As the US prepares to reduce its forces and withdraw from Afghanistan, one has to look back at the circumstances that led to its military intervention. The Al-Qaeda, largely based in Afghanistan, was responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. The US responded with a massive aerial bombardment and invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan within a month. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who played host to Osama bin Laden and his followers, fled to Pakistan. That conflict has now lasted for over 19 years. An estimated 1.11 lakh Afghans and 4,092 Americans have died in the conflict. Estimates about the costs incurred by the US vary from $778 billion to $1 trillion. Pakistan was strangely described as a ‘major US ally’ and rewarded liberally with economic and military assistance. This assistance was used by the Pakistan’s army and air force against its own Pashtun people in tribal areas, including North Waziristan, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The ISI is encouraging the Taliban to resort to ‘salami slicing’ by taking control of more and more territory.
In his memoirs, A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama describes the situation prevailing during his visit to Afghanistan in 2012. He was informed by a highly reputed former CIA official that the Pakistan military/ISI not only ‘tolerated the presence of the Taliban leadership in Quetta, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but it was quietly assisting the Taliban, as a means of keeping the Afghan Government weak, and hedging against Pakistan’s arch rival, India.’ Obama adds: ‘The US Government had long tolerated such behaviour from a purported ally, of supporting it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid, despite its complicity with violent extremists, and its record, as a significant and irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons. This says something about the pretzel-like logic of US foreign policy.’ Despite his knowledge of such Pakistani duplicity, Obama sounded defensive, while speaking to Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari, to formally inform him about the US action to eliminate Osama bin Laden. There, however, appears to have been no expression of outrage by Obama to Zardari, for Pakistan providing safe haven to a terror mastermind in a cantonment which houses the Pakistan Defence Academy, and is located near its capital, Islamabad!
Pakistan is now in a strange position. Its Punjabi majority faces continuing resentment in Balochistan, where attempts to quell resistance and uprisings have been unsuccessful. But, over the past decades, there has been growing disquiet in the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, despite Pashtuns being well represented in the Pakistan army. In 2014, the Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan conducted a terrorist attack on Army Public School, Peshawar, killing 149 people. The then army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, responded with a massive attack backed by aerial bombings across North Waziristan.
Reporting from the scenes of the attack, Al Jazeera noted that about one million people were forced out of their homes by the offensive, described by Pakistan as a ‘final push’ to eradicate the presence of the Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that had plagued North Waziristan for 14 years. Locals have little hope of returning home anytime soon. Thousands of homes and businesses had been levelled by air strikes and bulldozers, aid from the federal government was being cut, and security forces were asking residents to sign an agreement, taking collective responsibility for any militant presence in their areas, before they return home.
In neighbouring South Waziristan, Pakistani troops had carried out a large-scale ground offensive in 2009, displacing thousands, many of whom have not returned home. These developments have left refugees from the ruthless operation in North Waziristan sceptical of official promises of a swift end to their suffering. The ISI also facilitates cross-border attacks by its proteges in the Haqqani Taliban Network on Afghan forces. The Pashtuns are now making common cause to redress their grievances through the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, dedicated to waging a peaceful struggle for their democratic rights, reminiscent of the struggle of their legendary freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
The Taliban now control vast tracts of territory in Afghanistan, where they repeatedly attack even the capital, Kabul. With outgoing President Trump determined to drastically reduce the presence of the Afghan army from 4,500 to 2500 troops, the Taliban are not interested in a ceasefire that the Americans are desperately seeking. The Afghan government is a house divided, with Ghani’s erstwhile deputy, Abdullah Abdullah, nominated to negotiate with the Taliban in Doha, after visiting Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s policy continues to be based on duplicity. While making out that the ISI can influence the Taliban to exercise restraint in Afghanistan, the ISI is actually encouraging the Taliban to resort to ‘salami slicing’ by taking control of more and more territory across Afghanistan, much like China attempts on its borders with India. The US will have to be persuaded to resort to more extensive use of air power to deal with the Taliban.
It needs to be remembered that the Taliban are intensely disliked by a large number of Pashtuns in Afghanistan, who loathe their medieval extremism and their ISI masters. The non-Pashtun majority of Afghanistan comprising Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baloch and others, who constitute 58% of Afghanistan’s population, had fought the Taliban under the banner of the Northern Alliance, before the Americans stepped in. The US would have to be persuaded to deal with the challenges posed by the Taliban-Pakistan army nexus by uniting all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Apart from the Afghan Government, there are leaders like former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who can act as the ‘bridge’ to challenge the Taliban-Pakistan nexus.
A majority of Pashtuns strongly feel that the Durand Line was unjustly imposed on them as their border during British colonial rule in India. A Pashtun friend had told me that Afghanistan’s traditional borders were not along the Durand Line, but along the banks of the Indus at Attock!
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