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    South Asia
     Apr 11, 2012

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Afghan endgame has Pakistan shuddering
By Brian M Downing

The war in Afghanistan has been stalemated for several years now and eyes are turning to a negotiated settlement. In recent weeks, talks between the United States and the Taliban have come and gone, but they will almost assuredly return.

As welcome as these bilateral talks are, they all but ignore the vital interests of regional actors such as Russia, China, India, Iran and perhaps most importantly, Pakistan. All of them will let their interests be known, directly or indirectly, cleverly or clumsily.

The Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have considerable influence with the Taliban and with many other militant groups along the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan


and Pakistan. Having cut off US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) supply lines through their country, these Pakistani security institutions feel they have expertly maneuvered the US into a corner.

The generals will be in an important position once negotiations restart, but how artfully they use it and what a settlement will bring are up in the air. Negotiations and a settlement could present the generals in their Rawalpindi compounds with major problems.

Generals and mullahs
The Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s amid the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the collapse of the communist government in 1992 when former mujahideen groups formed from madrassa students regathered to fight warlords and bandits. Their success won support from many war-weary Afghans but also from Pakistani generals. The generals wanted a strategic partner to the north that would expel Indian influence and safeguard commerce between the new Central Asian republics and Pakistani ports.

The generals and the mullahs shared the amalgam of religious and political creeds taught in Deobandi madrassas (seminaries), which opposed Hindus and Shi'ites alike and endowed Pakistani national security with a religious aura. Indeed, the uprisings against the Soviet-backed government in 1979 were to a considerable extent orchestrated by the Pakistani army in conjunction with the United States Central Intelligence Agency. This led to the Soviet invasion and decades of intermittent war and instability.

The generals are in a position to influence the Taliban by withholding supplies, arresting members of the group's council in Quetta and Karachi, or most drastically giving the whereabouts of principals to US intelligence and awaiting the inevitable. The generals will doubtless seek a settlement that restores Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan and lucrative commerce with Central Asia. They will insist that the Taliban hold fast to the anti-Hindu agenda and see that India is expelled from the north or at least limited to enterprises that benefit Pakistan, such as the export of ores through Karachi.

India has won support from non-Pashtun peoples in the north who loathe the Taliban and see Pakistan as supporting the insurgency and the assassination campaign against northern leaders. India will find support from Russia, which seeks to check Islamic militancy along the Durand Line and Chinese influence in Central Asia. Iran too will support India as it sees the Taliban as a Sunni cult with ties to Saudi Arabia, with which it is vying for dominance in the Persian Gulf.

This could mean that Pakistani interests, as construed and advanced by its generals, will complicate negotiations and possibly even bring them to an impasse. Another complicating if not ruinous matter is the Kashmir question, which is central to Pakistani nationalism. News reports and school teachings assert that India stole the parts of Kashmir now under New Delhi's control and Pakistan must wrest all of Kashmir from Hindu dominance. Few historians outside of Pakistan agree with this position and few Kashmiris wish to trade India's rule for Pakistan's. But no matter, Kashmir is an id้e fixe in the Pakistani imagination.

Detaching Kashmir from Indian control is a veritable creed in the Pakistani army. It commingles with notions of institutional honor and national mission, which enhance the ardor devoted to the creed. The army trains several militant groups to operate in Kashmir and conducts diversionary operations to aid their infiltration across the frontier. It has fought two wars over it (1965 and 1971) and lost them both, infusing their creed with the need to avenge humiliation.

The generals almost undoubtedly see their support of the Taliban, their constriction of US supply lines, and their parleys with China as masterful movements that will culminate in settling the Kashmir question in their favor. Failure would bring more dishonor. Further, it would cause the militant groups trained to liberate Kashmir to turn against their state sponsors. So zealous are many in these groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba that when the generals counsel restraint, they demand to be set loose and even vent their wrath by attacking Pakistani generals and politicians.

Pashtun ascendance
For all their strategic and religious affinities, the Taliban and the generals in Rawalpindi are distinct entities with interests that overlap, at least for a while, but are not identical. Fissures may already have surfaced. Two years ago, Pakistan arrested and detained a handful of Taliban principals thought to be on the verge of unsanctioned talks with the US.

Pakistan's concern with India's presence in the north may exceed the Taliban's concern, anti-Hindu though they are. This could lead to a harder line than the Taliban shura would want. Pakistan may seek to have the preponderance of Afghan resources shipped from its ports on the Arabian Sea (rather than north into Russia or west into Iran) and to impose hefty transit fees as well.

Further, Pakistani generals see the Taliban-controlled areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan as a redoubt in case of war with India and will seek a presence there. The generals will see those provinces as an autonomous region of sorts strongly influenced from their headquarters in Rawalpindi.

The Taliban have been misjudged by almost all powers as Pashtun bumpkins, unsophisticated in matters of the world around them. Their artful communiques and effective campaigns indicate otherwise. Pakistan may be the latest power to take them lightly.

The past three decades of fighting foreign armies and non-Pashtun peoples has brought greater interaction and a somewhat stronger Pashtun identity. The Pashtun in Afghanistan have fought Russians, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and now the Americans and their allies, though they have also fought each other.

Some Pashtun tribes served with the Russians against the mujahideen, later allied with the old Northern Alliance against the Taliban, and are now supportive of the Western-backed Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. Nonetheless, the Taliban have coalesced a sizable cluster of tribes in the south and east, through parley, force, or apparent inevitability.

The Pashtun across the frontier in Pakistan see their language forcibly supplanted by Urdu in newspapers and schools - a formula for ethnic resentment. Many Pashtun tribes south of the Durand Line have revolted against Islamabad's presence and its alliance with the US. They have formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban - TTP), an umbrella organization of Pashtun tribes, which has stalemated the Pakistani army and which executes horrific bombing attacks on a regular basis.

The wars have led to tribal parleys and alliances that have brought a measure of common purpose to some of the disparate tribes that compose the Pashtun nation on both sides of the frontier. The Taliban are not at present a Pashtun nationalist movement, though their movement has very little support from non-Pashtun peoples in the north and indeed the Taliban's staunchest domestic foes are their non-Pashtun "countrymen" - a formula for nationalist sentiment.

The Taliban claim to be an Islamist movement, above the petty claims and mundane prejudices of tribalism and nationalism. A settlement, however, would leave them in official control of at least some Pashtun regions - and force them to contend with the petty claims and mundane prejudices therein. Islamist ideology does not offer meaningful guidance on improving harvests, developing mineralogical resources, or finding export routes.

Pakistan's territorial integrity
The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is an arbitrary creation of the British that is spottily demarcated and rarely respected. Pashtun old-timers and members of the middle classes will remember Afghanistan's vehement but powerless opposition to granting Pashtun lands to Pakistan. They are considered integral parts of Afghanistan unjustly wrested from them by the British army long ago and held today by their sepoys. Many favored being part of Hindu-dominated India rather than part of a Punjabi-dominated Pakistan. [1]

After the Indian partition in 1947, Afghan governments officially supported creation of an independent Pashtun embracing what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously known as North-West Frontier Province), the Federally Administered Tribal Area, and curiously enough, the western Pakistani province of Balochistan. The Balochs are not Pashtun; Kabul was simply playing upon Baloch resentment upon losing its autonomy to the Pakistani state.

Pakistan recognizes a double threat in Pashtun and Baloch aspirations. Balochistan already has a low-level insurgency against Pakistani administration, which is oriented around resource extraction and harsh repression. Baloch attacks have been part of China's reluctance to build a naval base in Gwadar and proceed with economic projects - rich though Balochistan may be in gold and hydrocarbons.

Lingering Afghan claims, an ascendant Pashtun movement, and an increasingly hostile and perhaps vengeful US make for anxiety in Pakistan, as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan constitute about 60% of the country's land mass. And territorial integrity has been of paramount concern since losing East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971. 

Continued 1 2  

Taliban's peace options limited
(Mar 28, '12)

Sgt Bales' secret and an Afghan endgame (Mar 21, '12)

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