Pakistan’s Afghan Dilemma

This article was originally published by The Nation on 31st May 2016

After the death of Mullah Mansour on the soil of Pakistan, if some geniuses think that Pakistan would either be embarrassed or would introspect over its ‘support’ to Afghan Taliban, they need help. Taliban are the only friends Pakistan has in the region as of now.

The obsession with strategic depth in Afghanistan is not a recent story. It has withstood more than four decades now. America, of all the countries, has been accomplice and abettor in sustaining this Pakistani obsession throughout the 1980s and after. Developed by the strategic genius Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first elected Prime Minister, this policy has outlived his own self. Those who manipulated the judicial assassination of Bhutto clasped his policy tighter than the activists of Chipko Movement who hugged the trees. In all probability, it is going to continue post Mullah Mansour or post Zarb-e-Azb, come what may. The world must plan accordingly.

Prior to the so-called ‘Afghan Jihad’, Pakistan was host to a range of anti-Daud Afghans who would carry out deadliest of attacks wherever they could inside Afghanistan. President Carter knew it, so did President Reagan. The latter was able to even contribute to it while trying to settle scores of Vietnam with the Soviet Union through Afghanistan. Peshawar would still remember how the CIA office there used to distribute jihadi literature in 1980s. Yes, we offered our own citizens on a plate for the jihad. Not only that but we turned our entire population into a proxy for a war that was not ours. It’s another debate how it was made to appear as our war, basing it on unsubstantiated perceived ‘strategic goals’ of Soviet Union. Even if it was ours, was the jihadi strategy the only available and viable option for us? That is the big question.

Without historicising much, suffice it to say that America opted for the least bothersome option for them: vanished from the scene after supporting bloodshed in Afghanistan and consequently in Pakistan. We continued. Naseerullah Babar under Benazir Bhutto’s administration bagged it as his enduring achievement to have making Taliban possible. When his creation – as per his own admission – was able to take over Afghanistan, it was far from being a legitimate government. But we continued our support. And that happened in opposition to the rest of the world.

In those days, Afghanistan was represented in the UN by the Northern Alliance commanders. But we were among the three most intelligent nations of the world to have recognised the Taliban regime. No wonder leaders of some major political parties in Pakistan still consider Taliban as legitimate contenders of power. It so happened that not only the Taliban but their Arab allies under Osama Bin Laden too turned against the US. There were attacks on the US targets and tables suddenly turned. Darlings of yore became enemies. America used Pakistan’s close ties with Taliban in order to reach out their proclaimed offender, Bin Laden. We helped howsoever we could. But the years from 1998 to 2001 were enough to read that Taliban were not ready to oblige Pakistan beyond certain lines. America knew it even then.

And then happened the 9/11 attacks. Bush junior made that famous call to Pakistan’s dictator Musharraf for soliciting his support or Pakistan would be made an example. We were obliged to oblige. Despite knowing we couldn’t possibly go beyond certain extent. Despite knowing we would never deliver Taliban to the US, except those who turned against Musharraf for siding with the US. The US knew it all along, but still decided to be considerate to our dictator. World’s most self-righteous democracy suddenly forgot its own lectures about democratic system and transparency. An acceptable duplicity!

What happened after 9/11 and US decision to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan is history- but the one that is told selectively. In the US narrative about Pakistan’s double game, for example, some events would never appear. Some nuggets from earlier days of US War on terror would make an interesting read. The battle of Tora Bora for example, when Ben Laden and his associates were allowed to flee from a tightly sieged Tora Bora. When despite Operation Enduring Freedom all kinds of fighters were allowed to flee from Afghanistan and to cross over to Pakistan. When Pakistan was allowed to airlift key Taliban leaders (that may have included Al-Qaida operatives as well) from, once again, a tightly sieged Kunduz. This was later called ‘airlift of the evil’ by the CIA itself. Wonder what were Americans thinking of that airlift. Were those dancing girls of Lahore?

So much so that as early as October 2001, President Bush was thinking about sealing the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent to and fro movement of Taliban. The decision could not take effect because Bush was told by his National Security Council (NSC) how difficult it would be to seal such a porous border. On which, CIA official Michael Scheuer commented in his book published in 2008, ‘Marching Towards Hell: America and Islam after Iraq’, “There is no denying that closing that border was a hard job, but if the NSC did not believe that the best military in the world could close the border and trap Bin Laden, why did it decide that the task could be safely allotted to the poorly armed and trained and generally anti-US Pakistani forces?” That says it all.

Back in 2001, one Mullah Mohammad Khaksar was Taliban’s Intelligence Minister and later Deputy Interior Minister. He was reported in Washington Post in 1999, to have offered his help to the US for defeating the Taliban. In the weeks after 9/11, Time Magazine reported that Khaksar passed letters to get in contact with US intelligence, but never heard back from them. Finally in late November 2001, he publicly defected to the Northern Alliance. Story ends.

Enduring all the US pressure for carrying out military operation in North Waziristan, where the Taliban and Haqqani Network had been enjoying refuge, Pakistan never touched that area at the cost of thousands of its own people. Not only ordinary citizens, more than 5000 soldiers were sacrificed too, in operations in the areas neighboring NWA. From Operation Al Mizan (2002–2006) to Operation Zalzala (2008), Operations Sher Dil, Operation Rah-e-Haq, Rah-e-Rast (2007–2009), and Rah-e-Nijat, we kept Khyber, South Waziristan, Bajaur, Orakzai and Malakand under attack. Never North Waziristan. Despite knowing many of the terrorists attacking our troops and citizens have taken refuge there under the nose of our so-called allies, Taliban. We looked the other way.

What on earth does America think would make us surrender Taliban now, after inflicting blood and gore on our country for good 15 years just because of Taliban? As the Punjabi adage goes, the elephant has already passed, it’s just the tail. Why should we let it go at this point?

The more Afghanistan strengthens its ties with India and the more America demeans us publicly, the more we are convinced that Taliban are the only friends. No one is completely clean here anyway. Prove your usability to us and we might let Taliban slip to you.