The situation in Afghanistan differs in some significant aspects from the situation that had prevailed when the Soviet troops withdrew in 1988-89.
The Soviets had left in Najibullah a capable Pashtun leader who was a three-in-one-- a leader with good political instincts, a good military commander and a good intelligence professional who had headed the Khad, the then Afghan intelligence agency. He had the support of the Uzbeks headed by Rashid Dostum, but the Tajiks headed by the late Ahmed Shah Masood were against him and supporting the anti-Najib Pashtun Mujahideen groups.
In the months before the Soviet withdrawal, Moscow had transferred considerable responsibilities to Najib, who was handling the ground situation competently. He belied the expectations of the US that his Government and Army would collapse once the Soviets left. They didn't. On the contrary, he managed to consolidate his position on the ground and strengthened his links with the Awami National Party in the NWFP (now called Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa) and the Balochs under Khair Bux Marri. The ANP and the cadres of Marri became excellent providers of HUMINT for him. He not only survived, but beat back an ISI-instigated and led attempt by the Afghan Mujahideen to capture Jalalabad. The rout of the Mujahideen at Jalalabad led to the exit of Lt.Gen.Hamid Gul from the post of Director-General of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence ( ISI).
Najib survived for nearly four years. What ultimately led to his defeat and fall in April 1992 was his split with Dostum and the desertion of the Uzbek troops from the Afghan Army.
As contrasted with Najib, President Hamid Karzai has neither good political instincts nor military capability nor an aptitude for intelligence.The kind of operational responsibilities which the Soviets had entrusted to Najib, the Americans have not given to Karzai, who hardly plays any role in the command and control of the ground operations. The Soviets encouraged and trained local leadership.The US control over Afghanistan has not given scope for local leadership to assume effective command and control.
Mr Karzai is inexperienced despite being in power for nearly eight years and may not be able to last long if he falls out with the Northern Alliance elements with whom his relations are even now hardly cordial.Once the Americans withdraw or considerably reduce their presence in Afghanistan, the chances of Mr Karzai continuing to remain in power would depend upon the unity between him and the elements of the Northern Alliance. If the unity fails, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks will take over control of their respective ethnic areas as they did when the ISI-created Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996.
If this happens, we will revert to the de facto partition of Afghanistan that had prevailed between September 1996 and October 2001-- with the Pashtuns under the Taliban in control of the Pashtun areas and the Tajiks and Uzbeks in control of their areas. If the Tajiks and Uzbeks can retain control of Kabul this time, they will be in a slightly better position than they were between 1996 and 2001.We will face another bleeding stalemate with the Tajik-Uzbek combine and the Pashtuns having sufficient capability to make each other bleed, but not being able to prevail--one over the other.
The ability of one to prevail over the other would depend upon whether it is able to get air support. The Northern Alliance, which was not able to prevail over the Taliban till 9/11, managed to after 9/11 because of the US air support. The Taliban, which resisted the Northern Alliance till 9/11, collapsed thereafter because it did not have any air support. In the eventuality of another conflict between the Taliban on the one side and the Tajiks-Uzbeks on the other, the US would not give air support to the Tajiks-Uzbek combine. The Pashtuns are better fighters than the Tajiks and Uzbeks. They constitute about 20 per cent of the Pakistan Army. They can help the US in its war against Al Qaeda if they want to. The US would not like to antagonise them further than it has already done. The US would, therefore, remain neutral, making sure that no other external air power intervenes. History will repeat itself. The Tajiks and Uzbeks will look up to India, Iran and Russia for help. Iran would most probably respond positively. Russia too would, probably. India, unlike in 1997, may not be able to even if it wants because of its growing strategic dependence on the US. The scope for any role for external powers would thus be limited.
How the situation turns on the ground would depend on Al Qaeda now based in North Waziristan and its allies and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Neither was a player in the Af-Pak scenario before 1996. Al Qaeda has emerged as an important player after Osama bin Laden shifted to Afghanistan from the Sudan in 1996. The TTP has emerged as an important player after the Pakistani Army's commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July 2007 during which a large number of Pashtun children were killed.Neither Al Qaeda nor the TTP is playing an important role in the ground situation in Afghanistan today. Al Qaeda has left command and control completely in the hands of the Afghan Taliban. The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP is strained. The Afghan Taliban looks upon the Pakistan Army as an ally. The TTP looks upon it as an adversary. Al Qaeda looks upon the Pakistan Army as apostate because of its co-operation with the US . As a result of these factors, the support of Al Qaeda and the TTP to the Afghan Taliban may not be whole-hearted.
As a result, we might find a triangular confrontation on the ground if and when the US-led NATO troops leave or thin themselves down. This confrontation would involve the Afghan Taliban supported by Pakistan, the Northern Alliance remnants supported by Iran and Russia probably and by India too possibly and the Al Qaeda-TTP combine without any external support. The Pashtun support will be divided. The Afghan Pashtuns will support the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Army. The Pakistani Pashtuns of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will support Al Qaeda and its allies and the TTP.
The expectations that there will be a resurgence of the independent Pashtunistan movement as a result of the developments is a pipedream. The independent Pashtunistan movement has enjoyed support only among the Pashtuns of Khyber-Paktoonkwa and not among the Pashtuns of the FATA, who do not support it even today. The Pashtun community has prospered considerably in Pakistan. There are more Pashtuns in Karachi today than in Peshawar. The Pashtuns have emerged as a dominant community in certain parts of Balochistan, including Quetta. The Pashtuns and the Punjabis are the major beneficiaries of the development of the Gwadar area. The Pashtuns of Pakistan are beneficiaries of the NATO's involvement in Afghanistan. They control the truck business and are minting millions from the Americans by monopolising the movement of logistic supplies for the NATO troops from Karachi. The Pashtuns know they might lose all these benefits if they separate from Pakistan. They will keep shouting slogans for an independent Pashtunistan from time to time to scare the Pakistanis and to add to our pipedreams, but they don't want it.
How then will the triangular confrontation end? The Pakistan Army will ultimately succeed in making all the Pashtuns unite in support of its agenda. If and when that happens, the Tajiks and Uzbeks will make peace with them. India's options will be very limited. All we can do is clearly identify our objective allies and stick to them as long as possible in the hope that they would emerge as important players if not the dominant player, and support our interests. Our objective allies would be the Tajiks and the Pashtun supporters of the ANP and Mr Karzai. The Uzbeks will be unpredictable.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.