From Friend to Foe

By Omer bin Abdullah

02/10/2001

In 1848, Lord Palmerston, later to be prime minister of England, told the House of Commons: "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

Hamid Mir, editor of Pakistan's influential Urdu-language daily newspaper Ausaf, writing in The Friday Times (Lahore, Pakistan) says that in October 1995 the California-based Unocal oil company signed a protocol with the government of Turkmenistan to explore prospects of constructing an oil pipeline to Pakistan through Afghan territory. When the Taliban captured Kabul, the vice-president of Unocal, Christopher Taggart, confidently stated "we regard it as very positive." He added that if the U.S. followed Pakistan's example of cementing ties with the Taliban, this would open opportunities for them. Robert Oakley, former U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, was in due course hired by Unocal for lobbying its cause and was busy shuttling between Washington and Islamabad. 

Dennis Kux, a retired senior diplomat who has served in the region, in his book The United States and Pakistan 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) says that also in October 1995, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Interior Minister, Maj. Gen (Retd) Naseerullah Khan Babar, personally led a convoy of trucks from Quetta to Turkmenistan, passing through Kandahar and Heart; and several envoys, including U.S. ambassador John Monjo, were in the party. Kux adds that the State Department found "nothing objectionable" when the Taliban captured Kabul, and points out that among the factors explaining the State Department's reaction was the view that peace in Afghanistan would greatly improve the prospects for a large gas-pipeline project involving a consortium led by Unocal, a major American oil company that wanted to deliver Turkmen gas to India and Pakistan.

Mir says that Bhutto told him a few days after her November 6, 1996, sacking that the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Thomas W. Simons, was not happy with her because the Taliban had refused to oblige Unocal. On November 16, 1996, U.S. assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel argued at a U.N. conference on Afghanistan in New York that the Taliban were a completely indigenous movement, adding that the Taliban's policies may reflect "extremism" but the best way to moderate them was to engage them. She later went to Kandahar and met with top Taliban officials, but the policy of engagement failed because the Taliban signed a memorandum of understanding with Bridas, an Argentinean oil company, to develop the proposed gas pipeline.

Babar, according to Mir, questioned him for criticizing the Taliban. Mir says that in his first meeting, he learned from Taliban chief Mulla Umar that he was unaware that the Americans were funding the pipeline because all he knew was that his support came from Pakistan. Mir says that he learned that Americans had a three-point agenda for the Taliban. One, they would like to use the Taliban against Iran. Two, they would like to pressurize them to arrange shelter and training camps in Afghanistan for the Uyghur mujahideen [fighters] of China's Xiniang province. And three, the Americans wanted to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. However, Mir says that he sensed the Americans would not be able to achieve even a single objective because the Taliban were not the kind to take dictation from them. 

Kux writes that to coordinate assistance with the Taliban, Babar set up an Afghan desk in the interior ministry. Mir's questioning of Babar indicates the Taliban were supported by the Benazir's regime, and given the prime ministerial spouse's deep interest in benefiting from all business deals, it would be interesting to investigate what, if any, take was garnered by Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir's husband.

Mullah Umar, says Mir, is convinced the Americans are not interested in Osama bin Laden and that their real objective is to install a government of their own choice in Kabul that will allow them to take control of all road links to Central Asia. Thus, Umar feels that the U.S. clearly wants to create difficulties, not only for Pakistan and China, but also for Iran. Ahmed Rashid, in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press; March 2000) also dwells on the Unocal/Bridas competition over natural gas fields and pipeline politics in Central Asia.

Humayum Gauhar writing in the Nation, (Sept. 23) said, "the CIA fertilized their [Taliban] seed in the womb of the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence], and Saudi intelligence played midwife. The Taliban were programmed to be a thorn in the side of Iran who would hold Afghanistan together. Instead, as all groups imbued with ideological or religious zeal will, they went their own way and turned on their creators."

Mir says that it was only after the eight billion dollar pipeline project became a non-starter that the Americans created an issue out of bin Laden, demanding his extradition, which the Taliban refused, signaling that they were an independent force.

Franz Schurmann, in his article, "Afghanistan's Taliban Rebels Blend Islam and Maoism" (Pacific News Service, Sept. 30,1996), wrote, "Ironically, Washington's first reaction to the Taliban victory was mildly favorable, largely because of the Taliban's deep animosity towards Iran."

For its part, the Northern Alliance is represented by a confederation backed by Iran, Russia, India, Turkey, and others, and includes pro-communist Afghan General Rashid Dostum.

Pakistan has taken steps to preserve its interests, especially after witnessing the close collaboration between former Afghan president (1992-1996)Burhanuddin Rabbani and India, Russia and Iran, compromising Pakistani influence. Irrespective of the Northern Alliance's public stance, its leadership has actively sought Pakistan's intervention to initiate an intra-Afghan dialogue.

The Islamabad Accord, signed by all Afghan parties in 1993, remains a testimony to Islamabad's commitment to a genuine homegrown peace process in Afghanistan. It was under this accord that Sibghatullah Mujadidi became the President in Kabul for six months. However, when he hesitated in vacating the presidency for Rabbani, Pakistan forced him to step down. Mir maintains, however, that when Rabbani's term was up, and in violation of the accord, he refused to step down, reportedly with the encouragement of Washington and Moscow. And after Pakistan's embassy in Kabul was attacked, added with Rabbani's refusal to implement the Islamabad Accord, Pakistan was forced to support the Taliban - an outfit Pakistanis had used to protect their trade route to Central Asia from marauding tribals.


Pakistan's Predicament

Most Pakistanis agree that the Taliban's leaders are semi-literate products of seminaries that espouse an interpretation of Islam that is not adhered to by the vast majority of Pakistanis or one billion Muslims. Their understanding of the true spirit of Islam is patchy at best, non-existent at worst, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the enlightenment, tolerance and justice practiced in Medina by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

And Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has had a puzzling relationship with the Taliban. Only days after the attacks in the U.S., he astonished the U.N. by sending a message of condolence to Mullah Omar on the death of his deputy, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, declaring that Rabbani had been a "loyal friend of Pakistan". He then distanced himself from the Taliban, telling Herald magazine, a Pakistani weekly, "They are fiercely independent." The General also said that 99% of the country is being "held hostage" by religious extremists who constitute just one percent of the population.

If Mir's statement is to be accepted, then the Taliban have struck to the Pakistani position that despite their Islamic credentials, they refused to support an anti-Chinese movement (one of the three points mentioned above), and that this is what Pakistan is presently doing. Mir argues that the Taliban are not opportunists, and despite their many faults and follies, they have become a defense line for Pakistan and China. Also, according to Mir, a Saudi organization was seeking the Taliban's support against China. Considering the alleged influence of bin Laden and his opposition to communism, it would have been easy. However, the Taliban refused.

In his address to the nation explaining his acceptance of an American request for support, Musharraf said: "The Indians want to ensure, if and when there is a change of government in Afghanistan, it should be an anti-Pakistan government."

David Rohde of the New York Times (September 25, 2001), says, "While [Northern] alliance officials here put on a brave face, doubts exist about its military abilities. The group claims to field 15,000 soldiers, but Russian officials say the number is closer to 5,000. They claim to control 15% of northwest Afghanistan; Russian officials put the figure at five percent." Rohde adds: "The alliance has also been accused of drug and gunrunning and human rights violations, including summary executions, the burning of houses and looting. Most of the targets were ethnic Pashtuns, a base of Taliban support." Similar charges exist against the Taliban.

Even if Pakistani accounts are accepted that the Northern Alliance, also called the United Front, may have 8,000 to 10,000 fighters, their military strength is so limited that in normal circumstances they would never have thought of uprooting the Taliban from Kabul. The British media reports that elite British troops are fighting alongside Northern Alliance forces may have unsettled many Pakistanis, fearing that a force they have opposed is advancing in their north, especially a force that has active Indian support.

Most Pakistanis are deeply concerned over such developments, especially with the imminent scenario in which the Taliban may be replaced by a North Alliance government, which is being touted by some as an outfit that favors a multiparty government. The Northern Alliance has long been backed by powers as disparate as Russia and Iran. Moscow supports the group because it blames the Taliban for supporting the struggle against the Russian occupation of the republic of Chechnya, and Iran opposes the Taliban because of their non-acceptance of the Shi'a school of thought.

According to Pakistani reports, at a recent ministerial-level meeting in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, India participated in negotiations with the Central Asian Republic, bordering Afghanistan, and Iran. India was represented by none other than deputy minister for external affairs Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, the Indian-puppet chief minister in Indian-Occupied Kashmir. The follow-up to the ministerial meeting in Dushanbe was also attended, and dominated, by, Ahmed Shah Massoud's successor Gen. Mohammad Fahim and Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Salahuddin Tirmizi, a former corps commander and commandant-military of Pakistan's National Defense College is reported to have said that Pakistan's military strategy cannot afford a hostile government in Afghanistan that will force it to make crucial realignments in troop deployment, adding that even a semblance of Northern Alliance's dominance over Afghanistan would make Pakistan uncomfortable.

Understandably, Pakistan seeks "strategic depth" to maintain a friendly regime in the north so that its entire attention can be focused towards India. The "strategic depth" is not a fallback position, but a strategy to be free from dispersing its troops on more borders than one.

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