April 04, 2020
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The Great Game Continued

As Masood's anti-Taliban forces knock on Kabul's doors, diplomatic battlelines are drawn in Central Asian capitals

The Great Game Continued

THE see-saw battle for military supremacy in Afghanistan continues. Rival armed factions lose and gain ground in seasonal flourishes repeated ad nauseam at great human and material cost. New frontlines have been opened and places which had escaped destruction during the 18 years of civil war are now vulnerable.

The Taliban have suffered major setbacks in recent weeks and the Northern Alliance headed by Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Masood is knocking on the doors of Kabul. In a surprise infantry assault beginning July 19, Masood's forces pushed back the Taliban about 45 km from their northern positions towards Kabul. This leaves Masood's troops just 20 km from the Afghan capital; they are near Khyarkhana Pass, considered the gateway to Kabul on the northern side. In a planned bid to encircle the city, Masood has taken the Kapisa province in the east, in particular the Tagab district which overlooks the crucial Kabul-Jalalabad highway.

These victories have emboldened his Shiite allies in Karim Khalili's Hezb-i-Wahdat, who have opened a new frontline on the western side from the Wardak province. Not only is Kabul now within striking distance of Masood's rockets and artillery but jetfighters sent by his other ally, Uzbek chief Abdul Malik, have also bombed Kabul.

 The two other active frontlines are in the northeast and northwest of the country. About 2,000 Taliban fighters are holding the Kunduz province bordering Tajikistan, posing a threat to Takhar and Samangan provinces. Kunduz was earlier under the control of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Masood; Takhar's capital, Taloqan, is still a major political and military base for Rabbani. Samangan is held by Abdul Malik and plans are afoot by the Northern Alliance to evict the Taliban from this region. The Taliban are also pitted against Malik's forces in Badghis-Faryab provinces near the Turkmenistan border.

The fresh spurt of fighting has been accompanied by increased diplomatic activity. Islamabad's effort, spearheaded by additional foreign secretary Iftikhar Murshed, has failed to make any headway despite several trips to Kandhar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Takhar and Dubai and meetings with leaders of various Afghan factions, including Rabbani and Masood. This has essentially remained a public relations exercise at home and abroad because Islamabad isn't considered neutral enough by many Afghan groups and neighbouring countries.

In fact, with Kabul under pressure, Islamabad's Afghan policy and its relations with Central Asian states too are under great strain. Hundreds of regular Pakistani army troops are believed to be holed up in Kabul, fighting alongside the Taliban. If Kabul falls, the diplomatic and political implications for Pakistan could be disastrous.

As it is, Islamabad had to face immense embarrassment during the Mazar-i-Sharif fiasco in May. And it still rankles. Diplomatic sources in Central Asian capitals say several hundred soldiers of the Pakistan army and paramilitary organisations were taken captive by the Uzbek commander Abdul Malik and his associates, who had initially helped them get into Mazar-i-Sharif. About 10,000 hardcore Taliban fighters were killed or taken prisoner, including about 100 of their ablest commanders, when their hosts turned on them. Eight Pakistani transport planes, which had brought in Taliban troops, too were captured.

But the Mazar-i-Sharif battle had an interesting fallout for India. The interrogation of some Pakistani soldiers by the Northern Alliance revealed that many of them were specially trained and sent into Kashmir to fight and were later exfiltrated to help the Taliban in their campaign in northern Afghanistan just before Rashid Dostum was driven out of Mazar-i-Sharif. In fact, many Pakistani soldiers in the captivity of the Northern Alliance are Urdu-speaking and cannot speak local languages like Tajik, Uzbek or even Pashtun, the language of the Taliban.

Diplomatic sources say this marks a qualitatively new level of Pakistani involvement in Kashmir, as against the strategy employed till recently of simply training militants in camps in POK and pushing them into Kashmir. It indicates that either the militancy in Kashmir is not evoking sufficient response or that the Kashmiri militants are not considered good enough to take the battle to a new level. "The trained Pakistani soldiers are there to give a steel frame to Kashmiri militancy," says a diplomat.

THIS has also brought to light the nexus between the Taliban and Har-kat-ul-Ansar militants. The Harkat came into the limelight when it kidnapped five Western tourists in Kashmir in August 1995. While one of them was killed, four are still untraced. "It is a back-to-back arrangement. Taliban emissaries have visited Harkat camps and assured them that if they help in Afghanistan, they would receive help in Kashmir," say diplomatic sources.

As the Northern Alliance makes a bid for Kabul, political and diplomatic activity around Afghanistan appears to be coalescing. Abdul Malik, who replaced Dostum recently, made a successful visit to Tehran, where he was received by Iran's top leaders. He spoke of the "strong relationship of today, of tomorrow and of all times to come" with Iran. Thanking Iran for all its help, he announced that a high-level Iranian delegation would soon visit Mazar-i-Sharif. He reiterated that Mazar-i-Sharif would be the temporary capital of Afghanistan and Rabbani will operate from there. These comments should, for the moment, put to rest any doubts about Malik's loyalty.

 Having got nothing from the Taliban and seeing the stiff resistance to the Taliban from the Hazara Shias, who comprise a demographic majority in Mazar-i-Sharif, Malik has realised his future lies in resisting the Taliban. Trouble could also be brewing for the Tal-iban in the western city of Herat. This Shia-dominated region close to the Iranian border has been a source of worry for Iran since it was seized by the Taliban. 

Last fortnight Iran set up a TV relay station on top of the Hindukush in Bamian, a Hazara Shia area, which is expected to be used to harden sentiment against the Taliban. Mazar-i-Sharif already has a 24-hour TV channel. Herat has immense strategic advantages. Anyone holding this area can control access to Central Asia, specifically the gas pipeline that a US company, Unocal, wants to build from Turkmenistan to Pakistan passing through this region. In fact, it is Afghanistan's role as the gateway to landlocked but resource-rich Central Asia which has pushed Pakistan into an aggressive policy on Afghanistan.

Peace and a sympathetic government in Kabul can reap rich dividends for Islamabad. And as the neighbouring country which can provide cheap and easy access to Central Asia, Pakistan is seeking to exploit its position as a frontline state. The US is evidently not averse to this.

Apart from gaining access to Central Asia, the US would also like to further isolate and contain Iran by increasing its own influence in Afghanistan. This has created tensions between Iran and Pakistan. So much so that the Iranian ambassador in Turkmenistan,S. Mehdi Miraboutalebi, blames "some neighbouring countries and the US" for the trouble in Kabul, adding that the Americans are supporting just one group essentially because they want to build the pipeline through Afghanistan.

That the neighbouring country is Pakistan no one doubts. In fact, Islamabad's deep involvement with the Taliban has strained its relations with the Central Asian countries too. The foreign minister of Kazakhstan K.K. Tokaev told Indian journalists recently that "Pakistan is one of the major countries behind the Taliban".

 It is a strong statement from an official in a Central Asian nation that Pakistan has been trying to woo very hard, using among others its Islamic card. Tokaev added: "When President Farooq Leghari came to Kazakhstan, he said that politically and economically Pakistan did not support the Taliban. But evidence from all sources shows that Pakistan supports the Taliban. It was the first country to recognise the Taliban government. The Taliban are not a constructive political group. But since they control more than 70 per cent of the territory, we have to recognise them as an influential force."

 Pakistan foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan has also travelled to Central Asia to drum up support for a conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad. So far he has not got any positive response. Most countries suspect Islamabad's neutrality and feel its aim is to help the Taliban gain absolute supremacy. Tokaev disclosed that when Gohar Ayub visited Almaty in June, "we could not decide on who should lead the peace process. Pakistan feels the Taliban are pivotal to this. But we have diplomatic and political contacts with the Rabbani government."

 He said Kazakhstan would support a conference on Afghanistan, but it should be held under the UN aegis and attended by all the parties and countries like India and Kazakhstan, not just the immediate neighbours. Pakistan does not want India to participate. According to Tokaev, he "frankly told the Pakistanis that Islamabad was not an appropriate venue as many countries and parties will not go there". India, of course, entirely agrees.

Uzbekistan too is unhappy with Afghan developments and the fundamentalist brand of Islam propagated by the Taliban. This has chilled relations between Tashkent and Islamabad. Recently the state-controlled Uzbek TV ran a four-part serial on Taliban atrocities. Indian and Uzbek perceptions on Afghanistan are similar. Says Uzbek deputy foreign minister I.R. Ergashev: "Afghanistan is of geostrategic interest to many countries. But we share our perceptions on Afghanistan with India. We want peace there."

  M.K. Bhadrakumar, India's ambassador to Uzbekistan, agrees: "It is significant that an important country like Uzbekistan wholeheartedly shares the values that independent India has cherished—of secularism and opposition to any kind of political or religious extremism. " He cites a recent book on international affairs by Uzbek President Islam Kari-mov, in which he came out strongly in favour of secularism and against Islamic fundamentalism.

Kyrgyzstan too is not prepared to accept Islamabad as a venue. It is pushing for a conference in Bishkek, its capital, which it says would be a neutral venue. Tajikistan, still recovering from a civil war, in which the government fought Islamic groups, too is clear that the Taliban can't be allowed to dominate. Its foreign minister Talbak Nazarov told Indian journalists: "One ethnic group should not dominate another." And till that is resolved, Afghanistan will continue to be a playground for international rivalry.

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