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Afghanistan Post-2014: the Pashtun Factor

Ambassador Prabhat P. Shukla

There is an effort among some western commentaries – taken up and amplified by the Pakistanis - to try and project the situation in Afghanistan as a proxy war between India and Pakistan. The drumbeat of this thesis grows as the draw-down of western forces from Afghanistan draws near. Such a view sounds strange to Indian ears, for we were labouring under the belief this last decade that it was a straight, though covert, fight between the US and Pakistan.

And that is how, moreover, people like Negroponte and Mullen projected it too – and you would expect them to know. However, it is important to understand the reality of what is happening in Afghanistan, and for that, the narrative must begin some decades back.

To anticipate the conclusions of this essay: one, the fight is not between India and Pakistan. Ever since 1947, India has kept out of Afghan-Pakistan affairs, and Afghanistan has kept out of Indo-Pakistan affairs.

Two, the fight is between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has its own logic, going back to the dispute over the Pashtun issue, with Baluchistan also steadily in focus. It has acquired an additional facet in recent years, since Afghanistan has no interest in becoming any other country’s “strategic depth” – indeed, deeply resents the idea, and rejects the Pakistani military push behind the concept.

Three, Afghanistan has become a battleground indeed, between Pakistan [aided occasionally by outside powers] on the one hand, and the USSR, the US, and Afghan nationalism by turns.

And four, and most important, there is a coded message behind this analysis. The message is that Pakistan is going to continue to meddle in Afghan affairs, and seek once more to inject the Taliban, in their newest iteration, into Afghanistan, and no one should oppose this. India is simply shorthand for the fact that all the neighbours of Afghanistan – Iran, the Central Asians, and countries like India and Russia – are concerned at the ceaseless sponsorship of terror and extreme groups by Pakistan. If they oppose Pakistan, that becomes a proxy war.

The Afghans themselves want none of this Pakistani interference, but that is also conveniently skipped over. The truth is, if Pakistan does not promote the extremist Islamic groups, there will be no push-back from the Afghans or anybody else; it is entirely emblematic that in all this lofty talk about avoiding a proxy war, the Pakistanis refrain from mentioning anything about their solemn, repeated – and repeatedly broken – promises of non-interference.

The history of the face-off is well-known: Afghanistan never accepted the Durand Line which divided Pashtun from Pashtun, and this was made clear to the British authorities from the 1920’s onwards. By 1944, when it was clear that the British were to withdraw from India, the Kabul authorities asked the British Government in London to allow the Pashtuns in British India to choose to accede to Afghanistan or opt for independence as well; instead, they were only given the choice to accede to India or Pakistan. The number of registered voters was a fraction of the total population, and even among them, the support for accession to Pakistan was barely above 50 percent. The hill tribes, who are in the centre of the fighting today, were not allowed to vote because they were not considered part of the administered territories.

Pakistan showed its militant colours within a few months of its independence – it sent “raiders” in September 1947 to the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir [violating the stand-still agreement it had signed earlier with the state] from the Pashtun areas. Already, as early as 1947, Pakistan was seeking to portray this operation as an Islamic campaign, a jihad. Afghanistan was opposed to the use of the Pashtun tribes for this purpose, and the Afghan ulema responded with a fatwa denying that there was any need for a jihad against the Indians and denying any religious sanction for the campaign. This was done in the context of preventing Pakistan from exercising influence over the mountain tribes in the North-West Frontier Province, which was not Pakistani territory in their eyes.

The subsequent two decades saw frequent tensions over the Pashtun question between the two countries, and even saw a limited skirmish in 1963. As a result of this last, King Zahir Shah dismissed his Prime Minister and cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan. In turn, Daoud overthrew the King a decade later in 1973, and thus began a new era in South Asian history – not only because it ended the Durrani monarchy, but also because it saw the first formal launch of jihad in the subcontinent.

This happened in the summer of 1973 itself, and it was declared by Jalaluddin Haqqani – of the now-famous Haqqani network - against the government of Daoud, which had taken a high-profile position on the Pashtun question. The call to jihad was given practical shape by a Pakistani, Naseerullah Babar, himself a Pashtun, who was then serving as the Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps. It was he who advised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that the solution to the Pashtun problem lay in overwhelming Afghan irredentism by using the Islamic card. He sprang some of the important Islamic leaders from Kabul, whose names read like a who’s who of the anti-Soviet war of the 1980’s: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Noor Mohammed Mohammedi, and others. At this stage, the Islamists were not all Pashtuns – the heavy reliance particularly on Ghilzai Pashtuns was to come later, under Gen Zia-ul-Haq. But the idea of using Islam as a weapon to blunt the Pashtun nationalist issue both internally and vis-à-vis Afghanistan was born at this time. In part, this was based on Pakistan’s use of the Islamic card to motivate the tribes in the north-west; in part, it was based on the experience of 1971 in the former East Pakistan, when the Islamists had remained loyal to Pakistan, while the Bengali nationalists were motivated by their regional identity.

This group launched an uprising against Daoud centred in Panjsher in 1975, though it covered other parts of the country too. Daoud was shaken by the event, and gradually began to re-think his strategy towards Pakistan, including on the Durand Line. In his interaction with the Americans, he indicated a willingness to seek an accommodation with Pakistan. The Shah of Iran, flush with petrodollars and as suspicious of the Soviet Union as Bhutto and the Americans, also helped by offering economic assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The only fly in the ointment was Daoud’s fear that the USSR would seek to destabilise him if he tried to change course. In a long and serious conversation with Secretary of State Kissinger in Kabul in August 1976, he informed the latter that he and Bhutto were close to a settlement of the Pashtun and Baluch questions. The only guarantee he asked for – and was assured of by Kissinger – was support against internal subversion by the supporters of the Soviet Union, especially the Soviet-trained officers in the Armed Forces. A quick exchange of visits took place between Bhutto and Daoud in 1976, and there was indeed every prospect of a settlement.

Before a deal could be settled, Bhutto called for elections in 1977 and, in the turmoil that followed the rigged elections, the Pakistan Army stepped in once again, in July 1977, and Gen Zia became the military ruler. Although he seemed to be inclined to pick up the threads where they had been left off by Bhutto, he did not have the time to do anything substantive: Daoud himself was overthrown in April 1978, and the US guarantees proved unavailing.

The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan [PDPA], which came to power, was indeed propelled into power by Soviet-trained officers from the Armed Forces, and once again raised the Pashtun issue as a high priority. And once again, Pakistan responded by unleashing the Islamic forces – this time with a heavy reliance on the Pashtuns, and the Ghilzai Pashtuns in particular. The USSR responded to the worsening situation in Afghanistan by sending in its own troops into the country in December 1979, and a new Afghan war began, pitting the Soviet forces against pretty much all the regional and global powers.

Through the 1980’s, the Pakistanis controlled and guided the anti-Soviet campaign. It was one of the conditions that they imposed on the Americans that the ISI would control the funds, arms and training of the insurgents. This is worth analysing in substantive terms, because it showed that the Pakistanis were clear that the ultimate winners would have to be beholden to them and to no one else, not even the Americans. Further, because they had suffered bad relations with the Durrani Pashtuns – Zahir Shah and Daoud were both Durranis, as were the earlier Kings since Abdur Rehman signed the first agreement on the Durand Line – they were determined to do their utmost to block the emergence of any Durrani to power in Kabul.

An interesting incident illustrates this Pakistani attitude of mind: in March 1979, before the Soviet invasion, a group led by Gul Mohammed, a Barakzai [a Durrani] had made significant progress against the PDPA forces in Herat. The Soviets and the Afghan Army hit back with ferocity against the fall of Herat, and the rebels turned to Pakistan for help, but were rebuffed. Pakistan was building up the Ghilzai to oppose the Soviets, and almost the entire top leadership of the Seven Party Alliance belonged to this branch of the Pashtuns.

Shortly before he died in August 1988 in a plane crash, Gen Zia stated that Pakistan had earned the right to have a friendly government in Kabul. “We won’t permit it to be like it was before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and claims to our territory." This was said as the Geneva accords were being worked out, and reflected one of the most important motivations behind the Pakistani strategies towards Afghanistan. No longer would Pakistan permit, to the extent possible, any claims on its Pashtun lands by the rulers in Kabul.

This approach survived Zia; in fact, it reflects the current national consensus, public demurrals notwithstanding. Naturally, therefore, as early as 1989, Pakistan made its bid to capture power and pushed Hikmatyar into a pitched battle in Jalalabad. The widely-held expectation, and not just in Pakistan, was that the Najibullah government would crumble, but it fought off the Hizb forces of Hikmatyar. In retrospect, this was not surprising, because Hikmatyar’s record during the 1980’s was quite patchy, whereas the PDPA forces were well-trained and -equipped. The Soviet Union had also continued to provide financial aid amounting to $3 billion annually to Najibullah even after 1989, and it was only after the collapse of the USSR and the rise of Yeltsin as Russian President that the financial aid was stopped. Within three months of this, Najibullah was gone.

Even then, the replacement was not the kind of government that Pakistan would be satisfied with, for the two pillars of the new regime were Massoud and Dostum. Both had stayed away from Pakistan during the war against the Soviets, so neither was beholden to Pakistan in any way. Moreover, neither was a Pashtun, and this too was unacceptable to the Pakistani leaders, especially to the security establishment.

The story of the rise of the Taliban from 1994 onwards is well-known, and the only point worth emphasizing is the role of the self-same Naseerullah Babar, now the Interior Minister under Benazir Bhutto. It was he who put together the Taliban force in 1994, with the intention of capturing the western parts of Afghanistan. The aim at this stage was to have a swathe of territory under their control which would allow Pakistan, in cooperation with the Central Asian hydrocarbon-rich countries, to set up trading links with the rest of the world. A US hydrocarbon company, Unocal, also contributed to this effort. The strategic objective was to block Iran and Russia from any role in this trade. This was despite the fact that, as far as Russia was concerned, all the existing pipelines ran through Russia or Russian-controlled territory. This was also despite the fact that, apart from Russia, Iran was the most economical route for evacuating the oil and gas from Central Asia.

What we see thus is that the stakes in Afghanistan have changed since the days of the Soviet occupation. For the US, it was initially the need to beat back the Soviet Union, and to undermine the unity of that country, and they succeeded in their strategy. For this purpose, they were willing to use the obscurantist forces that Pakistan had nurtured, even though they were aware that at least some of them were anti-West and specifically anti-US as well. But they felt then that they could control the fallout, especially with a friendly Pakistan to keep things under control. The Chinese feel the same way today, and are comfortable seeing the US humiliated in Afghanistan.

However, by the 1990’s, with the destruction of the USSR complete, the stakes had changed, and the US strategy was to impose a double blockade for trade and strategic purposes – against Russia and Iran. This was conceived and driven by the US, and embraced willingly by Pakistan in the South and Central Asian regions. It is worth emphasising that India had virtually no role in any of this. Its hands were full dealing with internal security issues, the need for ensuring economic growth, and later, addressing the diplomatic fallout of its nuclear tests.

India got involved only after the rise of the Taliban and the fall of Kabul, and in this it was not alone; this was an issue that touched nearly every country both in the region, and in the wider world. It is worth emphasising one important aspect of the militant movements in what has now come to be called the AfPak region: this is the growth of extremism, from generation to generation. The Taliban of the 1990’s made the mujahideen of the Rabbani-Mujaddidi type look reasonable. The TTP and the other militant groups of today have similarly outflanked the Afghan Taliban and are making the Quetta Shura look comparatively weak and peaceable. And now we have the ISIL. This point is worth exploring in some detail.

The current militant movement is more ideologically motivated than any of the earlier groups. The growth of this new ideology has been well-documented, and it is recognised as the fastest-growing among all the competing terrorist threats in the world. Their belief, which is widespread in several Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, derives from the Hadith regarding end-times. According to this, the war in Afghanistan is the prophesied Battle for Khorasan, and of course, they believe that their armies will be victorious. This Battle will embrace not just today’s Afghanistan, but also Iran and Central Asia. This will be followed by the Ghazwa-i-Hind – the campaign for India – which will cover today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as parts of the surrounding countries. This will be followed by the battle to liberate the Holy Places, Mecca, Medina, and al-Quds [Jerusalem]. And that will lead to the restoration of the true world-wide Caliphate.

Such is the new ambition among the terrorist groups, and many of their spokesmen – inevitably men, of course – are willing to speak publicly about the contemporary relevance of these prophecies. What it means for them, and their patrons in Pakistan, who are playing this dangerous game with themselves and the entire region, is that there is an enormous amount of warfare to come. This suits Pakistan very well. These fighting forces are mainly Pashtuns, who would otherwise be looking to settling the Pashtun question. However, as long as they are doing what they see as Allah’s work in subduing lands that rightfully belong to Him, they will not look to issues such as their own national and territorial rights. And in this, they will continue to enjoy the support of the Pakistan Army and the ISI. The growth of violence and extremism within the country is a price worth paying for keeping these forces oriented outward.

The Pashtuns, along with the Kurds, are the two largest, most populous tribes in the world that have no homeland of their own. It is estimated that there are some 45 million Pashtuns in the world, and they have all the attributes of a nation. They have the language, tradition and culture of nationhood, and recent memory of having ruled large parts of the region. This is what Daoud and the PDPA rulers were playing on; simultaneously, the Pakistanis were turning them towards Islam and jihad, with the calculation that this would raise their sights above narrower Pashtun territorial demands. In this, Pakistan has been successful, perhaps too successful. The Islamist forces they have let slip have become increasingly disenchanted with the Pakistani state, and regard it as un-Islamic, hence itself a target for jihad.

This is why it would be ahistorical to expect the Islamist forces to come to a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Government. The Taliban have, for example, in fact, declared that the new Afghan Government is unacceptable to them, and they will not accept anything less than a truly Islamic Government, which will follow Sharia in its true form.

For its part, Pakistan, especially in its current debilitated shape, cannot afford to let the Islamists lower their ambition, for then the Pashtun Question will be back in an even more aggravated form, and this time led by well-trained, and motivated fighters who will pose a serious challenge to the Pakistani state and its security forces. It will, therefore, have no interest in a negotiated settlement. What is more, these jihadi forces are the only asset Pakistan has in the politics of the region; if they were to give this up, they would have no value left. They do not have the financial or diplomatic wherewithal, or the soft power, to play any positive role in the neighbourhood.

This also explains why the Pakistanis are opposed to any arms for the ANSF beyond those that a constabulary would have. The Islamists must be able to make the military breakthroughs they need to expand north and west into all parts of Afghanistan, and from there, into Xinjiang, Iran and Central Asia. Only a strong and well-trained ANSF can thwart these strategies. For exactly obverse reasons, the rest of the world needs to ensure that the ANSF is capable of defending the country.

If there were any doubts about this analysis, recent events in Iraq should quell them.

Iraq provides an illustration of the kind of problem that may arise if the ANSF turn out to be under-equipped for the coming tests of strength. The way the Iraqi Army melted away in the face of the ISIL should be an object lesson for the rest of the world. The western and Arab countries were forced back into the fight, and the same will happen in Afghanistan if adequate preparation is not made for the coming trials.

What this narrative has shown is that Pakistan has been nurturing and promoting Islamic extremist forces since the early 1970’s, and not because it was fighting any proxy war with India. The reason was, and remains, the unsettled Pashtun question, for which Pakistan sought an Islamic answer. In the bargain, it has had to resort to growing extremism, and it has to continue to fan it the interests of its own survival. Therefore, any statement that it is willing to moderate its outlook, or to curb the extremists it has nurtured needs to be discounted completely.

Further, the threat posed by these forces is to all the neighbours of Afghanistan, including Russia and China. It is thus no India-Pakistan face-off. To the extent that Indian interests are affected, it will, of course, defend them. But as Iraq again has shown, the interests of the wider world community are also going to be hit, and the other affected countries need to be prepared for this.

Pakistan knows all this well enough, as do the puzzling, though dwindling, number of its supporters in the west. The real message behind this kind of writing is preemptive: Pakistan is going to make another bid for its proxies to gain complete dominance over Afghanistan once again, and countries like India should not stand in the way. That is the true meaning of the talk of a proxy war. It overlooks the reality that the war against Pakistani attempts to dominate Afghanistan will be fought by the Afghans themselves. And in this, they will be supported not only by India, but all of the near and distant neighbours.

New Delhi,

October 2014

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