghans have to do the mind-boggling calculations to decide which path to follow, which not only restores the dignity and morale of Afghan nation but also allays the fears of its immediate neighbours, Iran and Pakistan and satisfy the concerns of United States. On the positive side, a balanced and low key Afghan rejuvenation may bring a bright future for its new generation. Failure to achieve a modest stabilization may herald the nightmare of anarchy and bloodshed. Another round of orgy of blood may cause the division of Afghanistan at the Hindu Kush. The northern Tajik, Uzbek and Turkeman drifting toward their ethnic kins across the border while southern and eastern Pushtuns gravitating to Pushtuns across Durand line.
Consider not only present but future discords...... If one waits until they are at hand, the medicine is no longer in time as the malady has become incurable. Machiavelli