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Pakistan: In search of a strategic death

An insight into the spider web of an unholy releationship between the Taliban, the US, Karzai, and Pakistan
Farooq Sulehria
Sunday 11 April 2010

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An Afghan journalist explores the new great game in Central Asia between the U.S., NATO Iran, Iraq, the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Pakistan and India.

The Inuit of the Arctic had a clever technique for hunting wolves. They would plant a bloody knife in the snow. Lured by the smell of blood, the wolves would approach the knife and lick the blade, cutting their tongues. Without realizing that they were drinking their own blood, wolves would continue licking until they had bled to death.

Back in 1980s, the Pakistani military adopted a doctrine of strategic depth. This doctrine is proving to be a hunter’s knife for Pakistan. The doctrine implies that Pakistan needs Afghanistan as backyard beyond India’s reach. The Afghan-India nexus dominating the military’s mind is evident from a recent interaction General Kayani had with media recently. On February 1, he told foreign correspondents: ’’“We want Afghanistan to be our strategic depth’’. In two days time, he was telling Pakistani journalists: ’’I am India-centric.’’

It is in search of strategic depth that the Pakistan military, post-September 11, has been hunting with the American hound and running with Taliban hare. Definitely not an easy position. That Pakistan’s military establishment has not given up Jihadi assets is evident from media reports.

Woe unto the missing Saudi billionaire! He disturbed the order the Pakistani military had established in the region. No matter with what horrible consequesnces for the masses.

When the ’communist’ era came to an end in Afghanistan, warring Mujahideen pillaged Kabul in their bid to outdo each other for the control of government. Gulbadin Hikmatyar was Pakistan’s favourite horse in this race. When he proved futile, Pakistan saddled the Taliban as its second horse.

Back in 1997, objective conditions favored the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban’s seizure of Kabul. It remains the Pakistani military’s sole victory on an external front. A disinterested USA welcomed the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul. The New York Times wrote that, the ’’State Department was touting the Taliban as the group that might finally bring stability’’. A US diplomat, Jon Holtzman, was advised to visit Kabul. That trip, however was cancelled after the media kerfuffle about women rights.

Still $125 million were granted in aid to the Taliban. The State Department maintained a secret correspondence with Taliban regime. At the time, the media were replete with rumors regarding US-backing for the Taliban. Unlike the anti-US image the Taliban have cultivated in recent years, they were also pretty cozy with infidel Uncle Sam. The US rationale for Taliban support was not merely an over-publicized gas pipeline project that Unocal wanted to pursue. The Clinton Administration, it was rumored, had Iran in mind when welcoming Taliban.

Whether these rumors were true or not, the Taliban’s second major sponsor, Riyadh, definitely wanted to contain Iran through staunchly anti-Shia Taliban. Thus, all three infamous partners, the Pakistani Army, America, and Allah (represented here by Riyadh) were united in seeking, by default, cherished strategic depth. Equally important was the turmoil in Russia and Central Asian Republics (CARs).

Following the Soviet dissolution, new regimes in Russia and CARs were struggling to consolidate. Most importantly, Afghans were desperate for peace after years of brutal infighting among Mujahideen gangs. Hoping against hope, many Afghans pinned their hopes on the Taliban, even if it meant sacrificing civil liberties.

Fifteen years on, the odds are stubbornly going against Taliban. The USA is not merely on the other side of the fence, it in fact is guarding (no matter how unsuccessfully) the fence. Saudi royals, one of them personally humiliated by Mullah Omar on the question of Osama’s expulsion, would find it imprudent to annoy Washington by patronizing Taliban.

Regimes in CARs and Russia, dealing with their own Islamic militancy, would not sit idle in the face of a Taliban take-over of Kabul. Pakistan’s all-weather friend China, facing the Uighur uprising, has publicly expressed her disapproval of the Taliban. Most importantly, a big majority of Afghans, particularly non-Pashtuns, who constitute almost 55 percent of the population, and lived through the Taliban nightmare are not ready to experience it again.

Though Pakistan’s pro-Taliban media have pretty successfully painted the Taliban as popular peace-harbingers (in the 1990s) and as a popular liberation force (2001 onwards) the Afghan perception of Taliban is different. Opinion polls find the Taliban’s popularity below ten percent. Hence, a Taliban march on Kabul, by proxy providing strategic depth to Pakistan, may not be resisted so much by the USA, Iran, India, China, CARs, and Russia but very stridently by most Afghans.

However, despite lacking a mass social base, the Taliban have the advantage of an unceasing supply of fanatics ready to explode themselves on Afghan streets en route paradise. This factor has shattered early US hopes of a steady occupation in a strategically important country neighboring Iran, gas-rich Central Asia while China is just a stone’s throw away.

Meantime, the Obama administration is not the only one to stake its political future on Afghanistan. The Afghan war is a good war (essential to nip terror in its Afghan bud) hence it is a good tool to keep NATO united. NATO fell apart in the case of Iraq. Afghanistan provided Washington with the opportunity to discipline European satraps (world leaders or governors who are heavily influenced by larger world superpowers and act as their surrogates—ed.).

Hence, to tranquillize the Taliban uproar, Washington has resorted to a multi-pronged policy. An Iraq-style surge (over thirty thousand more troops to Kabul). An aggressive drone-bombing policy to force Islamabad (read Pakistani military) into giving up its dual policy on the Taliban. Also, by droning Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan,----particularly targeting leadership----the US wishes to weaken the Taliban. The Fallujah-style military offensive in Marja, is an attempt to demoralize the Taliban. All this is aimed at bringing a weak Taliban (and Pakistani patrons) to the negotiating table. Caught between the hammer of the ’’war on terror’’ and anvil of ’’strategic depth,’’ Pakistan, instead of reaching strategic depth, will embrace a strategic death.

Every time the Pakistani military hunts the Taliban, there is a boomerang suicidal attack. According to a think tank, in 2009:“If the casualties in terrorist attacks, operational attacks by the security forces and their clashes with the militants, inter-tribal clashes and the cross-border attacks of the US and Nato forces in Fata are counted, the overall casualties amount to 12,632 people dead and 12,815 injured.”

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