Zahir ud Din Muhammad, Babur to us in India, was born in February 1483. He became Ruler of Ferghana at 11 and of Samarkhand when he was 14. He lost both by the time he was 19 and then turned his attention to Kabul, capturing it in 1504. He went on to conquer Hindustan when he was 43 and could never go back to his beloved Ferghana. He died in Agra at 47 and lies buried in Kabul. A descendant of both Timur and Genghis Khan, he is a national hero in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In 1994, Taliban emerged as a force which sought to free Afghanistan of corrupt warlords and establish an Islamic form of government.
Initially, they were a force for the good, pushing out warlords and bringing in a semblance of justice. This created a halo around its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, but what is less well-known is that Omar was trained by the ISI — and that his cadres were Pashtuns educated in Pakistani madrassas.
Moving to the present, the US engagement with Taliban has hit an impasse. There is nothing new emerging from the US stable but a re-tinkered Doha with an attempt to shift responsibility to the UN. Simply put, the US is fatigued and seeking the fastest exit, for which, contrary to their own doctrine, they are negotiating with terrorists — and in the process, undermining democracy.
The new formulation is said to give the Taliban a 50 percent share in governance, up from Trump’s formula which was said to be a third. Biden’s administration, however, seems to have focussed on an inclusive interim administration, whereas Trump’s structure had Taliban heading an Iran style advisory council with the Republic looking after governance.
Why the US Has Itself to Blame
Side-stepping Biden’s much-talked-about focus on democracy, the US is calling for the Afghan government to quit to accommodate the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani has countered with a suggestion that he would go in for early elections, confident that the Taliban would fare poorly. Obviously, neither the Taliban nor the US would want that.
The US has itself to blame. The Trump administration, helmed by their Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, behaved appallingly with the Afghan government.
The Afghan NSA was virtually declared persona non grata, decisions were taken without consultations, and the Republic was arm-twisted into making concessions such as releasing Taliban prisoners in the hope that it would lead to a reduction of violence. It did not.
Unfortunately, the US refuses to recognise, and continues not to acknowledge, that much of the violence and the Taliban’s position of strength is derived from Pakistani support.
It also tried to whitewash the image of some of those they were negotiating with. Despite a whole body of evidence dating back to the Salala skirmish in 2011, the US has not spoken out about LeT activity in Afghanistan or LeT’s involvement with the Islamic State and the Taliban.
It’s as if a virtual free pass has been given to Pakistan to use the LeT.
ISI’s Role & What US Lobbyists Suggested
At the start, the ISI was uncomfortable with Benazir Bhutto’s Interior Minister Maj Gen Naseerullah Babar reaching out to the Talibs. Their assumption was that this was another lot of jehad stragglers, assembled around a Hotak leader propped up to be a sort of warlord, and that this would be at the expense of their ‘assets’.
Benazir’s government was looking at Pakistan becoming the hub of a trade route to the newly-independent ‘stans’. There was a sort of internal congruence with Islamists, supported by some politicians and some from within the army, looking at a Pakistan-led Islamic alliance stretching from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. Yet another group, mostly military strategists, looked at this grouping as a counter to India.
These reasons made sense to the ISI but for all of this, they needed a pliant government in Kabul.
It is not as if this idea did not appeal to the West. The Soviet Empire had disintegrated and, mission accomplished, the US withdrew. This, by implication, suggested that Pakistan would act as their proxy. There was global interest in Central Asia and companies like UNOCAL got into the picture to pipe Turkmen gas through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India. Lobbyists in the US sold the view that the Taliban could be trusted and were essential to opening up Central Asia.
Pakistan’s Interest in Central Asia
Robin Raphel, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, promoted UNOCAL’s plans and used her ties with Pakistan to meet the Taliban whom she referred to as ‘security guarantors’. Zalmay Khalilzad, then employed by UNOCAL, helped facilitate contact with the Taliban. A whole raft of consultants from Pakistan, Afghanistan (including future President Hamid Karzai) and even India were hired. Interest in the project, however, collapsed after the Al Qaeda attack on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Pakistan’s interest in Central Asia was not sudden. It had been dabbling in Central Asia from the mid-80s, when thousands of Koran’s were sent across through the Mujahideen.
After the Geneva Accord was signed, the ISI turned its attention to the export of jehad. It helped promote Islamist groups from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, many headquartered in Peshawar. A consequence was the civil war in Tajikistan which erupted a little after independence in 1991.
By the mid-90s, the ISI got more firmly into the game and, finding the Mujahideen obstinate, began actively assisting the Taliban.
What Might Happen If Taliban Comes to Power in Kabul
The other bad news is that the Taliban has still not resiled from its demands and it is back to Islamabad. If the Taliban were to gain power in Kabul, it will pivot Pakistan as the gateway to land-locked Central Asia and give it considerable say over Central Asian energy and mineral resources, as well as a near-monopoly over Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Gwadar could emerge as a new Dubai. More importantly, it will enhance Pakistan’s standing in the Muslim world with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and the CAR’s emerging as a powerful counterpoint to the Saudi dominated Arab Muslim bloc.
If the Taliban come to share power in Kabul, the CAR’s would depend on Pakistan to contain them for fear that there would be an export of jehad.
There is fear that LeT and assorted groups, with benevolent support from the Taliban, will begin looking for new pastures in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Islamists have long hankered after a base in Ferghana — a hop, skip and jump from Kunduz.
The intent has been clear for long. The Taliban has expended much effort in trying to capture Kunduz, a northern Pashtun redoubt with a river port.
In this task they have been aided by the LeT and the AQ. The Americans are aware of Pakistan’s fascination with Kunduz even allowing them, in 2001, to establish an air bridge to evacuate hundreds of Taliban commanders, Pak advisers, ISI and Army personnel and other assets.
Export of Jehad Has Worked for Pakistan — India Must Be Wary
Pakistan has pushed for a Taliban role in governance as this would facilitate trade with Central Asia. Therein lies Pakistan’s own economic salvation. The game has already attracted others — Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a northern Pashtun from Kunduz and the CIA’s and ISI’s main asset during the jehad, is back in the news. True to fashion, he has ‘defected’ back to Pakistan and has been cozying up to the Taliban.
The export of jehad has worked for Pakistan, and India needs to be cognisant of the dangers ahead. India needs access to Central Asia for its own well-being and cannot be held hostage to Pakistani whims.
Among other things, India needs to rebuild its own support within Afghanistan and with Central Asia and speed up the construction of the Chabahar port which will give the ‘stans’ an alternate route.
(The author is a career Intelligence Officer for 37 years. He retired in 2012 as Special Secretary (Deputy chief) of the Research & Analysis Wing. He’s a member of the team deputed to Kandahar to negotiate the release of hostages taken in IC 814. He is currently associated with Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Mantralaya, New Delhi. He tweets @anand_arni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)