Pakistan’s earlier security perceptions with regard to Afghanistan were shaped by Kabul’s territorial claims on KP and Baluchistan. According to Kabul, Pakistan’s Pakhtun belt should be given a choice to opt for independence, stay with Pakistan or join Afghanistan. Twice in 1952 and 1962, diplomatic ties were severed in protest against Kabul’s interest in Pakistani Pakhtun areas. Islamabad’s sensitivity to such claims was heightened by the Baloch insurgency of 1970s which aimed at independent Baloch state.
The Afghan Jihad that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the Zia regime an opportunity not only to legitimize his unconstitutional regime by embarking on the Islamization of Pakistani state and society, using religion as an instrument for realizing political objectives and mixing religion with politics (Shah, 2012) but also to end Afghanistan’s irredentist claims on KP and Baluchistan by ensuring a “friendly” or rather pliable government to eventually take over in Kabul. Coupled with this was the concept of “Strategic Depth” that military strategists argued a “friendly” Afghanistan could provide Pakistan against its main rival India.
The country’s lack of depth and space, they argued, prevents Pakistan from fighting a prolonged war with India and a friendly Afghanistan could rectify this strategic shortfall (Iqbal, 2001). These objectives influenced Pakistan’s strategy throughout the Afghan war and the negotiations Islamabad carried out with Moscow. The idea of “Strategic Depth” had another element in 1990s. A friendly Afghanistan could provide a base where Kashmiri mujahideen (freedom fighters) could be trained; a policy that Taliban once emerged could follow as Mullah Omar said “We support the jihad in Kashmir”.
Another dimension was added to the concept of strategic depth after the fall of the former USSR that for Islamabad a stable Kabul would prove to be the gateway to the newly independent Central Asian Republics (CARs). In the early 1990s, Islamabad dreamt of the economic benefits of trade and gas and oil pipelines emanating from the CARs. However, these economics benefits were contingent on the older problem that had been confronting Islamabad which was quiet then-how to bring a stable, friendly government in Kabul, which could bring peace and stability to the entire country and ensure trade and the construction of pipelines, primarily the proposed pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. It was during this period that one can witness “great flip flops” in Islamabad’s Afghan policy. Till the sudden appearance of the Taliban on Afghan scene, Islamabad’s Afghan policy was definitely proving to be a failure. After the Soviet withdrawal, despite Islamabad best effort Hekmatyar failed to gain control of Kabul.
When Taliban appeared and gained control of Kandahar in 1994, it was a feasible option for Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto and her Interior Minister, Naseerullah Babar wanted to wrest control of the Afghan policy from the ISI and Jamaat-i-Islami. It was at this stage that Islamabad did a volte face and switched its support to the Taliban. What prompted this switch was also the calculation that the Taliban may prove to be more amenable to become part of a broader coalition which will be more palatable to the international community especially to the US. The Taliban emergence was tacitly supported by Washington through Islamabad.
Taliban managed to capture 90 percent area of Afghanistan and pushed their opponent, the Northern Alliance (NA) into a corner. The Taliban drew their strength from the majority ethnic Pakhtun. Pakistan from 1996 till 9/11 had been the main anchor for the Taliban government.
It recognized the regime and provided considerable economic, political and diplomatic support. In return, she envisioned to exploit “Strategic Depth” of Afghanistan in any conflict with India in future. Jihadi organizations in Pakistan also got the support of the Taliban to give impetus to jihad in Kashmir that had been continuing in Indian Held Kashmir since 1989.
Several factors forced Pakistan to support the Taliban, like a large Pakhtun population with affinity for the group; strong religious parties in the country that also supported the Taliban; the fact that India supported the Northern Alliance, the Taliban opposition; the recognition of the Durand Line by the Taliban and the fact that Pakistan hosted the refugees and served as the only window to the outer world (Iqbal, 2001). Resultantly, an international impression was created that Pakistan exercised tremendous influence on the Taliban government which proved wrong latter as Mullah Omar was not prepared to listen to his patrons (Pakistan) anymore. The biggest embarrassment came in early 2001 when the he snubbed Musharraf’s Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, who sought the extradition of leaders of a Pakistani sectarian group who had taken refuge in Afghanistan. They were wanted in several cases of murder and attacks on Shia mosques. Again, in March 2001, Mullah Omar rejected Pakistan’s request not to obliterate statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.
Cost of Pro-Taliban Policy
Strategically, we assumed that Afghanistan would provide us strategic depth. This assumption took a new color with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996. The rise of Taliban was celebrated with such fervor in Pakistan as if Afghanistan had become its fifth province. The wrongheaded assumption came screaming at us when none of the Pakistani leader including Musharraf found Taliban-run-Afghanistan safe enough to visit it. When Moin Haider, Pakistan Interior Minister, was returning from his only visit to Kabul, he was given a “red- hot send off” with a hail of bullets that he and his entourage dodged by running for cover-so much for strategic depth.
Ethnically, we assumed that Taliban rise to power meant the rise of Pashto-speakers in Afghanistan. We celebrated Taliban control of Kabul at the expense of its Dari speaking majority. By shifting power balance in favor of Taliban, we presumably wanted to appease their “brethren in blood” who live on this side of Afghanistan stretching from Bolan to Chitral. This too was an ignorant assumption. The great majority of Pakhtun walls their self off the theology-driven social and cultural code of Taliban. Pakhtun are moderate in their theological beliefs, receptive of social change and attuned to the leaders of liberal persuasion associated with Pakistan People’s Party, Awami National Party and Pakistan Muslim League. Pakistani Pakhtun minced no word in blaming Islamabad for stripping Afghanistan off the leaders molded in moderation, liberalization and patriotism value.
Economically, we dreamt of Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan in the hope to boost our “Passage Economy” linkage up Pakistan’s trade route with CARs and beyond Eurasia. Although Taliban had been in control of 90% of Afghanistan for over five years, their control did not translate into safe route to and from Central Asia. We also had borne unbearable pain and grief from a mad wave of terrorist attacks whose perpetrators are believed to be based in Afghanistan. Tens of hundred of our fellow citizens have fallen to their lust for senseless violence leaving behind a society driven with ever deepening division.
Admittedly, support for the Taliban had yielded none of the results Islamabad had hoped for. The Taliban had not recognized the Durand line, were not a pliable regime and had not been able to bring the stability which may have led to economic gains (Noor, 2001). What is more evident is that the Talibanization of Pakistani society had begun to take place when extremist religious groups took advantage of the failure of state and civil society to establish democratic political culture, ensure social justice and economic equality.
By: Jamal Shah
Lecturer in Political Science, Government College Takht Bhai, KP, Pakistan and currently a Doctorate Student, Department of Political Science, Hacettepe University Ankara, Turkey
Doctorate Student, Department of Political Science, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey who is financially supported by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) in the conduction of his study.