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Making sense of the Af-Pak cauldron

By Colonel Anil Athale (retd)
Last updated on: November 30, 2009 16:20 IST
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Colonel Anil Athale views the developments in Af-Pak as the second jihad.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852

Afghanistan, a poverty-ridden backward country with no mineral or energy resources was a forgotten part of globe. Pakistan, its neighbour to the east, is competing with Somalia and Rawanda to join the ranks of 'failed nations'. It is a predominantly agricultural economy with very little industry and a huge population that is growing at an alarming rate.

Logically, neither singly nor jointly Afghanistan and Pakistan have any positives to become the centre of global interest. The surprising part is that today the region of Af-Pak is an area of global 'concern'. The how and why of this 'threat', is the subject of this brief essay.

It is impossible to meaningfully comment on an ongoing conflict as real information about the actualities on ground is sketchy and laden with propaganda. Therefore, it is the endeavour of this author to identify clear trends, issues and causes that have made the region an area of global concern. The recent events in a historical context offer a reasonable clue to both understanding the present and predicting the future.

The three main issues that make this area of worry for the world are:

1. A base for the Al Qaeda and radical Islamist terror groups that have an influence on/base among the nearly 1.8 billion strong Muslims spread all over the world.

2. An unstable Pakistan that has nuclear weapons and may be taken over by radical Islamists, or the weapons may fall in their hands.

3. Instability on the gateway to the resource-rich Central Asia makes it difficult to access these.

Luckily for the world, at least eight years after the traumatic 9/11 terror attacks, the US seems to have come to a conclusion that it ought to take an integrated view of the Afghanistan-Pakistan threat. It was a no-brainer even in 2001 that while the Taliban regime in Afghanistan hosted the Al-Qaeda, it was Pakistan that was the source (surrogate father of Taliban), inspiration and conduit for radical Islam.

Located in landlocked Afghanistan, every move of the Al Qaeda was (and possibly is) done only through Pakistan. To entrust Pakistan with the task of countering terror is like making Bonnie and Clyde the chief security officers of a bank! It is widely known and accepted that the Taliban regime was a proxy of Pakistan, created during the rule of 'moderate' and 'modern' Benazir Bhutto's premiership. That the Americans gave their blessings to this enterprise is also equally well known.

While the US wanted an America-friendly regime in Afghanistan in order to have access to the Central Asian energy resources, the Pakistanis floated a bizarre concept of 'strategic depth' against India! Bizarre, because you give depth to your vulnerable area (Pakistani Punjab bordering India) by acquiring a buffer in front, not in the rear! It was therefore clear to Indian observers that sooner than later the US would have to deal with the 'masters' of the Taliban in Pakistan.

This could have been avoided if the famous U-turn by Pakistan in September 2001 was genuine. But eight years down the line it seems clear that the U-turn was merely a tactical move by Pakistan to get over a difficult situation and no real change of heart was envisaged. The Pakistani expectation was (and is) that sooner or later the US would tire out and quit -- as long as the Al Qaeda does not launch any fresh attack on the US. Once that happens, then Pakistan and Taliban would move into the power vacuum. With this limited analysis it would be clear that the threat is rightly Pak-Af, with the primary focus on Pakistan.

What it is not!

It is a fallacy to compare the present events to the happenings in the early 19th century and call it the 'Great Game II'. The Great Game, for those uninitiated in history, was the rivalry between Imperial Russia and the British Empire. In the early 19th century, when Russian troops started penetrating into Central Asia, the British saw this as a threat to their interests in India. Over the next 100 years British and Russian officers, explorers and military forces, took part in a Great Game, confronting one another over the vast mountainous chessboard of high Asia. The ultimate prize, or so it then seemed in London, was British India. It was an 'interest' based conflict, while the present conflict is a result of perception of 'threat' from local elements.

During the Great Game, the local Afghans or the tribes in Pakistan were not active participants. Today the focus is very much on the local players since Russia is too weak and more concerned with NATO's expansion on its Western borders.

In the early part of the 1990s, when the US was hobnobbing with the Taliban regime, the prime motivation was to use Afghan territory to access the energy resources of Central Asia. Till 9/11 happened, the brutal Taliban were quite acceptable -- so was the equally murderous Pol Pot regime in Kampuchia or Yahya regime in Pakistan, remember the forgotten genocide in Bangladesh?

Fast forward to jihad II

The best way to understand the happenings in Pak-Af is to see it as a second jihad. The first jihad was fought between the Soviet Union and Af-Pak combine. It was a joint enterprise that had Pakistani management, Saudi money and American arms. Once the Soviets were out of Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan's America had achieved its aim of creating a 'Soviet Vietnam', the US was content to cede control to Pakistan. The elephant in the room that no one saw was the 'fundamentalist Islam' with its dream of a pan-Islamic world.

Students of history are aware of this streak in the Indian subcontinent. The Khilafat movement of the 1920s was its clear expression. Jihad I's victory had many claimants. The Americans saw this as their triumph over the Soviet Union and revenge for their Vietnam humiliation. The Pakistanis saw in it an opportunity to get Afghanistan under their influence. The testing of nuclear weapon in 1998 further boosted the Pakistani claim to a leadership role in the Islamic world.

In the past, immediately after the First World War, Muslims of the Indian subcontinent had put forward their claim on the basis of hosting the largest Muslim population. Seven decades later that claim has nuclear teeth! But while the US and Pakistan had their own take on jihad I, the fanatical mujahideen, collected from all over the world, felt that it was their victory. If they could defeat one superpower (the Soviet Union), then why not the other, the US, too?

Part II: Contours of emerging US strategy in Af-Pak

Colonel (retired) Anil Athale is Chhatrapati Shivaji Fellow of the United Services Institution and coordinator of Pune based Inpad.

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Colonel Anil Athale (retd)