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Design or Consequence of US Policy?

The Re-Talibanization of Afghanistan

by ABID MUSTAFA

Lately, relations between Kabul and Islamabad have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Hamid Karzai has accused Pakistan of spurring the Taliban to carry out attacks against his fledgling government and the NATO troops that defend it. He is not alone in holding Pakistan responsible for the re-emergence of the Taliban. NATO commanders, the New York Times and the International Crisis Group (ISG) have all pointed the finger at Pakistan for fomenting the Pushtoon resistance that shows no sign of abating.

On its part, the Musharraf government vehemently denies such accusations and continues to blame Karzai’s government for its failure to include the Taliban and other militants as part of the national reconciliation drive. It must be stressed here"Pakistan is almost isolated on its present stance"evidence to the contrary shows that Islamabad has actively nurtured Taliban fighters to reassert their authority on towns and villages ceded to US led forces in the aftermath Taliban’s collapse during the winter of 2001.

Oddly enough, the Whitehouse instead of holding Islamabad to account has thrown its weight behind the Pakistani government and has suggested that a more collaborative approach between Islamabad and Kabul would stymie the rising militancy in Afghanistan. Washington’s ambivalent attitude raises the question; is America encouraging the emergence of Taliban as a way of extricating itself from Afghanistan?

The answer lies in the Afghan coalition America cobbled together to ouster Taliban. Back then, the Bush administration believed that the Northern Alliance (NA) could be used as an instrument to remove the Taliban from power, subdue the Pushtoon resistance, and bring stability to Afghanistan. But just the opposite occurred on all three fronts. From the outset of the Bonn Conference it became plainly clear that the NA was rife with internal rancour and prone to outside influences of Russia and Europe. America, having spent millions of dollars buying the fickle loyalty of warlords was left with no option, but to counter the Pushtoon resistance on her own. If this was not bad enough"America’s association with the NA enraged the Pushtoons further who felt politically isolated and indignant towards the Tajik-Uzbek dominated government in Kabul. As a result, a violent rebellion erupted against Karzai and his US masters. The epicentre of the rebellion quickly became the strip of land known as the Pakistani tribal belt that abuts Afghanistan. Fighters from all over Afghanistan opposed to the occupation sought refuge here and mingled freely with the remnants of Taliban and other Pashtoons disillusioned with American promises of a better Afghanistan.

Unable to quell the resistance, America had to change tack. In 2003 acting under the tutelage of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Khalilzad, Karzai adopted a two prong approach to suppress the resistance. He offered an olive branch to moderate Taliban fighters and declared an all out assault against hardened Pashtoon militants and their backers. The intention was to shore up Karzai’s beleaguered government with moderate elements of the resistance movement and to win the support of tribal elders on both sides of the Afghan-Pak border. The longevity of any government in Kabul is dependant upon the support of the Pashtoons. In Karzai’s case, his constituency was diminishing and support base dwindling.

America was fully aware that the Pushtoon uprising could not be defeated unless the support structures for waging guerrilla warfare against US forces were destroyed, especially those located in Pakistan’s tribal belt region or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). After all, it was with American money and know-how that the military infrastructure was meticulously assembled by Pakistan’s ISI. Training camps strewn across the region were established to arm and train Afghans to wage asymmetric war against the Soviets. Not surprisingly then, America turned to enlist Pakistan to deploy its army to the restless tribal areas. Musharraf promptly obliged, and in 2004 under the pretext of fighting foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, military operations commenced in South and North Waziristan agencies.

However, the Pakistani military forays into the tribal region yielded very little success for the Americans. Instead, the Pakistan army suffered high causalities"some ranks even experienced mutiny; Musharraf, America’s stalwart in region lost credibility; the Pashtoon resistance increased in ferocity, the government in Kabul looked ever shakier and for the first time the prospect of defeat in Afghanistan troubled American officials. Confronted with these realities America decided to resurrect the Taliban. Pakistan swiftly abandoned military force and hurriedly concluded peace pacts with pro-Taliban tribal elders in the agencies.

Taliban buoyed by Pakistan’s apparent turn around, extended their reach further into Pakistan and made Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan an additional mainstay for their activities. Here they began to rearm and recruit young men from religious seminaries, replenish their front lines with valuable supplies for the planned spring offensive next year. Some of the new recruits were given senior positions in preference to old Taliban warriors whose loyalty could no longer be guaranteed by Pakistan’s ISI. Thus the Taliban were swiftly transformed from a rag-tag band of men into a force to be reckoned with. This boosted their capability to lead the Pushtoon resistance in many parts of Afghanistan. NATO was the first international organisation to borne the full brunt of a rejuvenated Taliban movement. Some members of NATO were surprised by the intensity and the magnitude of the resistance. UK’s Defence Secretary Des Brown said," We do have to accept that it’s been even harder than we expected."

America deftly exploited the upsurge in attacks against NATO troops to press home to alliance members at the NATO summit in Riga, the need to permanently redefine the organisation’s mission, approve proposed amendments to its charter, establish a 25,000 strong rapid reaction force, and to increase troop levels to buttress NATO operations in Afghanistan. At the Riga summit Bush said,"The Taliban radicals who are trying to pull down Afghanistan’s democracy and regain power saw the transfer from American to NATO control as a window of opportunity to test the will of the AllianceToday Afghanistan is NATO’s most important military operation, and by standing together in Afghanistan, we’ll protect our people, defend our freedom, and send a clear message to the extremists the forces of freedom and decency will prevail."

Nonetheless, the NATO mission in Afghanistan exposed deep fissures"over political and operational issues" amongst some of the older members of the alliance. France was unequivocal in its condemnation to make NATO duplicate functions of the UN, while Britain, America’s closet alley expressed dismay at Pakistan’s endeavours to revive the Taliban. UKs Ministry of Defence intentionally leaked a report that revealed the extent to which Pakistan’s ISI was providing assistance to the Taliban thereby contributing to the death of British soldiers in southern Afghanistan. The disclosure was supposed to embarrass Musharraf on his visit to London who promptly proceeded to reject the allegation that ISI was a rogue institution acting separately from the army. He said, "ISI is a disciplined force, breaking the back of al-Qaida."

To redress the short-sightedness of Britain’s NATO policy in Afghanistan, Blair visited Pakistan in November, and again urged Musharraf to put a halt to the rise of the Taliban. The gravity of the deteriorating situation facing Britain’s armed forces was summed up in a speech given by Blair at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. Blair said, "Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of world security in the early twenty-first century is going to be played out." Earlier, Bush had described Iraq and not Afghanistan"central to the ideological struggle of the 21st century. The difference in Anglo-American perspectives underscores America’s belief that General Musharraf will stabilise Afghanistan for them.

On the battle front, acute differences have surfaced between American and British commanders. Britain ignored American sensibilities and urged her ally Mohammed Daud the governor of Helmand to and secure the retreat of British forces from the town of Musa Qala via a peace deal with the Taliban. But the Americans publicly criticised the truce in Musa Qala and other Helmand towns, saying they effectively gave in to the Taliban. Exasperated by British tactics, the Americans instructed Karzai to remove Daud from power. "The Americans knew Daud was a main British ally," one official told The Independent on Sunday, "yet they deliberately undermined him and told Karzai to sack him." Americans have also been irked by the British commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards. On 10/12/06 the British paper Independent on Sunday reported that the American supreme commander of NATO, General Jim Jones, has let it be known, according to sources, that General Richards "would have been sacked if he had been an American officer".

Away from the battle field, the Pakistani political establishment confident of a Taliban victory come next spring, has begun to instil momentum in the idea that NATO must consult the Taliban prior to any political settlement. On 30/11/06 Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the Pakistan’s foreign affairs committee, told a visiting delegation of British Parliamentarians: "There has to be negotiations, a dialogue with all elements of Afghan society"ethnic or political, including, frankly, members of the resistance." Latif Khosa, of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party said,"You have to open avenues for talking with the Taliban." Speaking before the press, Foreign Office Spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said, "The international community must encourage national reconciliation and undertake an extensive reconstruction programme for South and Southeast Afghanistan."

It appears that America’s plan is to exploit the Taliban to take the helm of the indigenous Afghan resistance, invest the battle field gains made by the resistance into a political process, which recognises the Pushtoon’s popular base, but is cognisant of other ethnic groups’ concerns; then convene an international conference to forge a comprehensive settlement pertaining to Afghanistan and the interference from its neighbours. The pertinent issues will be the composition of the new government in Kabul, the continuation of US bases, the resolution of the border disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, resettlement of Afghan refugees and the successful integration of FATA into mainstream Pakistani life.

In this way, US policy makers hope to stabilise Afghanistan and use as a conduit for transporting the rich energy reserves of the Caspian region, conducting military incursion into the former Soviet Republics, thwarting Russian and Chinese expansions into Central Asia and foiling the re-establishment of the Caliphate. However, the success of this plan depends upon factors which may no longer be in Washington’s control such as can the Pashtoons be trusted, will the Europeans tolerate a Taliban dominated government in Kabul, and will the Russian and Chinese remain quiet as they did after 9-11.

As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned they have been duped by General Musharraf into believing that Pakistan had no choice, but to disown the Taliban and join America’s war on terror. Five years on, Pakistan has again embraced the Taliban at the America’s behest. This time it is to help the US extricate itself from Afghanistan and preserve her plan for the region. General Musharraf is right when he said that without Pakistan’s help the West would have been brought to its knees. But under his leadership it is Pakistan that has been brought to its knees in a senseless quest to preserve American interests.

ABID MUSTAFA is a political commentator who specialises in Muslim affairs. He can be reached at: provokethought@hotmail.co.uk