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The Taliban
Pakistan’s Geopolitical Instrument, America’s Problem
Amin Saikal

The crisis of international terrorism emanating from Afghanistan might have been avoided had Washington heeded the now-slain leader of the Afghan anti-Taliban forces, the legendary Commander Ahmed Shah Masood. The Commander repeatedly warned that Pakistan was rapidly consolidating a potent geopolitical instrument in Afghanistan to further its regional ambitions, and that this instrument was being grounded in a dangerous triangular alliance between the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), turning Afghanistan into a major source of instability in world politics. Washington’s failure to help Masood to limit the menace eventually cost both the Commander and the US dearly. Masood died on September 15, 2001 as the result of fatal wounds inflicted on him in a suicide bombing by two Arabs, apparently organised by bin Laden, only two days before the US fell victim to the worst apocalyptic terrorist attacks in history on September 11, 2001. Why did the US fail to act earlier over Afghanistan, and is it now capable of addressing effectively the root-causes of the present crisis?

The Instrument

The Osama bin Laden-Taliban-ISI axis was not an overnight development. It dated from mid-1994 when Pakistan created the extremist Taliban militia, made up mostly of ethnic Pushtuns from both sides of the Afghan–Pakistan border, as the most appropriate force to secure a compliant government in Kabul. This followed a very turbulent and devastating decade and a half in Afghan politics. A pro-Soviet communist coup in 1978 had brought to an abrupt end the longest period of peace and stability in modern Afghan history, from 1930 to 1978, during which time the Afghans had managed to create an unprecedented degree of national cohesion and stable political order. The failure of the communists, who were very small in number, highly factionalised, and lacking in historical legitimacy, administrative experience and popular appeal, opened the way for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This, in turn, inspired an American-led counter-interventionist strategy, implemented through Pakistan as the ‘frontline state’, in support of the Afghan Islamic resistance forces (the Mujahideen). The Soviets were forced to leave Afghanistan by the end of the 1980s, and their protégé regime collapsed at Kabul in April 1992. The United States consequently ended its involvement in Afghanistan with no due consideration to the post-communist management of the Afghan conflict. Afghanistan was left very much in tatters, lacking viable political, administrative and security structures and therefore vulnerable to Pakistan’s regional ambitions.

The Mujahideen Islamic government that took over Kabul under President Burhanuddin Rabbani, with Ahmed Shah Masood as its powerful commander, could not rapidly consolidate power, especially in the face of Pakistan’s opposition to Masood’s independent stance. When Islamabad failed in its efforts to put the maverick Pashtun Mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in a position to head the Mujahideen government, the ISI capitalised on its close friendship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – dating back to the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – to generate a fresh and extremist Islamic fighting force. It wanted this force, on the one hand, to be capable of purporting to occupy a higher moral ground than the moderate Mujahideen Islamic government; and on the other, to be dispensable, should Pakistan’s circumstances change.

That force was the Taliban, which burst onto the Afghan scene with Pakistan’s human, military and logistic support, and Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) financial backing. The latter states were traditionally friendly to Pakistan and wanted some anti-Iranian leverage in Afghanistan. The CIA and, for that matter, the US government, quietly endorsed this development in an apparent attempt to let Pakistan fill the vacuum that Washington’s neglect of post-communist Afghanistan had generated. They also showed no qualms over bin Laden’s move into Afghanistan in 1996, where he threw the weight of his wealth and Arab connections behind the Taliban. By now, bin Laden was no stranger to the American security agencies. He was one of the hundreds of Arab volunteers who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in support of the Mujahideen, though under the watchful eyes of the CIA and ISI. He was also already known for his stand against the United States: he had condemned America’s strategic alliance with Israel and Israel’s forceful occupation of Palestinian land, most importantly East Jerusalem (containing Islam’s third holiest place after Mecca and Medina). He had denounced America’s protection of what he called ‘the corrupt Saudi regime,’ and its domination of the Middle East. The deployment of US troops in Saudi Arabia – the holiest soil of Islam – to reverse the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, marked a turning point in the growth of his anti-American convictions.

Washington seemed to view the Taliban as beneficial to its interests. The militia’s anti-Iranian character, and its purported ability to secure a direct corridor through Afghanistan into the newly independent but resource-rich former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics, appeared appealing. Just in the same way as Washington had failed to see the consequences of disengagement from Afghanistan after achieving its prime goal of defeating Soviet communism, it paid no attention to the possible medium-to-long-term consequences of these developments. Even when it became fully apparent, after the Taliban take-over of Kabul in mid-1996 and the bitter complaint by Masood and his supporters that an ugly and disturbing alliance was developing between extremist Arab and non-Arab groups in Afghanistan, Washington remained conspicuously silent. It tacitly, if not actively, endorsed various American companies participating in projects that could allow them to access the energy resources in Central Asia through Afghanistan. The one consortium that attracted widespread attention because of its favourable disposition towards the Taliban was led by UNOCAL of the US and Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia, whose proposed project was to construct a US $2.5 billion pipeline across Afghanistan to export gas from Turkmenistan to South Asia. Washington’s concern was to deny Iran a role as an alternative route.

Meanwhile, Washington paid no more than lip service to the international outcry over what increasingly turned out to be the Taliban’s brutal, medievalist rule, and their application of a highly discriminatory and extremist form of Sunni Islam – one that had no historical precedent in Afghanistan. USA remained content to offer only occasional verbal criticism of the Taliban for instituting a theocratic reign of terror, involving massive human rights violations, especially against girls and women who were barred even from receiving education and employment; and against the Shi’ites who constitute 15 per cent of Afghanistan’s population. Similarly, the US remained somewhat muted over growing reports that the Taliban were transforming Afghanistan into a major source of poppy growing, heroin production and drug trafficking, the proceeds of which were used to partly finance their relentless war against the Afghan opposition. The American government also generally sidelined reports about the ISI-driven Taliban training of Arab and Kashmiri militants to fight ‘US hegemony’ in the Muslim world and India’s control of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It refused to criticise publicly the Taliban–bin Laden extremism and Pakistan’s support for it, and did not provide the Masood-led armed opposition with the necessary help to combat a complete Pakistani–Taliban–bin Laden take-over of Afghanistan.

America’s approach

Had it not been for bin Laden’s alleged masterminding of the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania at the cost of hundreds of casualties in August 1998, Washington would likely have been quite content to remain disengaged from developments in Afghanistan; it showed little concern about Pakistan’s handling of the situation. However, the embassy bombings changed the situation dramatically. They brought the chickens home to roost for both the United States and Saudi Arabia and, indeed, jolted Washington out of its slumber. It now viewed the developments in Afghanistan as damaging and found it imperative to act. In the first instance, Bill Clinton’s administration promptly launched two cruise missile attacks – one on what the US described as a bin Laden-linked chemical weapons factory in Sudan, and another on bin Laden’s training camps in eastern Afghanistan. The first target turned out to be a medicine factory, with no proven linkage to bin Laden; the second missed bin Laden and his top brass, although, of the 24 people killed, several were Kashmiri trainees, which clearly established the growing bonds between bin Laden, the Taliban and Kashmiri militants. Since the ISI had been running Pakistan’s Afghanistan and Kashmir policies since the early 1980s, providing patronage to both Kashmiri militants and the Taliban, as well as to their Arab supporters, it was now clear that the ISI had established close links between various client forces for a wider, multi-faceted regional network of armed activists.

America’s missile attack did nothing to deter the Taliban and their Arab and Pakistani supporters from continuing their military push for the conquest of all of Afghanistan. Before the end of 1998, the Taliban succeeded not only in taking over most of Afghanistan, confining Masood and his forces to the north eastern quarter and a few areas north of Kabul, but also consolidated their infrastructure of terror in Afghanistan beyond anyone’s expectations. This infrastructure was critical in enabling bin Laden to strengthen his Al Qaeda (The Base) network of Arab and non-Arab activists, with global reach, ready to strike at a wide range of American targets. Osama bin Laden’s relationship with the Taliban proved to be of such an organic nature that the latter owed him more for their success than bin Laden owed the Taliban for providing him protection.

Meanwhile, the ISI rejoiced over the bin Laden–Taliban alliance as a potent force for achieving Pakistan’s regional objectives, most importantly a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan against its arch enemy, India. It accelerated its efforts to recruit more Pakistani and Arab Islamic radicals, Central Asian Islamic opposition elements, such as those belonging to the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, and many Chechen Islamic fighters to boost the operational capacity of bin Laden and the Taliban leadership beyond the borders of Afghanistan. While the Taliban castigated the secular rulers of the Central Asian republics, but declared their full support for Chechen independence from Russia and invited the Chechens to open a diplomatic mission in Kabul, the new recruits were trained, armed and commissioned for operations both inside and outside Afghanistan. Their number soon grew into thousands, with 3,000 to 5,000 Arabs forming bin Laden’s personal army alone.

To capture bin Laden and break up the Al Qaeda network, Washington’s approach now focused on three main objectives: to indict and put a bounty on bin Laden and demand the extradition of the Saudi fugitive by the Taliban; to apply diplomatic pressure to Pakistan to lean on the Taliban to meet America’s demands; and to pay more attention to Russia’s complaint about the Taliban’s Islamic threat to the former Soviet Central Asian republics and to India’s outcry about the Pakistan–Taliban–bin Laden sponsorship of cross-border terrorism in J&K. However, the approach did not include any assistance to Masood’s forces, which were holding out against the Taliban with very limited human and material resources available to them. Washington insisted on a policy of ‘no support to any Afghan faction’, while knowing that Pakistani involvement, bin Laden’s money, and Arab and Pakistani recruits in their thousands were very rapidly changing the balance of forces on the ground against Masood and what he had set up as the United Islamic Front for the Liberation of Afghanistan, representing the ousted Mujahideen Islamic Government, which still occupied Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations. The US refused to name Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism, or to maximise pressure on Pakistani governments to rein in the ISI and to close Pakistani territory as the only outlet through which bin Laden, his associates and their Taliban protectors could get in and out of Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration seemed to have been gripped by the view that too much pressure on Pakistan, which was both bankrupt and nuclear-armed, could lead the country to implode, with the possibility of its nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Washington failed to foresee the more grievous results that its inaction over Pakistan could produce.

However, by October 1999 the US appeared to have been having some success with the elected Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief, whom Washington had successfully pressured earlier in the year to withdraw ISI-backed, Taliban-aided militants from the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), and thus halt what had become known as the Kargil military clash – a confrontation which was in danger of developing into a full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Sharief finally publicly accused the Taliban of destabilising Pakistan and contemplated a change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. But, unfortunately, he could not go any further than this: within days of his anti-Taliban postures he was toppled in a bloodless coup by the Army Joint Chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf – a supporter of the Kargil clash with India.

General Musharraf initially promised Washington to pressure the Taliban to change direction and hand over bin Laden, but he soon reneged on the promise. As his regime became too dependent on the military and pro-Taliban Islamic groups, he was in no position to rein in the ISI. He publicly defended Pakistan’s support of the Taliban on the grounds of ‘national security interests’. He urged Washington to enter direct negotiations with the Taliban, and the world community to follow the example of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recognising the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, although Riyadh had formally frozen its relations from late 1998.

Frustrated with Pakistan, and alarmed by the discovery of more anti-American terrorist plots by elements allegedly related to bin Laden, Washington resolved to up the ante on the Taliban. It decided to respond more warmly to overtures by Moscow and New Delhi for closer policy co-ordination against international terrorism, a fact which gained wider potency following the successful hijacking in late 1999 of an Indian passenger airliner by Kashmiri militants in apparent cahoots with the ISI and the Taliban. In November 1999, Washington sponsored (jointly with Russia) UN Security Council Resolution 1267, imposing limited economic sanctions on the Taliban, which was followed a year later by Resolution 1333 to tighten the sanctions and this time also to subject the Taliban to an arms embargo – a measure which the Security Council complemented by adopting Resolution 1363 in July 2001, endorsing the stationing of monitors in neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan.

However, all these measures proved quite ineffective, given the Taliban’s defiance and Pakistan’s blatant violations. They did little either to moderate the Taliban’s behaviour or to make Pakistan change direction. If anything, the more the UN measure came into effect, the more the Taliban and their ISI minders reacted with provocative counter-measures to impress upon the international community that they were in charge of Afghanistan and that the West should deal with the Taliban directly. Their counter-measures included the destruction of all pre-Islamic statues, most importantly those of two ancient Buddhas, closing down UN-run bakeries which provided bread for numerous destitute families in Kabul, the requirement that the tiny Hindu minority in Afghanistan wear yellow badges of distinction, and finally the arrest of eight Western aid workers and 16 of their Afghan support staff on charges of spreading Christianity among the Afghans. These steps outraged the international community and yet at the same time forced it to interact with the Taliban. The Musharraf government played a dubious role at best in all this. While publicly calling on the Taliban to moderate their counter-measures, it kept criticising the UN measures and urged the international community to engage rather than isolate the Taliban. It rejected any criticism of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, and maintained its façade of no military involvement in the country.

Problems with the American strategy

The problem with the American strategy was that it mostly focused on judicial means, diplomatic pressure and a couple of attempted covert military operations for one and only one purpose: to capture bin Laden and his top aides. It failed to see that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network were closely intertwined with the Taliban and the ISI, that Bin Laden virtually owned the Taliban by providing the militia with millions of dollars and thousands of Arab fighters, and that there was little chance of taking out bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants without at the same time taking on the Taliban and the ISI. It also paid only transitory attention to the wider brutalities of these three forces against the Afghan people. Masood and his United Front partners could do nothing but suffer from growing frustration and disappointment over the narrow, and in many ways, futile approach of the United States. All his efforts in trying to make the Americans, and for that matter the international community, understand that the ISI was crystallising a dangerous situation in Afghanistan came to very little.

To Masood, the only way to contain the Taliban and their Arab supporters was for the United States to deal with the source of the problem: Pakistan’s ISI and military leadership. Disenchanted with what he regarded as the US’s apathy towards the Afghan tragedy, Masood found it imperative to continue and widen the resistance in whatever way possible. He considered resistance to be the only means of pressuring the Taliban and Pakistan to opt for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict, and to provide for the formation of a broad-based multi-ethnic government, removal of terrorist networks from Afghanistan and curtailment of Pakistan’s ‘creeping invasion’ of the country. In the first half of year 2000, he made relentless efforts to expand the opposition by incorporating more former Mujahideen leaders into the resistance, so as to open various fronts to prevent the Taliban–Arab–Pakistani forces concentrating against his fighters alone. He welcomed back into the resistance the former governors of the western province of Herat, Ismail Khan, who had escaped from a Taliban prison a year earlier, and the eastern province of Nangarhar, Haji Abdul Qadir, as well as General Rashid Dostam, a former Uzbek warlord of the northern province of Balkh, although he was aware of Dostam’s human rights abuses in the past. While his United Front (or the so-called Northern Alliance) was and still is largely made up of non-Pushtuns, it contained at least two Pushtun Mujahideen leaders, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, and Haji Abdul Qadir, as well as a number of Pushtun commanders.

This, together with some financial assistance and arms that he received from India, Iran and Russia, helped him to frustrate his opponents. He had been the target of many Taliban-Pakistani assassination attempts, but finally at the time when he was ready to go on the offensive in the final weeks of the northern autumn (September–October) of 2001, his enemies succeeded in eliminating him not on the battlefield, but through an act of terrorism. His death constituted a major blow to his forces, but does not appear to have seriously affected their morale and fighting capability: Masood left a number of excellent commanders and a solid military structure to ensure the continuation of the resistance.


The Afghan problem and other root-causes

Now that the US and other Western powers have finally come, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, to share Masood’s cause in support of freedom and against terror and that Pakistan has found itself in a position to dispense with the Taliban as if it had never patronised the militia, Washington needs to act prudently. It must not disappoint all those Afghans and other non-Afghan actors who applauded Masood’s stand either loudly or quietly. The Afghan opposition forces, under the formal political tutelage of Burhanuddin Rabbani but under the command of Masood’s deputy and successor, General Qasim Fahim, welcomed the opportunity to help the Americans and their allies to free the Afghans from Taliban rule and destroy the bases of terrorism in Afghanistan. In so doing, they made a difficult choice between what they view as Taliban–bin Laden Islamic medievalism and America’s reputation for imperialism. The US owes it to the resistance to act in concert with it in achieving America’s anti-terrorist objectives and in enabling the Afghans to rebuild a new, stable Afghanistan. There can be no peace and stability in Afghanistan and no end to the bin Laden kind of international terrorism unless the US and its allies ensure that they achieve the following four important political objectives.

The first is to secure a viable resolution of the Afghan problem by generating the necessary conditions in Afghanistan for the formation of a genuinely broad-based, multi-ethnic governmental system and by providing generous assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in support of making this system work. They would need to do this through the United Nations as the body to function as the overall supervisor during the transitional period, but with a clear warning to Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs any longer.

The second is to help Pakistan in whatever way possible to restructure the ISI and make it a responsible security organisation with no powers to operate above the law either inside or outside Pakistan; to close down radical Islamic groups and madrassas (religious seminaries) which have been involved in violent cross-border activities in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir; to generate rapid socio-economic stability; and to be returned to genuine democracy sooner rather than later.

The third is to achieve a viable resolution of the Palestinian problem, and alleviate the sufferings of the Iraqi people that the decade-long UN sanctions have created. These problems have been two constant sources of accumulated anti-American frustration and anger across the Arab and for that matter the Muslim world. Not only bin Laden but many more like him can easily draw on these problems to recruit dedicated supporters and galvanise anti-American sentiment in the region because of the US’s strategic partnership with Israel.

The fourth is to induce all the friendly Arab regimes to widen public participation in both policy-making and policy-implementation processes within pluralist, responsible and transparent governmental frameworks. A failure in this respect can only ensure the continuation of those popular political and social frustrations that could make many people, especially the young, susceptible to Islamic radicalisation.

In short, a reshaping of Afghan, regional and international political and economic orders has never been more urgent. The removal of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda activists and the Taliban regime on its own will not ensure the necessary changes. Nor would it necessarily eliminate the danger from those groups that are or will be gripped by apocalyptic missions, and such groups may well require further military responses as they pose challenges. The US and its allies will have to cast their net wider to address all the root causes that provide the motivation for such horrific acts as those committed against US targets on September 11, 2001. A state, like Pakistan, must never again be allowed to cause so much disruption and stress in world politics.








Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.