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Afghanistan’s Number One Threat 
Sreeram Chaulia

The conventional troika being blamed as preponderant threats to Afghanistan’s stability, unity and existence are Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. It is sheer naivete to account these fundamentalist forces and ignore the number one wrecker-in-chief of Afghanistan in recent history- Pakistan (incidentally the creator of the second and third outfits named above and the playground of the first). 

There is an aphorism in world politics that geography cannot be chosen but simply accepted as given and lived with. Afghanistan, deriving its name from the Urdu word fughaan (lament), has had no recourse in the last 55 years except to lament about being situated on the map beside a covetous, destabilising and interventionist eastern neighbour. If they had a choice, Afghans would have aeons ago preferred relocation to another part of the globe where words like ‘ISI’, ‘Benazir’ and ‘Musharraf’ go unrecognised. Grounded by fate and increasingly frustrated by Islamabad’s relentless cross-border aggression and subversion, is it any surprise that Afghans demonstrated in thousands on two consecutive days and ransacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul on July 8th? 

For understanding the background to these violent expressions of public disgust in Kabul, readers should flashback to November 13th 2001 when the Northern Alliance marched into Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital. The tyranny of beards enforced by the Taliban had ended and citizens were queuing up before barber saloons, spontaneously raising anti-Pakistan slogans. The roar of ‘Pakistan hai hai…death to Musharraf’ and dramatic snapshots of mobs running after Pakistani and Arab Taliban were captured distinctly on camera. The memory of three Pakistani regimes training and backing the barbaric ultra-conservative Taliban for more than five years was fresh in Afghan minds.  

And mind you, popular protests against Pakistan were not the “staged” handiwork of particular ethnic groups. They were an outpouring of anguish and anger among all Afghans who had suffered under the Taliban, including Pushtuns who were ill-treated and exploited very harshly in Pakistan’s refugee camps. One big divisive tactic that Pakistan has always used with effect in Afghanistan is to claim that the majority Pushtuns love and look up to Islamabad, while only the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara minorities, which dominate the new dispensation, are incited by political authorities to foul-mouth and abuse Pakistan. The finger is often pointed at followers of Ahmad Shah Masood, the slain guerrilla warlord. In other words, rallies and embassy attacks are purportedly being organised by only one section of Afghan society that is jealous of Pakistan’s pro-Pushtun exertions.  

The ethnic card and so-called concern for democracy have time and again been utilised by Pakistan to push its agenda down Afghanistan’s gullet. General Musharraf was exhorted by US President George W. Bush on his last Washington jaunt to desist from this sinuous device to infiltrate Afghanistan. Yet, the level of dependence America has allowed itself on Pakistan means that Musharraf cannot genuinely be stopped from repeating his “lack of truly representative / multiethnic / broad-based government” accusation against Afghanistan. So peeved was Afghan President Hamid Karzai at Musharraf’s verbal assaults questioning his legitimacy that he overrode diplomatic niceties to declare in public, “Mr Musharraf has made some comments regarding Afghanistan which have become a matter of sadness and regret for me.” 

Now, everybody knows that Hamid Karzai is not an elected leader of Afghanistan and is indeed not widely accepted as legitimate President. But then, is Musharraf an elected leader? Is he a legitimate President? Were the Taliban a legitimate government? What happened to Musharraf’s worries about “truly representative government” when he wholeheartedly endorsed Pakistan’s alliance with Mullah Omar as the latter was beheading civilians of all ethnic hues in football stadiums? Why can’t the Generals in Rawalpindi let bygones be bygones, learn lessons from past mistakes and allow Afghanistan to transit towards peace?  

Musharraf agrees that the old ‘strategic depth’ reliance on Afghanistan is no longer valid, now that Pakistan has acquired nuclear weapons against India. So, why continue to bleed Afghanistan and seek influence in its internal matters? There are two big-picture explanations I can offer. One, Pakistan feels ‘surrounded’ by a pro-India regime on the west and India incarnate on the east. In December 2001, Musharraf told the Far Eastern Economic Review that India was “using Afghanistan to damage our interests.” The intensity of this fear, rather hatred, can be gauged by the fact that Pakistan objected to transit of much-needed wheat from India to Afghanistan in January 2002 on the fantastic basis that the grain was “infested with fungus and diseases.” The World Food Programme was compelled to convert the 50,000 tonnes of edible Indian wheat into biscuits and ship them to Afghanistan via Iran one month late. How many lives could have been saved if the wheat had reached on time is a moot question.  

On August 2nd this year, Pakistan alleged that Indian consulates in the Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar are “veritable bases of RAW and its accessories” from where New Delhi is “organising, financing and abetting acts of terrorism, sectarianism and violence in Pakistan.” Clearly, Pakistan is wary of losing the Jihad Route that allows holy warriors to begin their military-spiritual journey in the Middle East, course through Afghanistan-Pakistan and end up fighting in Indian Kashmir. The active anti-transit measures being taken by India and Afghanistan these days to disrupt the Jihad Route bother Musharraf as a supply line defect that must be rectified.  

The second general reason for Pakistan meddling in Afghanistan is paternalism. Army and Intelligence headquarters at Rawalpindi have simply grown too used to controlling Afghan politics and pocketing revenues from contraband drugs and arms trade across the Durand Line. Besides Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, Afghanistan has for long been a colony of sorts for Musharraf and his predecessors. Paternalism is writ large in Musharraf’s language for Afghanistan. Just after September 11, he warned India to “lay off” from “installing an anti-Pakistani government in Afghanistan.” What is his locus standi to ask one sovereign country to “lay off” from another sovereign counterpart? Afghanistan has been and remains in Pakistani eyes a feudal estate from which others must “lay off.”  

Paternalism is also evident in Pakistan’s desperate efforts to ensconce a pro-Islamabad faction in the current Karzai transition government. While the long-term strategy of installing a totally ‘friendly government’ in Kabul remains, Musharraf’s short-term aim is to have some pro-Pakistan quislings in Kabul. Pakistani strategists are complaining loudly that the current Afghan government has an avowed pro-US faction led by Karzai, represented by American troops, and a pro-Iran/Russian faction led by Defence Minister Qasim Fahim, represented by the Northern Alliance barracks. Where is the pro-Pakistan faction and where is its military backup?  

This is the question motivating Pakistan army incursions into Afghan territory that are whipping up passions (after one incident, Karzai told The Telegraph that he felt “personally betrayed by President Pervez Musharraf.”) A land grab here and a base camp there in the guise of hunting Al Qaeda can only help Pakistan regain a foothold in what used to be ‘its own’ Afghanistan. The sooner these sorties are conducted, the better, because Afghanistan's fledgling national army is at present too weak to resist the organised Pakistani war machine. In June 2003, the most serious invasion of Afghan soil by regular Pakistan army and Frontier Corps occurred when 40 kilometres of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces were occupied. Pakistan expressing helplessness at checking Islamist fighters from crossing the Durand Line is sophistry that has outlived credibility vis-à-vis India and the Line of Control in Kashmir. Denials of control over fundamentalists and of Pakistan army penetrations are too formulaic and too mendacious to cut any ice.  

So, what can Afghanistan do now in terms of policy to deter the growing Pakistani threat? It is not just a matter of resolving demarcation of a loosely defined border or petitioning the US. Violating Vienna Convention rules on treatment of diplomatic staff and premises is also not a solution. The root problems lie in the mindset of Pakistan’s military establishment and it is beyond Afghanistan to single-handedly change it or restore democracy in Islamabad. A strong alliance of like-minded states that suffer from the same phenomenon is definitely the way out. Another strategy could be to warn Pakistan of legal consequences at the International Court of Justice if future salami tactic ‘raids’ take place. Last but not least, Musharraf must be hoisted by his own petard and admonished by the international community to “lay off” Afghanistan.