America’s projected exit from Afghanistan in 2014 has been received with dismay by the mandarins of South Block. The popular perception is that without US restraint on Islamabad the Kabul government would be dominated by the Taliban and act as an instrument of Pakistan to force severance of India’s ties with Kabul. This flawed perception arises from the inability of Indian policymakers to think independently instead of blindly following the west.
The major flaw in American handling of the Afghanistan crisis may be traced to Washington’s failure to empathize with and understand what exactly the Afghanistan Taliban signifies. Sadly, Indian policymakers who should have known better blindly ditto the Americans. To formulate an Afghanistan policy that serves Indian interests it is necessary first of all to arrive at an understanding of what motivates the Taliban.
The first common mistake is to lump all Taliban factions as one. This error arises from the common attitude related to certain social norms displayed by these groups. In particular this relates to their attitude towards women. Much of the animosity towards the Taliban existing in the west may be traced to the medieval approach to women displayed by the Taliban. This betrays a shallow understanding of how social and political transformation occurs in society.
Social norms are genuinely transformed to keep abreast with the times only through voluntary acceptance by people. Change cannot be forcibly imposed from outside. Through interaction by a conservative society with modern trends people inevitably are influenced and accept change. Also, the disgust felt by the west for the treatment of women in Taliban society though understandable by no means justifies its political approach. It might be mentioned here that different societies have different norms. The attitude towards women by Taliban is no more repugnant to several societies in the world as is the institutionalizing of homosexuality by legalizing gay marriages in the west. It is best to keep moral judgments in cold storage and exercise restraint while dealing with social norms. Changing social norms of a society will come about through increased interaction and through voluntary acceptance.
Treating all Taliban factions as one creates a huge strategic error. The Pashtun dominated Afghan Taliban is motivated very differently from the Punjabi Taliban in Pakistan. The first seeks above everything else non-interference and self rule. The Punjabi Taliban has been inspired and created by the patrons of Al Qaeda committed to global Jihad. A segment of the Pakistan military establishment that aids the Punjabi Taliban is equally committed to the Al Qaeda ideology. America made a huge blunder by failing to differentiate between the aims of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban factions. That is why the Americans collaborated with Pakistan army in fighting the Afghan Taliban and thereby advanced the myopic strategic aims of Pakistan instead of promoting their own interests.
Osama bin Laden funded and influenced the Taliban in Afghanistan but was never its master. But the Al Qaeda goal and aims are fully endorsed by the Pakistan Taliban. Most of the Punjabi Taliban is recruited from the economically impoverished Saraiki speaking region of southern Punjab lured into terrorism through schooling in foreign funded madrassas and tempted by money through terror.
Ajmal Kasab was a prime example of such recruitment.
Even though the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Umar was based in Pakistan he was never an ISI instrument. Nor was he the pawn of Osama bin Laden. It might be recalled that immediately after 9/11 when the Americans demanded that Osama be handed over to them Mullah Umar declined only to return him to the Americans because that would vitiate Pashtun honour and treatment of a guest. Instead Mullah Umar offered to surrender Osama to any third country of America’s choice to be tried by international law. Surprisingly, and regrettably, America turned down that offer. Had Washington accepted that offer history might have been different!
By failing to differentiate between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban America has needlessly made its Afghanistan policy hostage to Islamabad. Even Pakistan politicians such as Mr. Imran Khan, who is a Pashtun, deliberately or otherwise turn a blind eye to the glaring contradictions of Pakistan’s policy towards its own people. Mr. Imran Khan has waxed eloquently against the Drone attacks launched by America which through collateral damage have also killed many innocents. But how strange that Mr. Khan has maintained a studied silence after the most damaging revelation related to the first Drone attack. The New York Times published an article adapted from a new book, “The Way of the Knife: The C.I.A., a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth”. The article revealed how the Americans obtained consent of the Pakistan army to use Drone attacks for targeting terrorists. Pakistan agreed provided the Americans eliminated a militant who was considered a prime trouble maker for the Pakistan army. Agreement was reached and a Drone attack eliminated the militant.
Who was he?
He was not an Al Qaeda Afghan operative. He was Nek Muhammed, a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state. Needless to say he was a Pashtun representing the sentiments of most Pashtuns in Pakhtunkhwa Khyber province of Pakistan. For Pakistan the real long term threat emanates from the Pashtuns of its own territory and not from the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad’s famed strategic depth policy is designed to neutralize the dormant threat of secession by its own Pashtuns by dominating the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. The strategic depth policy can become the strategic death policy. The cultural bonding between common tribes spread across both nations has never abated. There is thrice the number of Pashtuns in Pakistan as are in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have had good civilization ties with India.
Before Independence their unchallenged leader was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was shamelessly betrayed by Congress leaders when they accepted Partition against his fervent pleas. The threat to India comes from the Punjabi Taliban created by the Pakistan army. Why, then, does not India reach out to the Afghan Taliban and attempt to reconcile them with President Hamid Karzai? India does not need American presence in Afghanistan. India needs to formulate its own effective Afghanistan policy.
There is only one sensible solution for the Af-Pak region that allows full and free expression of cultural identity without altering international borders. Afghanistan should become a two-province federal nation by allowing all the non-Pashtun tribes in the north to have a separate province. Simultaneously there should be soft borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan allowing Pashtun tribes of both nations free access for bonding.
The creation of new province was advocated by American strategic expert Mr. Robert Blackwill. A federal Afghanistan was advocated by former Afghanistan foreign minister and presidential candidate Mr. Abdullah Abdullah.
India can exercise a stick and a carrot policy to persuade Pakistan to accept this solution. The stick consists of the threat, if Islamabad does not relent, to officially recognize and encourage the implementation of the Anglo-Afghan Durand Line Treaty by which all the Pashtun territory in Pakistan would revert to Afghanistan. All Pashtuns of the Af-Pak region strongly support this. The carrot consists of the offer to further the peace proposal of former President Musharraf by applying the same formula in Kashmir. Thereby the foundation of a South Asian Union and confederation would be created. South Block is wasting its time by seeking a solution through cooperation of America on the one hand or of Russia and China on the other. India is holding the strongest cards on Afghanistan. It should know how to play them.