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The Afghan tragedy

By H.N. Akhtar, DAWN, Thursday 22 February 2001, 27 Ziqa'ad 1421

AFGHANISTAN was historically the proxy and sometimes the actual battleground of the Russian and British Empire. In order to obtain a de facto control over this buffer state, the British forward frontier policy led them inexorably to three successive Afghan wars starting from deposition of Dost Mohammad circa 1839 to the third Afghan war in 1919.

The conclusion drawn from these adventures by the British were: (a) It is impossible to instal 'your' man in Afghanistan (b) nor is it possible to annex it, with over-whelming military power for long (c) so, it is best to treat it as a buffer state, pay a subsidy or tribute (call it what you will) to maintain your influence (d) and accept the tribal nature of the Afghan people letting them sort out their differences through Jirgas or localized conflicts.

In order to build a second defence line in the over-spill of Afghan Tribes in Balochistan & NWFP, the concept of a second buffer as Tribal areas (administered loosely by Political Agents through bribe and punishment) was considered expedient. British Indian Empire could afford to buy peace for itself because it had the necessary depth and a resource-rich hinterland. To keep Russians away, the British would rattle sabres every now and then and talk darkly of their ambitions of reaching warm waters.

The successors of British India in the North-Western Region was Pakistan. Much before that, the Russian Empire had been converted into the Soviet Union but with same imperial ambitions. Both badly played their politico-economic relations with Afghanistan resulting finally in the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This was succeeded by the Afghan Jihad and now its aftermath has witnessed one of the most hopeless, bloody and callous wars sans end.

Let us enumerate Pakistan's mistakes first as the successor power to British India. After partition of India, the Pakistani policy makers were irked by the propaganda and small needle-pricks of Pakhtunistan cause espoused by the Afghan Government. We started tampering with the transit trade and over-reacted to small mischief by some Afghan agents-provocateur.

We thus became a big bully boy ignoring the fact that we had real problems on our other frontiers. Secondly, we retained the quasi-independent status of tribal area, thus denying ourselves geographical depth. We should have befriended Afghanistan through economic integration viz trade, investment and training. The dividends of commerce and economic dominance were left to be reaped by the Indian Marwaris.

I recall that as an Assistant Collector of Customs, I once facilitated a shipment of American grain for Afghanistan - where near famine conditions were prevailing - a simple act of official duty. Next day, at a reception at the Afghan Embassy a tearful charge embraced me as his brother and wished there were more helpful Pakistani officials like me, in which case he assured me that our mutual difference would evaporate. But we went on to stop the transit trade altogether in 1963-64, making them more and more dependent on the Soviets and the Indians.

The Soviets also made a huge miscalculation. Having infiltrated the armed forces through training and military assistance programme and having a small cadre of comrades in the bureaucracy, they felt the time had come to incorporate Afghanistan as another Soviet Socialist Republic.

They began by demanding a certain aggressive action on part of King Zahir Shah, who was in Moscow enroute to Kabul in 1971, when Pakistan was embroiled in its tragic war with India. On the king's refusal, his cousin Sardar Daud Khan (a sympathizer) but not a card-carrying comrade was encouraged to depose him. Finally, when the Sardar felt hemmed in by the Soviet bear's embrace and during his visit to Pakistan started talking of Allama Iqbal's vision and Saadabad Pact (an alliance of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey), he was assassinated.

Mr Nur Muhammad Taraki became the President of (the Socialist) Republic. He was killed by his rival Hafizullah Amin. The Soviets did not trust Mr Amin and finally Secretary-General Brezhnev, obdurate and senile as he was, sent Babrak Karmal on top of a Soviet Tank alongwith Soviet troops to incorporate Afghanistan into the union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

History repeated itself. The fractious, intrepid and fiercely independent Afghans would never accept a ruler imposed from outside. So they rose, giving an opportunity to USA to wage a war through mercenaries (with apology to the brave Afghans and the volunteers from the Muslim world who were led to believe that this is a Jihad by the master communicator Ronald Reagan).

Funds were no problem. Arms were plentiful. Pakistani leadership was a willing conduit because the establishment had the choice of sending these to their chosen jihadi leaders or selling them in the arms Bazaars of the world. Arms trafficking and drug trafficking was freely permissible in the name of the nobel goal of driving the infidels out of Afghanistan.

The final chapter of the tragedy began, when the infidels left Afghanistan on their own volition which was a signal for the local mercenary warlords (for they no longer can be called Jihadis) to fight for turf with the backing, implicit or explicit, of the outside forces.Tragic waste of life and death throes of Afghan nation do not seem to seriously concern anyone in UN nor to the lone super-power of the world nor to the peripheral powers. In fact, everyone seems to want to keep the pot boiling.

Pakistan is an equal sufferer and is in equal jeopardy. We are like a house next door to a strong conflagration and the wind is blowing in our direction Refugee influx into a fragile economy, influx of weapons in abundance, ideology and practice of violence and fanaticism are our rewards for being conned into the role of a front-line state against the march of communist monolith. A fool and his money is soon parted says Shakespeare. I would modify it. A fool and his friends are soon parted.

Our leaders should have used the opportunity of Soviet withdrawal to immediately press for a Government of National Unity in Afghanistan, without playing favourites or trying to install their own men as the President or PM Instead they wanted to be called the Victor of Kabul and Kandhahar. In a final chapter of this tragedy, the patronage of Taliban is not only claimed by the two Maulanas of NWFP but our valiant Gen. Nasirullah Babar who took a caravan of gifts to the new rulers.

Meanwhile, the transit trade and economic affluence has failed to arrive in Pakistan via Afghanistan. All that has been diverted to China, Iran, Turkey and mother Russia. The USA and Russian Federation are now in an unholy alliance to isolate and punish Afghanistan for their spirit of Jihad, which was so convenient in '80s. Iran, US Russia and India for different reasons are all backing the Northern Alliance to keep the good work up.

Pakistan cannot and should not be content with pious statements of we want peace and integrity of Afghanistan. For one, nobody believes us. Secondly, this stalemate is dangerous to our own existence. Can we not summon up enough courage, initiative and honesty of purpose to use our residual goodwill to bring the two contending parties to a cease-fire and to unconditional parleys.

Let us induce Iran to help these efforts. Maybe the fatigue of war will finally persuade the two warring factions to call it a day given some strong and sincere mediation. In the meanwhile, keep the fancied victors of Kabul and Kandhar at arms length and refrain from blaming either foreign powers or our unlucky stars. No amount of America or Russia-bashing is going to help! We must have a peaceful and united Afghanistan soon.