March 22, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

The Taleban -- modern fanatics or tribal marauders

When the passengers of the hijacked IC 814 were released on December 31, 1999, their only desire was to return from their medieval and austere surroundings in Kandahar, to their near and dear ones in Delhi. The hijackers were Pakistanis -- members of the Harkat ul Mujahideen -- a terrorist group supported and provided training and other facilities by the Taleban in Khost and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

It was quite obvious that the Taleban had been duplicitous in supporting the aims of the hijackers on the one hand, while pretending to be neutral go betweens on the other, throughout the hijacking. But, any student of sub-continental history could not fail to understand the symbolism of what transpired in Kandahar, the seat of Pashtun power, from where the plains of "Hindustan" had been invaded over the centuries.

While Mullah Omar has been projected as a puritanical Islamic leader and even assumed the title of Amir ul Momineen (Leader of the Faithful), the establishment of Kandahar rather than Kabul as the seat of Afghan power and governance is not without its own significance. It indicates that Omar is also a staunch Pashtun nationalist not averse to resorting to the use of traditional symbols of power and authority of past Afghan rulers. The Taleban leadership is drawn predominantly from Pashtuns of the Durrani clan who hail from Kandahar. Omar himself is, however, believed to be from the rival Ghilzai Pashtun clan.

The Kandaharis still offer prayers at the mausoleum of the founding father of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Abdali. They proudly recall how Abdali pillaged and looted Delhi, Lahore and Multan and established Afghan power in Kashmir in the eighteenth century. Barely a stone's throw away from Abdali's mausoleum is the shrine where the "Cloak" of the Prophet Mohammed is housed. Mullah Omar emerged before the people of Kandahar with the Cloak in 1994, to be ordained as the Amir ul Momineen, in order to establish his legitimacy as having been divinely ordained to lead the Durranis and, therefore, the whole of Afghanistan.

The ISI, that was prominently present, as the Taleban moved into Kandahar, had obviously tutored the good Mullah well. He had been told that traditional symbolism had to accompany his religious fanaticism, if he was to win acceptance and legitimacy as the leader of the Pashtuns.

Pakistan's involvement with the fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan is of long standing. It goes back to 1975 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto played host to Gulbuddin Hikmetayar in a bid to destabilize the progressive, secular and nationalist government of President Daud. The United States joined the fray in supporting the likes of Hikmetayar, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

The Pashtun youth comprising the Taleban were drawn from Afghan refugees who had joined the Deobandi Madrassas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. These Madrassas were largely controlled and run by the Jamiat Ulema e Islam, an NWFP based fundamentalist Party, headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

The entire strategy of nurturing the Taleban was the brainchild of Benazir's Interior (Home) Minister Major General Nasrullah Babbar. While the ISI had used people like Hikmetayar primarily to see that Pakistan installed a compliant regime in Kabul in a quest for "strategic depth" against India, Babbar had more grandiose plans. He advocated the opening of a land route from Central Asia to the Baluchistan coast which would make Pakistan the strategic hub for the exploitation of the immense oil and gas resources of the region.

Apart from being religious zealots, the Taleban are also hardcore Pashtun Durrani nationalists who believe that there can be no question of genuinely sharing powers with other nationalities in Afghanistan like the Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. This was after all the way successive Durrani rulers from Ahmed Shah Abdali behaved. The ISI evidently believes that for Pakistan to gain abiding "strategic depth" against India the Taleban has to be helped by all means to establish hegemony over the whole of Afghanistan.

This ignores the fact that the Pashtuns themselves constitute only around 40 per cent of the population of Afghanistan. Interestingly, Musharraf himself has publicly articulated the cause of Pashtun hegemony in Afghanistan. It is in the pursuit of this policy that Pakistan now finds itself totally isolated from the international community on its Afghanistan policy. It is abhorrence and concern about the policies of the Taleban that has brought together an interesting coalition of forces ranging from Iran, India, China and the Central Asian countries on the one hand, to the United States and Russia on the other.

Pakistan has strategically overextended itself both directly in India, with its efforts to destabilize and undermine our secular, democratic and pluralistic structure and in its ambitions in Afghanistan. Any strategy to deal with Pakistan has necessarily dealt with the follies of its Afghan policies. The Taleban are a menace internationally not only because of their resort to medieval, extremist, Jihadi religious zeal, as exhibited by their wanton destruction of their country's priceless historical heritage, but also because of their inability to respect democratic norms either domestically or internationally. Like their Pakistani ISI mentors, they seem to care little for the welfare of their own people, while pursuing ambitious and unattainable external goals.

Lord Curzon had once described Afghanistan as the "Cockpit of Asia". He realized that the borders of India had to be defended at the Khyber Pass, even as he played the "Great Game" of containing Russian influence, through adroit political and diplomatic manoeuvring, within Afghanistan and beyond. New Delhi does not, however, have to worry about Russian influence today, as it sees Moscow as a partner and not as a rival, in dealing with the menace of religious extremism sponsored and supported by the ISI-Taleban nexus.

It is now for us to strengthen the broad-based international coalition that has emerged to deal with this menace. It is imperative that every possible means should be used to prevent the Taleban from exercising its hegemony up to the Amu Darya River on Afghanistan's borders with Central Asia.

The Pashtuns will eventually realize that all the help from ISI generals conducting their military operations will not enable them to fulfill their territorial ambitions in Northern Afghanistan. It would be only natural that they will then turn their eyes southwards towards their borders on the Durand Line-borders that were thrust down their throats by the British. Only then will Pakistan's strategic Pundits and Islamists like Generals Hamid Gul and Mirza Aslam Beg and Jihadis like Hafiz Mohammad Syed remember that the roads that Ahmed Shah Abdali took to Delhi from Kandahar also pass through Multan and Lahore.

The Taleban today has many friends and allies in Pakistan, ranging from Maulana Fazlur Rahman's JUI Party, to the virulently anti-Shia Sipah e Sahiba -- far more friends and kinsmen than Ahmad Shah Abdali had in these places, during his marauding expeditions in the eighteenth century. Pashtun nationalism cannot be constantly exploited by Pakistan under the garb of Islamic solidarity.

It is obvious that the Punjabi military elite is going to dominate the national life of Pakistan and especially the conduct of relations with India in the foreseeable future. Given the compulsive hostility of this elite, it would be na´ve to assume that Islamabad is going to change course in the conduct of relations with us, merely by our uttering sweet words, or by reciting a few couplets of Faiz in Urdu, or by holding candle-light vigils at Wagah.

The hard- headed khakis of Rawalpindi will change their policies only when they find that they are paying too heavy a price in pursuing them. Nations that go with a begging bowl to world capitals for assistance to repay their debts and that cannot govern themselves in a civilized, democratic manner are ill placed to entertain exaggerated notions about their influence and power. Dealing effectively with developments in Afghanistan will certainly help us in making this reality clear to the Generals across the border.

G Parthasarathy

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