Wars and Empire


Q: Can you chart the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban?



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Q: Can you chart the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban?

A: The policy of the ISI was strongly correlated with developments in Pakistan's leadership. The main divide concerning the ISI's Afghanistan policies did not concernĀ  religious issues as it did the ethnic question related to the political and military aspirations of the Pashtun people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Actually one of the greatest dangers to Pakistan's national existence would be the emergence of the idea of Greater Pashtunistan, splitting Pakistan in two.

This was an idea favored and agitated by the pro-Soviet Pashtuns - many of whom are now influential in the Taliban. The Pakistani researcher Musa Khan Jalalzai noticed this and described these people as "enemies of Pakistani interests".

India and Iran would like to split Pakistan and destroy it, and Russian geopolitics is still based on a "final thrust to the South". Iran and India equally fear that Baluchistan, Kashmir and Punjab would finally be united under Pakistani rule. Incorporating Pashtunistan, Pakistan has the potential to become a South Asian superpower with plausible expansionist chances. Yet this has never really been an aspiration of Pakistan. Like Turkey under Ataturk, Pakistan under such leaders as Ayub Khan and now Pervez Musharraf has been introverted in its nationalism and based on constitutional and national ideas similar to those of present day Turkey and France.

During the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq the policy turned more Islamist, and during this period the ISI strongly supported Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar proved disloyal and finally defected to Iran. During Benazir Bhutto's government, support has shifted to the Taliban. This was decided by the Interior Minister Nasirullah Babar. It is history's irony that the first female prime minister of Pakistan helped to strengthen the misogynist Taliban regime.

The ISI started to get disillusioned and disappointed with the Taliban during the thoroughly corrupt "democracy" continued under Nawaz Sharif. There have been rumors that the ISI wished to influence the Taliban and to empower "a third force" among the more moderate Taliban leaders to take over it. It is in connection with this that Shahnawaz Tanai actually defected to Pakistan, and the ISI was dealing with the former communists who were so powerful within the Taliban.

Luckily for Western interests, General Pervez Musharraf took over. This takeover was the best event in Pakistani history as far as the West is concerned, although it was sadly ignored in the West during the Clinton administration. Musharraf was portrayed as a military dictator and a supporter of the causes of the Taliban and of an alliance with China (all sins of his predecessors). Musharraf is profoundly pro-Western, secular in mind and pragmatic in foreign policy. He in fact tried to form constructive relationships with all the neighboring countries (Iran, India and Afghanistan). His peace initiatives in Kashmir were stalled by Indian arrogance, and the West turned a cold shoulder to its old ally, which has been a source of great bitterness in Pakistan, especially since the West has been very inconsistent in choosing when to support Pakistan and when not to. But during the Musharraf reign, human rights and the position of women in Pakistan have improved considerably.

Constructive relations with whomever rules Afghanistan have been Realpolitik for Pakistan.

Although Musharraf, immediately after seizing power, started to undermine the support for the Taliban, he could not remove the recognition given to the Taliban government, as there was no other Afghan government - the Rabbani government having been ousted and categorically hostile to Pakistan, partly for legitimate reasons. Pakistan has been trying ever since to construct new anti-Taliban alliances, as well as trying to find intra-Taliban frictions to exploit. But the West should be very careful and measured in its pressure on Pakistan. The Taliban is really not under Pakistan's thumb, and never was.

I think the ISI first saw the Taliban as a potential instrument. Then it saw it as a threat that had to be infiltrated and controlled. Then they saw it as a burden. Surely the ISI wished to control and contain the Taliban, but their success has been rather doubtful (as has been others'). Many analysts have paid attention to the fact that Afghan as well as non-Afghan adventurers like bin Laden, have always been very talented at exploiting the surrounding states as well as both superpowers.

Another distorted myth is propagated by India. It is that the Kashmiri secessionism is terrorism and a Pakistani creation. This is very far from reality. More than 80% of Kashmiris would probably prefer independence, but at the same time they reject the Islamist model. There are several small but media-visible Islamist groups operating in Kashmir, or at least proclaiming the Kashmiri cause. But these people are not really interested in Kashmiri independence. They are interested in jihad. Such Islamists appear wherever there is a war (during Bosnia's struggle for independence and in the Albanian civil war, in Chechnya, Kashmir and so on).

Their "help" is usually just an added burden to the ones they purport to help, since they are seldom fighting for any liberation. These "professional" jihadists also seem to be more common in internet cafes and among Arab diasporas in the West than in places where Muslim nations face real oppression.

We must remember that Musharraf cannot possibly surrender to India in the Kashmir dispute. This would not only be political suicide, but it would not end the Kashmir conflict - quite the contrary. It would mean importing the Kashmiri conflict into Pakistan, and against Pakistan. What happened in Afghanistan, with millions of refugees flooding to Pakistan, should not happen with Kashmir. This would be an outright catastrophe for both Pakistan and India, let alone the Kashmiri people. Therefore it is the most crucial interest of the West to prevent India from escalating the Kashmir conflict and turning Kashmir into another weapon against Pakistan's stability.

Q: The "Arab" fighters in Afghanistan - are they a state with a state, or the long arm for covert operations (e.g., the assassination of Massoud) for the Taliban? Who is the dog and who is the tail?

A: The dog and tail can get very entangled here. Everybody is exploiting everybody, and finally all organizations and states are tools which consist of individuals and used by them. The Arabs in Afghanistan are indeed Arabs. There are also lots of "Pakistani" volunteers on the Taliban side, but these are mainly Pashtuns, that is, Afghans.

The mentioning of Chechens, Uighurs and so on is more designed to satisfy the propaganda purposes of Russia and China. There are less than one million Chechens and they have a very harsh war going on in Chechnya. Chechens who choose to go to Afghanistan instead must be quite unpatriotic.

The Arabs form the hard core of Al-Qaida. They are the Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi etc. professional revolutionaries and terrorists who have gathered around the figurehead of Osama bin Laden.

Many of these share the same old background in Marxist-inspired revolutionary movements in the Middle East. Ideology and facade have changed when green replaced red, but their methods as well as foreign contacts have mainly remained the same. This is why they are much more interested in attacking the West and pro-Western Muslim regimes than in supporting any true national liberation movements. Even if they try to infiltrate and influence conflict outcomes in the Balkans, the Caucasus, East Turkistan and Kashmir, they are set against the nationalist and secular - and usually pro-Western - policies of the legitimate leadership of these secessionist movements. So the people whom Al-Qaida may support and try to infiltrate are usually exiled or otherwise opposition forces acting in fact against the idea of independence. This has been the case in Chechnya, Dagestan, Bosnia, Kashmir and so on.

And this has been the case in Afghanistan as well. Osama bin Laden and his Arabs never contributed to the actual Afghan national liberation struggle. Instead they acted against it by infiltrating Afghan circles and turning them against each other.

Their jihad is not intended to defend the Muslims against infidel oppressors, but to cause chaos and destruction, in which they apparently hope to overthrow Muslim regimes and replace them with the utopia of Salafi rule. It is not hard to see how this set of mind was inherited from the communist utopian terrorist movements that preceded the present Islamist ones. They had the same structures, the same cadres, the same leaders, the same sponsors and the same methods.

The Arabs in Afghanistan have feathered their nests, though. Osama bin Laden and his closest associates have all married daughters of Afghan elders - from different factions and tribes - and their sons and daughters have, in turn, married the off-spring of eminent Afghan leaders. This is how they secured their foothold in Afghan social networks - something neither the West nor Pakistan succeeded to do. When issues are reduced to family relationships, it is not to be expected that the Afghans would hand over the Arabs to the West or to Pakistan. Al-Qaida is not only fortifying itself physically, but also socially. At the same time their cells and countless collaborating agencies - some of whom are clearly non-Islamist, and some of which are government agencies of certain hostile states - are hoping to escalate this "war against terrorism" and to exploit it for their own purposes.




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