Islam, commerce and the Afghan state

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST

Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban by William Maley (editor); Hurst and Company, London; 1998.

THE essays that constitute this book were written against the background of the events that punctuate Afghan-istan's tortuous history between 1992 and 1997. A defining moment in this sequence came in May 1997 when the Taliban Islamic militia seized the northern Afghan redoubt of Mazar-e-Sharif, holding it briefly before being ejected after a tumultuous and bloody shift of loyalties by local warlords.

That was perhaps the most traumatic military reverse ever suffered by the Taliban since it appeared on the scene in 1994. Ostensibly taking its origin in the religious piety of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, the Taliban was soon to prove adept at the art of warfare. By 1995, it had established its reign over both Kandahar and Herat, skilfully weaving its way through the tangle of factional animosities that kept each region in a state of hostility with its neighbours.

In September 1996 came the longest sought and hardest fought prize of Kabul, followed shortly afterwards by recoil and revulsion on a global scale. From being the vehicle of religious idealism, the Taliban suddenly stood exposed as a group of practitioners of a particularly bigoted idiom of governance. In this context, one of the few dissonant notes came from the United States, which stated officially that it saw little that was "objectionable" in the version of Islamic law that the Taliban was intent on enforcing.

It seemed that the resistance to the Taliban had coalesced in Mazar and would hold out against all efforts to subdue it. But with Pakistan's sedulous brokerage, a deal was made which allowed the Taliban a foothold in the northern city, only to come unstuck in quick time. That episode, as William Maley records in a skilfully crafted introduction to this volume, left Pakistan looking not so much the "master puppeteer", as the "apprentice sorcerer" who did not quite know how to control the forces that he unleashed.

Another setback was to follow, this time on the diplomatic front. In November 1997, the U.S. decisively repudiated its earlier notion that "doing business" with the Taliban regime was a feasible proposition. The rebuff was administered by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a visit to Pakistan, to the obvious dismay of her hosts. And though Albright has never been a stickler for diplomatic niceties, she was only articulating a policy stance that had been outlined in a formal State Department testimony before the U.S. Congress a few weeks earlier.

Having been sent to press within weeks of the events that it documents, this volume bears testimony to the quick analytical reflexes of its authors. Inevitably, events subsequent to its appearance will be used as a benchmark to evaluate its worth. Certitudes have a tendency to vanish in the rapid flux and change of the Taliban movement. In the milieu of shifting loyalties and commitments that is contemporary Afghanistan, provisional assessments could rapidly turn obsolete. And where definitive conclusions and prognoses are attempted, the descent into inanity could be precipitate.

By August 1998 - or within seven months of this book being sent to press - the Taliban seemed to have established its sway over the entire territory of Afghanistan. As its principal sponsor, Pakistan was exultant. After all the maladroit manoeuvres, all the years of playing the willing hostage to a policy that had few sympathisers, its final vindication had come.

How far the exultation will last is another question. Maley's prognosis, outlined in his introductory essay, is grim. "It is now more than likely," he says, "that even should the Taliban at some stage succeed in taking Mazar, this would not bring about 'peace', but rather trigger mass ethnic conflict of a scale and ferocity that Afghanistan has thus far largely been spared."

Maley does not indicate how long it will take for the trigger to be activated, nor does he dwell upon the likely theatre of the ensuing battles. But as Anthony Davis puts it in a perceptive contribution: "...the rise of the Taliban has dealt a heavy, perhaps even fatal, blow to the unity of Afghanistan as a multiethnic state. For Pakistan to hope to remain immune from the consequences of the events it has set in motion would be wishful thinking in the extreme." This reading is underlined by Ahmed Rashid, who thinks that the "threat of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan has never been greater" than it is now.

Was Pakistan then embarked wilfully on the path of self-destruction in nurturing the fanatical Taliban militia? The truth is not quite so dramatic. Pakistan, rather, was the principal prop and Afghanistan the theatre of a geopolitical strategy based on very rational - even cynical - foundations. Between 1979 and 1991, the aim was couched in the classic rules of engagement of the Cold War - to exert pressure on the soft underbelly of the Soviet bear and bring it to heel.

After the Soviet collapse, the idea was infused with a more immediate pecuniary motive: that of gaining direct access to the mineral riches of the successor republics of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, while avoiding any irksome dependence on the Islamic regime in Iran.

For the U.S., which was not at the best of times very acute in reading the complexities of ethnic politics, Afghanistan policy was a matter of delegating operations to such a loyal proxy as Zia-ul-Haq's Pakistan. This established a momentum that sustained itself into the period of civilian rule that followed Zia's mysterious death.

Official Western policy lapsed into a phase of indifference after the Soviet collapse. Interest was awakened only when commercial motives began obtruding rather blatantly. The American oil major Unocal had in collaboration with Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia, acquired extensive exploration interests in the Central Asian republics. It was justifiably anxious about securing routes of transit to the nearest sea lanes. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the U.S. could have looked with favour upon the prospect of dependence on Iran for rights of access to the sea. The only alternative then was to pacify Afghanistan and secure the route to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan.

For Pakistan, this involved a convergence of political and business interests - there was profit to be made from the transit of petroleum resources through its territory; there was political mileage to be gained from subduing the squabbling multitude of tribes within Afghanistan.

NUMERICAL precision collapses in Afghanistan, which has never known a census operation, as also in Pakistan where no census has been conducted since 1981, for fear of unleashing virulent forces of ethnic competition. Bernt Glatzer, in his contribution to this volume, has sought to surmount these difficulties by diligently collating every available source. His conclusion is that the population of ethnic Pushtuns in Pakistan is perhaps greater than that in Afghanistan, where they are the largest single ethnic grouping.

For the Pakistan military regime in the 1980s, says Ahmed Rashid, the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation offered several opportunities. Above all, the dissolution of cross-border Pushtun affinities in the common pursuit of absolution from Communist atheism was an opportunity that could not be missed. Since its foundation, Pakistan was never quite immune to the movement for a "greater Pushtunistan" led, first, by Abdul Ghaffar Khan and then by his son Abdul Wali Khan. A way had to be found to submerge the Pushtun identity in a broader sense of religious loyalty, which would not directly subvert the foundations of the Pakistani state.

The interests of the Pakistani state and its recalcitrant instrument - the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - were congruent under Zia's regime. But in the subsequent period, the ISI acquired autonomy, often bending the civilian administration at will. Like most clandestine operations, the ISI's sponsorship of the Islamic resistance was opaque in its choice of clients and incapable, for the most part, of correcting course. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami came to occupy the pivotal position in ISI stratagems, though his claims to a leadership role even within his own tribal grouping were dubious at best.

In contrast, the Jamaat-e-Islami, led by the Tajik military commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, was to prove relatively autonomous of the Pakistani diktat. It had by far the greater armed presence on the ground and was in the more advantageous position to seize Kabul when the defection of Uzbek general Rashid Dostum disastrously undermined the authority of Najibullah's Communist regime.

Pakistan was a part sponsor of the Peshawar agreement in 1992, a tenuous effort to arrive at a compromise between the conflicting claims of rival ethnic groups. It then provided the material and moral support for Hekmatyar to destroy the very foundations of the pact. In the two years following the conclusion of the accord, Hezb-e-Islami forces reduced much of Kabul to ruins and killed thousands of civilians through indiscriminate shelling. Even after the withdrawal of all foreign troops, Hekmatyar was to prove true to his record of predominantly targeting the non-combatant Afghan population in his ferocious drive for power.

The war-weary regime of Masoud and the Tajik political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani sued for peace in 1994 and brought Hekmatyar aboard the ruling arrangement. From the unguarded flanks, this sparked off a rapid unravelling of the alliances that had sustained the Rabbani-Masoud regime. In turn, Hekmatyar was devoid of the ability to confer any kind of political legitimacy on the regime. His following did not extend far beyond the Ghilzai tribe and failed entirely to accommodate the powerful Durrani tribe and its traditionally dominant Mohammadzai clan.

These are the circumstances in which the ascendancy of the Taliban, with its strong anchorage in the Durrani tribe, began. Unlike the Hezb-e-Islami, whose sources of patronage were limited to the ISI, the Taliban had a pervasive spread through the power structure of Pakistan - occasionally in the local governments of Baluchistan and the frontier province, often in the transportation mafia that flourished under the Zia regime, and almost always in the federal apparatus of administration. As this volume documents, the Taliban grew from a core grouping of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and soon began to take on board a wide range of allies. Contrary to its image as a confederation of the godly, the Taliban even managed to coopt members of the Pushtun-dominated Khalq faction of the Communist party, who in turn were perhaps directly responsible for the grisly execution of Najibullah in September 1996.

With Hekmatyar's failings all too evident, the ISI shifted its patronage to the Taliban by 1994. This coincided with a rekindling of U.S. interest in Afghanistan, nudged awake as it was by the American-Saudi oil coalition. Naseerullab Babar, a retired Major-General who was Interior Minister in the Benazir Bhutto Government (and a Pushtun in the bargain) was meanwhile laying out the new strategic doctrine for Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan. Quite clearly, his fundamental postulate was Pakistan's pre-eminent claim to the potentially lucrative trade routes to Central Asia.

The Taliban's first military venture involved capturing a trucking stopover point just inside Afghan territory. It was a curious reprise of a similar incursion by Hekmatyar into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. As on that occasion, the military expeditionary force in October 1994 was assisted by artillery fire from Pakistan. On October 29, Babar flagged off a 30-vehicle convoy bound for Turkmenistan from Quetta in the province of Baluchistan. It was a symbolic assertion of Pakistan's determination to open up a trade route to Central Asia. In the event, this convoy was to prove the vanguard of full-scale military intervention and the fall of Kandahar to the Taliban. The flag had followed trade, in an ironic reenactment of imperial rules of engagement.

IT is pertinent today to ask how far the Taliban's success reflects the popular appeal of its ideology and how far the clout of its powerful backers. The question has implications for assessing the durability and stability of a ruling arrangement under the Taliban. In his contribution to this volume, Olivier Roy uses two criteria in this assessment: the state of Islamic political thought in its global context and the specific features of Afghan politics, in particular, the aspects of rurality, ethnicity and tribalism. His answer is that the "Islamic state" as a political prospect, was extinguished in the brutal confrontation between the Hezb-e-Islami and the Jamaat-e-Islami after the fall of Najibullah. The Taliban embodies a variety of fundamentalism that could lead to localised displays of zealotry, but its ability to consolidate and administer a national state is negligible.

Far from marking a new point of departure in Afghanistan's history, the Taliban has been practising its patented artifices to optimal effect - particularly in the matter of elite recruitment through judiciously placed bribes. This is a pattern of political management that has continuously to confront the risks inherent in the other face of the schizoid Islamic body - that of medieval barbarism.

AGAINST this rather bleak scenario, M. Nazif Shahrani offers a daring remedy. Afghanistan, he argues, should not blindly adopt the forms of political organisation that have repeatedly proven their fallibility in the prevalent social and ecological conditions. The attempt to build the Afghan state through the centralisation inherent in relentless military force has evidently failed. Salvation lies in recruiting the inherent attributes of civil society into a new foundation of the national political state.

It is far from obvious that the appropriate vehicle for this political prescription can be found in the squabbling congeries of tribes that is Afghanistan today. Two decades since it began, the brutalisation of the nation situated at the strategic cross-roads of the Asian continent continues with no imminent prospect of a reprieve. When will the people of this tormented land gain the liberty to choose the manner in which they would like to live? What further agonies are reserved for the Afghan people and how far would the tremors emanating from their painful transition spread? There are few countries in the entire arch spreading from India to the Suez which do not have vital stakes in these questions.

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