General Pervez Musharraf must feel that he has shot himself in the foot. His decision to join America’s war on Afghanistan and ditch the Taliban, because of George W. Bush’s infamous threat (“You are either with us or with the terrorists”), was meant to secure Pakistan’s “national interests”. Things have turned out very differently in Afghanistan from what Musharraf anticipated: the hated Northern Alliance has established itself in Kabul and arch-enemy India has sent its diplomats there, while Pakistan was forced to scramble out in a hurry. The unkindest cut is that the US has now forced Pakistan to close the Taliban’s embassy in Islamabad, which had remained open until November 22, as well.
The Alliance’s control of Kabul is a nightmare for Pakistan, and Musharraf’s claim of “being in the loop” with Washington rings hollow. He is no longer sure of himself. By abandoning the Taliban he has incurred the wrath of the Afghans as well as Pakistanis. He ignored the protests of his people, but America is finding new recruits for its war against Afghanistan, and Pakistan is becoming less necessary to its plans.
Self-deception has been a habit of all Pakistan’s rulers, and Musharraf is no exception. He preferred to be taken along by the US even when the ground realities pointed in another direction. True, the Taliban’s exit from Kabul on November 13 was rather sudden, but it still reveals a clear failure of Pakistani intelligence that they did not get wind of it. Why was the ISI not able to foresee these developments? There are reports that, a week before the Taliban actually left Kabul and Jalalabad, their forces had thinned out of the cities; this was public knowledge. The Taliban’s withdrawal from Kabul was orderly – indicating prior planning as well as ingenuity. Musharraf also allowed himself to be duped into believing that America would not allow the Northern Alliance to enter Kabul.
Musharraf said that he had received “assurances” from the US about the limited role of the Northern Alliance as recently as two days before their entry into Kabul. On November 12, the day after he dined with Bush in New York (a singular honour for a man who until September 11 was shunned as an international pariah), Musharraf stated emphatically at a joint press briefing with Bush that the Northern Alliance should not be permitted to enter Kabul. The following day (November 13), as his plane took off from New York, news came that the Northern Alliance had in fact entered Kabul; the Taliban had left the night before. No one took seriously America’s expressions of surprise. American special forces were operating with Alliance troops, and American planes facilitated their entry to Kabul by bombing Taliban positions north of Kabul heavily. Americans accompanied the Alliance soldiers into Kabul; so much for America’s surprise.
One also needs to consider the Taliban’s decision to withdraw so completely and suddenly from Kabul, and indeed most cities of Afghanistan. On November 14 a Taliban spokesman said it was part of their plan. Firstly they could not defend the civilian population from US bombardment, which was causing massive casualties, so they decided to withdraw from the cities in order to deny the US the excuse to bomb them. Secondly, the Taliban were obviously thinly spread out and militarily it made sense to regroup and defend a smaller area. Thirdly, their goal was to draw American ground troops. In this they have evidently succeeded. As for America’s bombing, since they do not care for any civilians other than their own it has continued, as reports from eastern Afghanistan and other parts of the country confirm.
The animosity between the Tajiks, who dominate the Northern Alliance, and the majority Pashtuns in the south will also come into play now. Atrocities by Northern Alliance soldiers against civilians, as well as against Arabs and Pakistanis, and rape and pillage in Kabul and Mazar-e Shareef, have also aroused Pashtun anger, despite the western media turning a blind eye to them. A doctor in Jalalabad said: “It has only been a week but we are already missing the Taliban. At least they ensured law and order. Now the warlords have returned to terrorize the people.” The killing of four western journalists on November 19 between Jalalabad and Kabul is a foretaste of things to come.
But it is in Islamabad that great unease is being felt barely weeks into the ‘new relationship’ with Washington, which, however, is based on wishful thinking, rather than on any sound assessment of realities. Pakistanis have a tendency to read too much into their relationships, while Americans look only for their own interests. They have already achieved one of their objectives (the removal of the Taliban from power), which makes Islamabad less attractive to them. True, there are other, more difficult tasks ahead: the elimination of the Taliban from the scene; the destruction of al-Qaeda and the capture or assassination of Usama bin Ladin; the prevention of ‘terrorism’, none of which may ever be fully realized. Neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda can be eliminated completely, and even if Usama were killed it would not advance the US’s other objectives far. On the contrary, it may create hundreds or thousands of more Usamas in the world.
For Pakistan the situation is fraught with grave dangers. By abandoning the Taliban it burned bridges that had taken 25 years to build. With the Northern Alliance in control of Northern Afghanistan as well as Kabul, a hostile group has again emerged on Pakistan’s western borders, thus complicating its security environment. India now has much more weight in Kabul than Pakistan can ever hope to have. But all this could have been foreseen if Musharraf had not jumped the moment America cracked its whip. True, Bush was breathing fire but he could have been held back; this is what leaders are supposed to do: to stay cool in tough situations, rather than panic. For all his bravado, Musharraf has turned out to be as timid as his civilian counterparts.
Even at this eleventh hour, he could activate Pakistan’s assets in Afghanistan to prevent further damage to its interests. There are many in the southern tribal belt who would like to work with Pakistan and to see it play a more constructive role rather than work as a US puppet; the Americans have a long history of abandoning people and places once they have used them. Pakistanis are well aware of how Yahya Khan facilitated Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in August 1971, and incurred Russia’s wrath thereby; yet during the Indian invasion of former East Pakistan in November/December 1971 the US maintained its distance. Even more shocking was America’s treatment of Zia ul-Haq and Pakistan: they were used for eight years in Afghanistan, and then ditched once Russia had been forced to leave.
In present-day Afghanistan, American casualties cannot be ruled out now that it has at least 1,000 troops on the ground and more expected to join them. The situation in Afghanistan is far from settled; we may yet witness other surprising developments in the next few weeks. Given the easy manner in which tribes switch loyalties, nothing can be taken for granted.