The new great game has begun in Afghanistan

Story by  Deepak Vohra | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 04-09-2021
Taliban fighters riding a jeep in Kabul
Taliban fighters riding a jeep in Kabul


 Deepak Vohra

A famous saying attributed to the 12th-13th century marauder Genghis Khan best expresses the dilemma  facing the Taliban as the last US flight has left Afghanistan.

“Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

The issue confronting Afghanistan is not of religion (a justification for jihad), but one of tolerance, terrorism, and development. A severe humanitarian crisis is worsened by a collapsing economy and sharia does not have a magic wand to take care of.

If isolated by the world, an enraged Taliban will destroy Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security. When the USA the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, 9/11 mastermind to them, they mocked t the US. However, the bravado vanished once the B-52s came around. The Taliban had conquered Afghanistan holding the Quran in one hand and dollars in the other now ran desperately across the arid mountainscape, defeated, demoralized, shattered, begging for amnesty.

They reached out to Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai, wanting to negotiate their future. America was overconfident that the Taliban had been wiped out forever. “We don’t negotiate surrenders”, pompously declared Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

20 years after it pulverized Afghanistan to punish Pakistan’s darlings, America left with egg all over its face. On August 31, 2021, America left Kabul with support from those it wanted to destroy. Afghanistan was meant to be a quick “in and out” operation to annihilate the terrorist group that attacked America in 2001 but America got sucked into a 20-year war.

What went wrong?

American focus shifted to Iraq, Pakistan played a double game, and the Afghan army was not a happy outfit. In 2001, the USA had threatened to bomb Pakistan to the stone age unless it gave up its support for the Taliban. Frightened, Pakistan pretended to comply, but secretly suckled the Taliban, giving them military and medical support. Donald Trump famously castigated Pakistan for its duplicity.

Pakistan should have been named as the epicenter in George Bush’s 2000 Axis of Evil speech (instead he named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea). What is Pakistan’s obsession with Afghanistan?

Pakistan wants a pliant Afghanistan for strategic depth against India in case our military rolls through Pakistan east to west. It wants to settle the common border, the Durand Line and also become the fulcrum of landlocked Muslim Central Asia’s access to the Arabian Sea. Former President General Parvez Musharraf boasted in 2006 that “Pakistan provides the natural link between the Central Asian states to connect the Eurasian heartland with the Arabian Sea and South Asia.”

As so often with grand strategy, the result was the exact opposite. The Pushtun Taliban do not recognize the 1893 Mortimer Durand Line, that divides Afghan Pashtuns and Baloch from their Pakistani ethnic brothers.

The Pakistani military has tried to fence the long border with Afghanistan but this has been stoutly resisted by Afghanistan. When they seized power in 1996, the Taliban refused to legitimize the Durand Line and went on to foster Pashtun nationalism among Pakistanis Pashtuns,

No regime in Afghanistan can be a Pakistani puppet; the Afghans do not like or trust Pakistan. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan's admission to the United Nations in 1947.

The carefully crafted February 2020 Doha deal between the Taliban and the United States committed the coalition forces to withdraw by specified dates with intra-Afghan negotiations to follow regarding the future political setup of the country

Why was Doha selected for the US-Taliban talks? Qatar seeks to punch above its weight, hosts approximately 10,000 U.S. service personnel as well as the very popular Al Jazeera, the modern - and more credible - version of Nasser’s Sawt Al Arab radio, which itself had a revolutionary impact on the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s.

Since the 1990s, the Qatari strategy has been to attract the United States, a task made easier by the abdication of the conservative Emir in 2013 in favour of his western-educated son. Qatar was sanctioned by the Gulf Cooperation Council from 2017-2021 for being friends with Iran, and for supporting terrorism.

In April 2017 Qatar infuriated Saudi Arabia and UAE by paying USD 1bn to Sunni and Iran-backed Shi'ite militants in Iraq and Syria to secure the return of 26 Qatari hostages (including Qatari royals) abducted while falcon hunting in southern Iraq and kept in captivity for more than 16 months.

By being a faithful American acolyte, the young western-educated Emir brought his country back from the cold in 2021 and made it the fulcrum for the future of Afghanistan

After the US withdrawal, several European Foreign Ministers rushed to Doha to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Since the Taliban have no experience in civil aviation, the airport will be managed by Qatar and Turkey.

As Afghanistan struggles with its future, the spoiler-in-chief is Pakistan, this time through the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, ISKP. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the global jihad lost its icon. Al Qaeda was a movement without territory

In 2014, another nasty chap called Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph of an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq after his forces used abandoned US weaponry to seize large swathes of the land. Thousands of foreign fighters, looking for some meaning in their lives, rushed to join ISIS. Turkey, always eyeing Syrian territory, facilitated their passage. According to several Western sources, al-Baghdadi and IS received private financing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In 2015, al-Baghdadi sent some nasty fellows to Pakistan to persuade disgruntled Taliban to defect, offering them a better chance to regain Afghanistan. He announced the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (the old name for the region) in 2015. The much-expected suicide explosion by ISKP in Kabul airport on 26 August was meant to scuttle the Doha accord.

It killed more US soldiers than all U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan in any given year since 2011. Pakistan was up to its dirty tricks again. Absolving the Taliban of the attack, Joe Biden vowed retribution and warned the Taliban to ensure that the ISKP does not “metastasize” beyond what it is. Within a few hours a US drone eviscerated the “mastermind” in Nangarhar Province that borders Afghanistan and from where the Mujahideen crossed back and forth during the Soviet war. Two days later, a drone took out a car laden with explosives rushing to Kabul airport.

President Biden will find the real “masterminds” in Pakistan, just as the USA found terror kingpin OBL there in 2011, while the Taliban’s spiritual head Mullah Omar died in a Karachi Hospital in 2013. Hillary Clinton warned Pakistan some years ago that you cannot rear snakes in your backyard and expect them to bite only your neighbours. It would be better to bomb Pakistan into the stone age for it will obliterate the epicenter of global Islamic terrorism. It will also redeem America in the world’s eyes

We all know America turning a blind eye to Pakistan allowing OBL to link up with the Taliban in 1996 traveling on a chartered flight, carrying vast sums of money derived from his business activities in Sudan. Having forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and relished the consequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, America went home to celebrate, returning in 2001 to avenge the attack on its heart.

After smashing the Taliban, why did it stay on in Afghanistan, spending up to USD 300 million per day according to the White House?

Kabul did become a rollicking international city with clubs and hotels and theatres and flashy cars and shopping malls. Women relished their freedom and went to school and office and did not cover themselves from head to toe.

Yet it all collapsed within a few weeks and Kabul is back to being a besieged capital of a nation in turmoil.

The Taliban and ISKP have clashed many times.

Several major attacks in Afghanistan between 2019 and 2021 involved collaboration between ISKP, the Haqqani network and other Pakistan-based terror groups. ISKP claimed credit for killing dozens of Taliban fighters in 2019-2020. As the Taliban fought back, in late 2019 ISKP begged the Afghan government for help, and in a controversial deal agreed to lay down arms in exchange for protection from the Taliban.

ISKP has criticized the Taliban for working with Western governments and organizations, and calls them apostates.

In the first quarter of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded 77 attacks claimed by or attributed to ISKP, the ugliest character in the Star Wars for extremists that Afghanistan has become.

Known for its gruesome videos, its gunmen went on a bloody rampage in 2020 at a maternity ward in a Shiite neighbourhood of Kabul, killing several mothers, nurses and mothers-to-be.

In 2019, after the brave mujahid al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest when cornered by US forces, ISKP was “almost entirely eradicated” by US and Afghan forces. The survivors fled across the border to Pakistan where the ISI got to work on them converting them to suicide bombers.

The internecine bloodletting will continue, with an extreme form of Islam fighting an ultra-extreme form of Islam

On 31 August 2021, with Russia and China abstaining, the UNSC passed a resolution urging the Taliban to prevent terror groups from using Afghanistan and to assist in the evacuation of all Afghan nationals wishing to leave the country

Remembering 2015 nightmare originating from Syria/Libya/Africa, Europe is deeply concerned about migratory flows from Afghanistan.

The Resolution specifically named Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed (both of which reportedly fought alongside the Taliban to reclaim Afghanistan), but excluding China’s bete noire the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.

The Great Game has been joined. The world should adopt the example of India. We have gifted so much (USD 3 bn) to the people of Afghanistan, roads, buildings, dams, schools, etc. Our “investment” is in the goodwill that we earn and that is all we want. This is our policy with all nations. We prefer peace to violence.

Pakistan, that celebrated the collapse of India’s USD 3 bn “investment” in Afghanistan, is choking

(Deepak Vohra is a senior diplomat, special Advisor to Prime Minister on Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil)