BOOK REVIEW: Lure of ‘power vacuum’ in Afghanistan —by Khaled Ahmed
When the ISI could not persuade, it became persuaded. To this day retired officers are backing the groups abandoned by Pakistan in sheer desperation
Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity, and State in Afghanistan;
By Rasul Bakhsh Rais;
Pp236; Price Rs 695
Rasul Bakhsh Rais is professor of political science in the Department of Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and has a PhD in political science from the University of California-Santa Barbara. He has produced a balanced account of developments in Pakistan’s neighbourhood that will determine the future of Pakistan. Pegged somewhere in the middle of the opposed external and internal narratives of Pakistan, he already seems to emerge as an opponent of the extremist reaction on both sides of the divide.
He is realistic about the mujahideen fielded by Pakistan and its international allies against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He knew the mujahideen alliance was never an alliance and was doomed to internecine failure. His view of the post-Soviet Kabul regime: “The Peshawar Accord for sharing power and constituting a coalition government began to show strain within months as multiple rivalries along ethnic, sectarian, and party lines pilled over into active and very deadly conflict in and around Kabul.” (p.43)
Taliban-Al Qaeda agenda and Pakistan: If Pakistan exercised some control over the mujahideen it evaporated in short order after the Peshawar Accord installed the new government in Kabul. And other neighbours, feeling threatened by Pakistan, stepped in too. (p.68) Most Pakistanis evaluate the mujahideen positively, forgetting that “intolerance of other sects and beliefs came as a part of religious training at early stages of their socialisation with sectarian-minded teachers and colleagues”. (p.76)
Al Qaeda latched on to the Pakistan-backed Taliban because Osama bin Laden needed a secure sanctuary from where he could plan and execute his political and military agenda; the Taliban leaders welcomed Al Qaeda on the alleged grounds that Al Qaeda members were ‘Islamic fighters’, ‘refugees’ seeking shelter against ‘tyrannical regimes’. (p.78) Iran, seeing the anti-Shia Taliban being attacked by America after 2001, ‘prudently avoided creating any trouble for the US forces”. (p.100) It rejoiced at two of its big enemies killing each other.
Piety flecked with poppy: The book navigates between the two versions available about the poppy ban by the Taliban. In Pakistan, the belief is that poppy disappeared under the Taliban. Dr Rais includes the external version that says that the Taliban leaders stockpiled 300 tons of refined heroin to corner the heroin market in Central Asia. The Taliban did not eliminate the stockpiles or the trade. (p.162) Writers like Ahmed Rashid rely on the UN agencies to record that the Taliban in fact cut back on poppy to shore up its price that had actually plummeted because of over-production. Dr Rais also makes an assessment of that view.
The most important aspect of the book is the section that takes a look at the regional perspective of the rise and fall of the Taliban and Pakistan’s management of the conflict in Afghanistan. It is a hardnosed assessment and indirectly rebukes Pakistan for formulating policy within the ISI which clearly had no clue where it was landing Pakistan. Reading the book and its examination of the complex map of regional interests one can only bemoan the short-sighted deployment of such low-IQ army officers as Col Imam as key figures in the Taliban-controlled territories.
The unhappy ‘other neighbours’: Iran feared the Taliban as arbiters of the political landscape of the country to their advantage: “It therefore made all efforts to ensure a greater representation for the Shia group in any future political institutions of the Mujahideen resistance. Pakistan did recognise Iran’s interest in Afghanistan and regularly consulted Iran on all political and diplomatic initiatives. Curiously, Iran absented itself from the Geneva negotiations that aimed to settle the Afghan problem, insisting that the Mujahideen parties should be represented at the negotiating table instead of neighbouring states.” (p.179)
There were other regional factors too: “Pakistan faced tremendous difficulties from its Islamic neighbours and the Afghan opposition to the Taliban rule. Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban movement. Iran…was quite vehement in peddling the theory that Saudi Arabia and the United States financed the Taliban movement and Pakistan played the role of an intermediary between the Taliban and these countries”. (p.189) Today the entire Pakistani population thinks the US actually brought the Taliban to power, including Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad alias Billa of the ISI on a TV channel on August 19, 2009.
Shutting the door on ECO: If any of Dr Rais’ colleagues at LUMS believe that ECO was a great organisation and still holds promise of a kind of Islamic Common Market, they should read the following: “Rivalry with Iran and Central Asian state grew more intense and became unmanageable. Since the world community saw Taliban rule as extremely harsh, medieval, and discriminatory toward women and minorities, Pakistan’s association with them caused major image and policy problems for Pakistan.” (p.191)
Today, it is not only Iran from the original RCD which is covertly fighting Pakistan in Afghanistan together with India, it is also NATO member Turkey that shelters warlord Rashid Dostam and is aligned with India to oppose any future power projection of Pakistan riding on the Pashtun factor.
Persuade or become persuaded: The plight of Pakistan was actually far worse. It had failed to bring the mujahideen to heel on its policy against the Soviets. When the ISI could not persuade, it became persuaded. To this day retired officers are backing the groups abandoned by Pakistan in sheer desperation. Pakistan had a policy that never stopped slipping from its hands. The entire infrastructure of jihadi organisations led by semi-criminal clerics was fire handled by low-IQ officers that burned the hands of the state. The officers justified themselves by abandoning the state amid public applause. And today even the army chief may walk in fear.
The book says: “The United States, European countries, and even China, its closest ally, were offended by Pakistan’s failure to influence policy or politics of the Taliban on any issue. Even in the face of international isolation and harsh criticism Pakistan found it extremely difficult to extricate itself from the pro-Taliban policy, changing it only after Al Qaeda terrorists with links in Afghanistan struck on 9/11”. (p.191)
Power vacuum calls again: There should be an overhaul of Pakistan’s future strategy aimed at discrediting the slogan in Pakistan asking the US and NATO forces to quit Afghanistan as a precondition of peace. Take the following observation of Dr Rais: “Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Pakistan, have for long exploited the internal fragmentation and inter-group rivalry to advance their own strategic interests. The situation of Afghanistan after the departure of the Taliban with the international community’s focus on economic and political reconstruction is radically different. At the moment, Afghanistan’s neighbours are somewhat neutralised by the presence of American forces and those of other partners of the coalition against terrorism.” (p.213)
This news has not yet reached Pakistan. But after reading the book Pakistan should dread the power vacuum that will be created if the US and NATO forces quit Afghanistan as demanded by every TV anchor and defence expert in Pakistan. This time the regional neighbours are ready for power projection by the Pakistani strategists on the basis of another capitulation to the Taliban. India and Iran are allies, India has invested $1.2 billion in Afghanistan, has 4,000 workers on ground, a mountain regiment to protect them, and a military air base in nearby Tajikistan to welcome Pakistan’s next bout of strategic depth. (Daily Times)