by Ayaz Amir
The Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989 was a triumph for our military establishment. The ISI and the Zia regime, while not solely responsible for that outcome, had helped bring it about. But the American pullout from Afghanistan, now underway and to be completed in about a year’s time, far from being any kind of triumph looks set to be a disaster…one for which we are wholly unprepared.
Afghanistan in 1989 was a simpler proposition, the highs and lows of it etched in black and white. Afghanistan in 2013 is a place infinitely more complicated and dangerous…not just for itself but for us as well.
This is because of one vital difference. Afghanistan then was a country contained within its borders. Afghanistan now, to our misfortune, is stretched across the Durand Line. Ask yourself two simple questions: (1) Are the Taliban based in Fata more loyal to Mullah Omar or to the state of Pakistan? (2) Is North Waziristan, in real terms, more a part of Pakistan or Afghanistan?
The Afghan ‘mujahideen’ in 1989 exulted over the circumstance that they had defeated one superpower. Now they can lay claim to a far bigger triumph. Forget about the Afghan Taliban. Does any fool think that when the Americans have drunk fully from their cup of humiliation, the Pakistani Taliban will be in a more penitent mood, ready to settle for modest or moderate terms with the hapless representatives of the Pakistani state? What world of fantasy and make-believe are we living in?
We can fit that old proverb to our circumstances: with friends like the United States who needs enemies? The Americans made life difficult for us by coming to Afghanistan in 2011. They will make life more difficult for us by leaving the job they came to do not just half-done but utterly undone. The Taliban before were just an Afghan phenomenon, a curiosity to be observed from afar. Thanks to our American friends they are now just as much a Pakistani phenomenon.
And we will have to deal with this phenomenon not in the remote future but in a year’s time. When President Obama first said that American troops would be out by 2014, it seemed such a distant date. Now it’s upon us and, far from being prepared, we are seeing to it that we bury our heads deeper into the sand, with sundry paladins saying we must talk peace with the Taliban without being at all clear what this would entail.
Forget for a moment the modalities of peace talks, whether in the mountains or Doha or wherever. Can the knights proposing talks with the Taliban just spell out the terms of a likely settlement? We need some clarity here, not woolly statements…specific outlines of a settlement that would be good for Pakistan. If capable of this clarity, they should not waste a minute. If not, then perhaps it would be best not to brandish olive branches which can only encourage the Taliban and confuse our own forces risking their lives in the killing fields of Fata.
There has been no greater apologist for the Taliban than Imran Khan. Yet when he wanted to march to North Waziristan the Taliban would not allow him. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a self-appointed mediator for talks with the Taliban. Yet the Taliban, in so many words, have made it clear they want to have nothing to do with him.
Do we take the Taliban to be a bunch of kids? They have been fighting the Pakistan army and air force for the last so many years. Having held out for so long will they settle for any kind of lollipops when, across the Hindukush mountains, vindication is so close at hand for their brethren under Mullah Omar from whom they derive their inspiration? And from whom besides inspiration they will derive more physical strength once the Americans are out of Afghanistan.
Are we in a position to dictate terms or negotiate from a position of strength? Quite apart from the balance of military forces, is there any internal cohesion on our side? If there are elements in Pakistani society hostile to the Taliban, there is no shortage of elements sympathetic to them. The Taliban suffer from no such confusion. We need no videos from the Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, to tell us that they are united in their aim: the recasting of the Pakistani state along lines prescribed by their own version of Islam.
What Swat was under Mullah Fazlullah, what North Waziristan is under Hakeemullah Mehsud, what the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan will be under Mullah Omar, is what they would like the whole of Pakistan to be. And don’t forget that their support network in the form of friendly seminaries and friendly religious parties is now spread across Pakistan.
The MQM may have its own sins to answer for but it is not crying wolf when it says that spreading areas of Karachi are now Taliban-dominated, with their own jirgas to settle local disputes. Indeed, the Taliban are stepping into the shoes of the Awami National Party. And the MQM while not without its own power will, in times to come, be no match for these veterans of multiple jihads.
So the dynamics of the national situation are changing and we remain blissfully unaware. This is strategic depth in reverse; not Afghanistan our depth but Pakistan with its religious parties and Taliban sympathisers becoming, oh scary thought, an extension of Afghanistan. Does this sound too apocalyptic? But then could anyone have imagined in 2001 that in a few years’ time North Waziristan would become a no-go area where our military boots would fear to tread? Or that the spectre of Vietnam would come to haunt Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is only living up to its reputation of being the graveyard of empires. But who told us to play with fire there? Now it’s just not our fingers that are being burnt but much more.
Of this tangled skein we are the luckless inheritors, successors of course to the British but, at a remove, successors also to the kingdom of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. His was a secular kingdom but let’s not get into that minefield here. More to the point, he kept the Afghans at a distance. We have been less successful than him in our Afghan policy. Our military commanders talk strangely of training Afghan troops. Our own house in disorder, we have the hubris to offer free advice to others.
And as the Americans prepare to leave, forget all the hogwash about their continued interest in our affairs. A skeletal relationship will of course survive but we will be largely on our own, with the rupee in free-fall and the Taliban on the march, in spirit if not otherwise. This about sums up our predicament.
That is why 2013 is so crucial for us, for the governing arrangement that emerges from the coming elections will be the stewards of our discontent when the Americans are out and the Taliban are dreaming of duplicating in Pakistan their victory that side of the Durand Line.