After Taliban retakes Afghanistan

Khaled Ahmed

It is another cut-and-run moment for America in Afghanistan, this time after the longest war in its history. Will Trump repeat in 2019 what Nixon did to South Vietnam in 1973, leaving when 150,000 men of North Vietnamese army were in occupation of parts of South Vietnam where people knew they would be massacred at the hands of the “conquerors” from the north? A million fled in boats and nearly half of them were swallowed by the ocean.

Since 2001, the US-led war has killed 5,442 and injured 14,693 Afghans. Will Trump leave the Afghans fleeing to all parts in fear of Taliban’s well-known killing fury? Trump will take no “refugees” as Nixon did who got over a million South Vietnamese to come and settle in the United States. Who will get the population spill from Afghanistan?

Of course, Pakistan. It doesn’t even know precisely how many refugees it got over the past 18 years of the Afghan war. It usually says “three million after the Soviet invasion” but hasn’t kept count of the ones who didn’t live in the refugee camps and were “absorbed”. No one ended up loving Pakistan for being the neighbourhood host. If any Afghans were “secular” they had a bad time of it as the Pakistani clerics got together and started ruling in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in 2002, demonstrating how like Taliban they were, banning cinema and ads featuring unveiled women.

Of course, Pakistani Taliban was allowed to overthrow the traditional order of the Tribal Areas in time to become more bloodthirsty than the Afghan Taliban sheltering with them. The Afghan refugees saw Pakistan succumbing to religious terror instead of fighting it. Defeating the Soviet Union meant defeating whatever progress Pakistan had made in liberal democracy. Today no one loves Pakistan in Afghanistan, Pakhtuns least of all.

The Soviets never got a chance to “reform” a state destroyed by religion, but the Americans have tried. According to a BBC survey, no girls attended Afghan schools in 2001 but a million boys did; and by 2012 there were 7.8 million in schools out of which 2.9 million were girls. The Ghani government in Kabul is “reformist” and wants to protect the big change of the past 18 years; but it doesn’t get along with Pakistan. It believes its ex-chief spy Amrullah Saleh telling the world that Pakistan actually directs the various Taliban warlords from their hideout in Quetta and is embroiled in the violence the Taliban perpetrate on innocent Afghans while engaged in talks with America. He didn’t say it, but Trump got Pakistan on board half-believing that Pakistan could stop the killings it was criminally involved in. The killing hasn’t stopped and it appears that Pakistan doesn’t have the kind of grip on the Taliban that it allowed the world to believe.

Pakistan once thought it could have its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India. Now it is uncomfortable about India getting close to Iran and Kabul and building up the resistant-to-Taliban Tajik elements in northern Afghanistan. It fears not only more refugees coming down from Afghanistan but also fighters who will “reconvert” Pakistan to what it became when the Soviets were in Afghanistan. It is laying a fence along the Durand Line – which Afghanistan historically never accepted – to stop the invaders while reforming its madrasas seen as potential allies of radical Islam.

Islamic radicals aligned with Al Qaeda want Pakistan to get Al Qaeda agent Afiya Siddiqui back from an American prison or face attacks like the attack on Pakistan army’s GHQ in 2009. The fence is being opposed and Pakistani troops laying it are daily killed by fire coming from the Afghan side; all this, while India kills Pakistani troops in cross-LoC fire on the eastern border.

There are over a million Afghan refugees in Pakistan; the half-a-million “still-displaced” inside Afghanistan are ready to knock at its door. This is expected to start happening after the Afghan Taliban attack and oust the US-supported Ghani regime from Kabul. The Taliban are in fact a pack of warlords with minimal central command; and no American pact with them, therefore, will hold for long.

Pakistan is vulnerable because some parts of its frontier with Afghanistan simply can’t be secured against infiltration. Its own tribal people whom it allowed to get mauled by Pakistani Taliban cozy with the Pakistan-hosted Haqqani Group are angry and out of favour in Islamabad these days. Pakistan doesn’t get along with Iran either because of Pakistan’s Arab patrons and will find Iran siding with India that has also been the big helper of the Tajik community in the north traditionally linked to Iran because of shared language.

Economically broken Pakistan is busy facing the challenge of a hostile but economically strong India on the eastern border. It keeps talking dangerously of a nuclear Armageddon which will destroy both countries because it has not yet realised that it has to think laterally about dealing with New Delhi. Nationalism bars it from coming to the help of Kashmiris through a “normalisation” of relations with India.

Unfortunately, “bilateral talks” under the Simla Agreement still means talking about Kashmir, which in turn means endless deadlocks and more hostility. What is needed is normalisation under the auspices of World Trade Organisation (WTO) which went in the right direction when General Musharraf ruled in Pakistan and the BJP ruled in India; but then got stuck in Agra in 2001.

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