By M.R. Narayan Swamy
Depending on which side of the fence one is, it will be easy to blame the United States or Pakistan for the Taliban’s blitzkrieg in Afghanistan. Or even the Afghan President who has fled. The Taliban’s return to power has no doubt triggered relief and joy in Islamabad and brought Washington’s diplomatic stock to rock bottom. Yet contemporary Afghan history will show that the Taliban may be beholden to Pakistan for many things but they are and will be no one’s stooges.
The Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden when it ruled Afghanistan. But Taliban chief Mullah Omar was no great fan of the al-Qaeda founder-leader. A time came when major differences cropped up between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
In April 1998, the Taliban received a high-level American delegation in Kabul. Two months later, Mullah Omar met Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of the Saudi intelligence, and agreed to a secret deal to hand over bin Laden for trial in Riyadh for treason, a crime punishable by death. Mullah Omar was irked by bin Laden’s announcement of a World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders. In July that year, a Taliban envoy went to Saudi Arabia (one of only three countries which recognised the Taliban regime) to reaffirm the deal; bin Laden’s Arab bodyguards were soon replaced by Afghans.
However, the whole equation changed when the US bombed Sudan and Khost (Afghanistan) after the August 1998 al-Qaeda bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. When Prince Turki later flew into Kandahar with commandos to take back bin Laden, a furious Mullah Omar refused to hand over. Mullah Omar feared that giving him away to Saudi Arabia after the bombings would make him look like a coward. Had the deal come through in 1998, there would have been no 9/11 and the Taliban may have never had to vacate Kabul.
According to British journalist-author Jason Burke, Mullah Omar never viewed bin Laden as a friend. During the anti-Soviet war, the Afghan Mujahideen viewed the volunteers from the Middle East as a liability. Their fighting spirit was not doubted but the Arabs were generally disliked. This caused problems and triggered, on occasions, violence. In the last few years of the Afghan war, clashes between the Arab Afghans and locals became more common, particularly in the northeastern Afghan border province of Kunar where hardline Wahabis had declared an independent state.
Bin Laden tried to assuage Mullah Omar with several large donations to the Taliban treasury. But all this did little to pacify the Taliban leader. At one point, a worried bin Laden sent an aide to Yemen to know if he could get a suitable base if the Taliban booted him out of Afghanistan.
Burke says in his celebrated work “Al Qaeda” that despite the proximity between the Pakistani state and the Taliban, there was plenty of friction. A key Pakistani aim in backing the Taliban was to secure a “strategic depth”. This meant that the Pakistan army should have enough space west of the Indus to reform and rebuild if forced back behind the river by an Indian invasion. “The Afghans’ own interests did not enter into the equation.”
Pakistan’s involvement in the dramatic growth of the Taliban was deep. This was evident in the sudden development of the tactical and organisational sophistication of the Taliban fighters. Pakistanis built radio and telephone systems and other logistical equipment for the nascent Taliban administration. (The dialing code for Kandahar in Afghanistan was the same as Quetta in Pakistan!) In 1997-98, Pakistan helped the Taliban pay salaries to its bureaucrats.
Despite the crucial backing from Pakistan, the Taliban was no stooge of Islamabad. For the first four years of its existence, senior Taliban leaders rarely referred to the Islamic Umma or indeed to any event overseas. The issue of Kashmir (and Chechnya, Iraq or Palestine) was never raised. In June 2000, Islamabad gave the Taliban a list of 18 camps where sectarian militants from Pakistan were believed to be training. In response, the Taliban closed three. Three months later, Islamabad unsuccessfully demanded the extradition of 15 militants.
Transformation in Phases
Many transformations have taken place in the Taliban’s worldview since its first spell of rule of Afghanistan. At that time, the only three countries which recognised the Taliban regime were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Today, ties are cold with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, partly because of the Taliban’s closeness to Qatar, which has broken ranks with Saudi Arabia. Precisely for this reason, Turkey is now on the side of the Taliban.
The US and the Soviet Union have switched roles vis-a-vis the Taliban (and its earlier incarnation Mujahideen). China is all for the Taliban as long as the latter does not stoke Islamist fires in the Chinese border region. Having put all its eggs in the anti-Taliban basket, on the mistaken assumption that the US will not abandon Afghanistan, India is a major loser in the current scenario, certainly in the short run.
With its economic muscle, China will try to pump in a lot of money into Afghanistan, partly to keep the Taliban in good humour and partly to aggressively pursue its Belt and Road Initiative. The West is unlikely to pour in aid if the Taliban plays havoc with human rights (although the West is perfectly capable of overlooking rights abuses when it suits its interests.)
The Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus can celebrate for now but there will be blowback for sure; remember Pakistan became radicalised and militarised by the time the Soviets quit Afghanistan. But Islamist groups around the world will be impressed seeing images of a victorious Taliban and the fleeing Americans. One hopes the Taliban, having learnt its lessons, says and does the right things for a better Afghanistan instead of becoming a part of the global terror network or presiding over an archaic Islamic society.
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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