Nothing in Afghanistan is as certain as uncertainty. This was again demonstrated over the last two months when the Taliban’s fortunes rose and fell dramatically in short order. The situation today stands almost as it was before the eruption of fighting in northern Afghanistan in mid-May. This resulted in the ouster of general Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, from his stronghold of Mazar-e Sharif, into exile in Turkey.
On May 19, in alliance with general Abdul Malik, a rebellious Uzbek commander, the Taliban took control of five provinces bringing to 29 the number under their sway. Only Ahmed Shah Masoud’s Tajik forces remained in the Panjshir Valley but appeared vulnerable to a Taliban sweep.
So certain seemed a total Taliban victory that three countries - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - recognised them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. This was almost certainly at the behest of Islamabad which is believed to be the real force behind the turbaned madrassa students from Qandahar.
Within days of Dostum’s flight and Taliban’s entry into Mazar-e Sharif, Malik, however, abandoned his new allies. Thereafter, the Taliban suffered some of their greatest reverses. Their foreign minister, Mullah Muhammad Ghaus and two other senior officials were taken prisoner together with hundreds of fighters. Hitherto, they had not faced a serious military challenge; most of their victories were the result of deals in which local commanders simply relinquished control to them.
At the time of writing, the five northern provinces - Samangan, Balkh, Sar-i Pul, Jawzjan and Faryab - had returned to Uzbek control, and in the western province of Badghis, front lines were once again established at their old positions on the Murghab River. The Hizb-e Wahdat, a Shi’i group led by Karim Khalili, held on to the central province of Bamiyan, where successive Taliban offensives have so far failed to break through the strategic Shibar Pass. The situation in Baghlan remained unclear although Kunduz seemed to have switched over to the Taliban.
Since the defeat and ouster of the Red army in February 1989, Afghanistan has been at the mercy of its foreign ‘benefactors’. Its current front line positions reflect the ethnic mix and their equally ethnic-prone foreign sponsors. The Qandahar-based Taliban represent the Pushtun majority of Afghanistan who are concentrated along the southern tier from east to west bordering Pakistan. The northern tier is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. In the centre, the Hazara, a Shi’i group, predominates.
The Taliban not only enjoy the support of Pakistan but are believed to be its creation with not inconsiderable help from the British and Americans. Where there are Americans, there is Saudi money. The House of Saud cannot do enough to please the Americans. It also appears to be the case in Afghanistan.
The Uzbeks are backed by their ethnic brethren in Uzbekistan while Masoud receives support from Tajikistan. Both he and Khalili also get help from Iran, the latter not wishing to see the anti-Shi’i and pro-US Taliban totally entrenched in Afghanistan.
Landlocked Afghanistan is not important per se. Its utility lies in its being a buffer for competing powers who are all fighting their proxy wars there. The great game is being fought all over again.
Despite its military defeat, Moscow has not abandoned its ambitions in Afghanistan. The former Soviet Republics, all controlled by communists-turned-nationalists, also see the emergence of Taliban as a nightmare. They would like to contain it south of their borders and ultimately banish it.
The Americans have a different though equally sinister agenda. They wish to see perpetual turmoil because it provides them opportunities for interference. The Taliban would be naive to assume that the Americans are their friends. The other Afghan groups have found to their cost that Americans have the nasty habit of ditching their ‘friends’ once their purpose is served.
By dangling the carrot of a pipeline from Turkmenstan to Pakistan and from there to India, the US has created a fissure in relations between Islamabad and Tehran. While there is economic benefit for Islamabad in getting oil and gas from Turkmenstan, to allow its territory as a transit route only serves Indian and American interests. The drum-beating about normalisation of relations with India is part of this plan backed by Washington.
The US is anxious to compete with Chinese and Japanese goods in Asia. This can only be done by using oil and gas from Central Asia and the cheap manpower of India to run its factories.
True to form, the Pakistani elite are eager to serve American interests. The Aimal Kansi saga reconfirms this slavish mentality. In typical sloppy fashion, the Pakistani rulers fell for the trap that they could unilaterally determine the outcome in Afghanistan, especially when they believed they had the blessings of the US as well.
The haste with which the Taliban government was recognised after the ouster of Dostum from Mazar-e Sharif and Islamabad’s entreaties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to do the same reflects wishful thinking more than a carefully-thought out policy. Last month, foreign minister Gohar Ayub had to travel to Central Asian capitals to explain his government’s latest gaffe.
No single group has ever dominated Afghanistan. Even during the rule of the Musahiban dynasty, the king used to pay a regular annual stipend to tribal elders to keep them happy. The same formula applies today. The Masoud/Rabbani combine tried to go it alone and found to their cost that it is unworkable. The Taliban are now attempting to do the same. It will not work.
Unless the Afghans learn to live and work with each other, they will continue to be exploited by outside forces. The price would be paid by the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
Muslimedia - July 16-31, 1997