The New “Great Game”

In the first flush of victory contrived by the US for the Northern Alliance in late 2001, the Tajik animosity against Pakistan had bared itself immediately and ominously. Within Kabul, Pakistani-origin Talibaan prisoners were summarily executed. Externally Qanooni, Gen Fahim and Abdullah Abdullah took turns visiting the Indian capital and lambasting Pakistan from pillar to post. Qanooni reportedly handed over about 125 Pakistani “Talibaan’ prisoners to India for use as terrorism’s cannon fodder, eg the Dec 13 attack on Indian Parliament is widely suspected to be a Polish border-type incident staged by Indian intelligence. As the US-led Coalition imposed a UN-sponsored interim set-up in Afghanistan, the Tajik became more sophisticated, their rage against Pakistan was kept under wraps for international public consumption, but only just. With late Ahmed Shah Masoud’s cronies holding the vital portfolios of governance, Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs, the “broad-based” Afghan Interim Government is simply a front for the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

After the convenient betrayal and execution of the experienced, battle hardened and powerful Pashtun leader Haji Abdul Rahman, Karzai was a good choice as a compromise figure. Articulate and presentable but without any power-base worth the name, to the Tajiks he is an acceptable face representing the Pakhtun majority. Karzai is apprehensive (a polite word for ” terrified”) about his personal safety, and it seems so is the US. After one Afghan minister was bludgeoned to death in full view of hundreds of onlookers by senior officials of the Northern Alliance as a very public warning to recalcitrants who attempted to buck the Tajik-run system, Karzai decided discretion was the better part of valour. His bodyguards now are of US Government-issue, not a single Afghan among them. Even then Karzai almost came to grief in home town Kandahar several months ago. Pakistani concerns that he would eventually be “a puppet on a string” in Tajik hands is a fact of life.

Countries in the vicinity of Afghanistan have reasons to be concerned about its internal affairs, basically instable the country has a tendency of volatility on ethnic basis. Strictly speaking if this concern is pro-active it should be counted as interference in a country’s internal affairs but since Pashtuns are a majority in Afghanistan (67%), Pakistan has a vital interest in peace and stability on both sides of the Durand Line. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are interested parties because roughly 13%, 9% and 3% of the Afghan population respectively originates from  their  areas. There is a sizeable Shia Hazara population (6%) in and around Bamiyan Province, that gives Iran an interest, around 1970 during the reign of Shah of Iran and King Zahir Shah relations had broken  down because of Iran’s claim on adjacent Afghan territory. Former occupying power Russia remains apprehensive, burnt by the Chechnya experience, about militant Islam’s penetration into the muslim socialist republics of the former Soviet Union, re-named the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) but still very much under Russian tutelage.

India recently opened full-fledged Consulates in Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad, the last two adjacent to Pakistan. Pakistan has reasons to be concerned about India’s intentions, there is no valid logic for opening these diplomatic posts. Their sole mission is anti-Pakistan, to foment, fund and execute low-intensity conflict on our western borders and by keeping it alive, force Pakistan to shift critical military resources away from facing India on our eastern borders. The Afghan regime has administrative control only in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Other than Rashid Dostum (in an uneasy partnership with Mulla Atta Mohammad of the Northern Alliance) holding the crossroads Mazar-Sharif area and the south- western area in and around Herat dominated by Ismail Khan, the Pakhtun areas are ruled by a number of local warlords who made themselves scarce (or gave due obeisance) during the Taliban regime.

The Afghan warlord earns revenues by exacting a tax from all those who pass through his territory, Afghanistan is a predator society. The north is rich in minerals, that is another source of revenues. Since there is no industry worth the name in the country, a limited internal commerce is the only source of livelihood. Ahmed Shah Masood financed his forces through the sales of emeralds found in and around Panjsheer valley. Other than taxing people and border goods passing through, Dostum and Ismail Khan went into heroin manufacturing in a big way before the Taliban regime ran them out of power and eradicated all drugs manufacturing and trade. They have now returned to the “lucrative” business as have the Pashtun warlords. This strong partnership is based on their mutual hatred of the Taliban who put paid not only to their predator “wild west” ways of life but to a lucrative means of livelihood. Mandated by the UN as “politicians” most warlords need to keep their war machines running to have any nuisance value, without genuine public support “the barrel of the gun” is their electorate. An original mercenary, the Afghan is notorious for giving loyalty only to his paymaster, history is witness to Kabul being many times in the hands of disgruntled soldiers, rioting for their unpaid salaries. The British Residency was sacked when the Emir of Kabul promised his rebellious soldiers they would be paid by the British even though they had no obligation. There is no change in over a hundred and fifty years, the Afghan cannot be bought, he can only be “rented out by the hour”

While Pakistan has had its share of heroin smuggling and smugglers in the 80s, but even at the height of the Afghan war most poppy-growing areas were in Afghanistan. The success of Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force  (ANF), their effort greatly helped by the Taliban drive to eradicate poppy-growing and heroin manufacturing within Afghanistan, forced manufactures of heroin into the desolate nether-world where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet in a triangle. Iran has lost thousands killed and several times that number wounded in violent clashes with well-armed convoys of drug smugglers, some equipped with Stingers.

After the death of Haji Qadeer his son Haji Zahir Khan has taken over, the other known Pashtun figure Hazrat Khan is in fact a Kohistani, Both have been involved in armed incursions into Pakistan, these attacks intensified with the move of our regular troops into tribal areas to weed out the remnants of the Talibaan who showed some signs of re-grouping. The drug warlords operating just west of the Durand line fear interdiction by joint US-Pak collaboration. Since they can hardly take on US firepower, they are increasingly converting their war of words on Pakistan into gunfire along our border. Pakistan needs to make our tribal frontier areas economically strong on a priority basis, the only way is to create a “Special Tribal Economic Zone” (STEZ) with Dubai-like logistics to establish a trade platform for all the Central Asian States and ECO countries.

With Iran intent on waging a proxy war against the US on Afghan soil and drug warlords infesting the Kabul regime using the Taliban as an excuse to build their own private armies while blaming their own incompetence and inability on Pakistan, the situation is ripe for Indian agent provocateurs to foment anti- Pakistan feeling. Their clear intention is to engage Pakistan in low-intensity conflict on its western borders. Meantime, Iran sees Afghanistan as a convenient battleground to fight the US in proxy war in the same manner they used Pakistani soil to fight the Saudis in Shia-Sunni conflict through the 80s and 90s.

With the US engaged in trying to eradicate the remnants of Al-Qaeda, the Afghan government’s anti-Pakistan tirade is providing a perfect smokescreen for the growing unholy nexus between the Iranians and Indians. A dangerous new “great game” with wider ramifications is now in play. It is in both Pakistan and US interest that the warlords are eliminated and a truly representative government comes to power in Kabul. Remedial reasons must be taken before a full fledged guerilla war in Afghanistan makes it difficult to separate the good guys from the bad.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).