Col Ajay K Raina
The dust, as many see it, is yet to settle post unfurling of a fundamentalist outfit’s flag that replaced the national flag of Afghanistan a few days back. If I were to stick my neck out, I would say that the dust is actually yet to be kicked up and when you have a territory as volatile and a populace as unpredictable as that of Afghans, it is, in fact, with a good amount of certitude that a few things can be prophesied!
Afghanistan is a distressed piece of land. Some of its finest (and the most expensive) fruits-both fresh and dry-have been replaced by opium and heroin. Its location that was once the centre of the Great Game of 19th Century, too, has lost its significance. While the geography hasn’t changed, powers and their prowess certainly have. The Brits are no more a power to reckon with and the present-day Russia already facing economy-related challenges, is no big daddy either. US is hanging around but with no mood to fight a contact battle inside that land. The Great Game, therefore, is now redundant even though some avatar of it is still in play in the oil-rich strip further to the west. China, the only big power around, is at liberty to exert as it wants to but knowing Afghan temperament, even they would be cautious. The mineral deposits, another artery of CPEC, the oil pipe from Iran and such like Chinese dreams will never be out of the shadow of the typical Afghan intrigues. India, despite having invested heavily, may not be able to influence the matters today but then there will always be a tomorrow.
That leaves us with one major stakeholder in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Some grand celebrations are happening across its geography and Taliban flags are flying proudly on the minarets of Lal Masjid in Islamabad as on date. However, the common sense tells us that the Pakistanis should have been grieving instead. And the reasons are many.
Taliban faces organic challenges in form of a young populace, the bulk of which was born after return of liberal regimes since 2001. Not influenced by religious seminaries and having got accustomed to modern-day amenities, they are not likely to endure Talibani diktats without kicking up the dust. Taliban holds sway over the countryside but 25% of Afghan population that dwells in about two dozen of its main cities and towns, holds the key to the future of Afghanistan. Add to these plentiful resistance groups with affinities to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran as well as Arab groups like ISIS, and the numbers almost double up. Without re-visiting ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of military splash by Taliban, it is suffice to say that given the survival instincts of Afghans, no such surrender or patch up could have happened without the weaker group first creating safe caches for future use. If that be so, we can expect a civil unrest- if not an all-out civil war-sooner than later (and with that goes the Chinese dream of mining and digging pipelines!).
Now, given the strength of Taliban- even though it is not a monolithic group and any faction may walk off any moment-75,000 in all, the chances of Taliban controlling the vast land are almost nix. What happens when Taliban gets on the backfoot like it almost did in Panjshir recently? Pakistan will have to send boots on ground (remember, Chinese don’t believe in fighting contact battles, especially in the foreign lands). And the moment that happens, the kind of free run TTP will have inside Pakistan, will be anybody’s guess!
TTP and now ETIM, incidentally, make strange bed-partners with Taliban. TTP draws its religious inspiration from the same sources that guide Taliban. ETIM, like TTP, will be publicly denounced by Taliban in return for much-wanted cash from China but their umbilical cords are simply beyond extrication. Taliban knows that if it really shuns either of the two, it will lose bargaining power with China and Pakistan, as the case may be. At the same time, while Taliban may keep ETIM under a loose leash for a while, it will unleash TTP in Pakistan even while Pak’s SSG and regulars may be biting dust inside Afghanistan while supporting Taliban! The reason for such a stance is the common Pashtunwali code. When Wali Shah, son of legendary Frontier Pathan was asked in 1972 whether he was a Pashtun or Muslim or Pakistani first, his reply summed up the strength of Pashtun conviction and commitment towards Pakhtunistan; he had said, “I am a Pashtun for 6,000 years, a Muslim for 1,000 and a Pakistani for just 27 years!” That belief runs in Pashtun DNA.
A historical manipulation by the British to make a drugged Amir sign on a document that the latter couldn’t read or understand, to create Durand Line, incidentally, also affects Balochis who, despite being an independent country at that time, were not even consulted when their land in Waziristan was sliced off on that cold morning in November 1893 at Kabul. There are already reliable inputs of Balochis synergising their efforts with TTP. More than 25 killings of Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary and army soldiers in Pakistan during first ten days of September 2021, do confirm such a tie-up.
In 1996, Pakistan had not only recognised Taliban first up, it had sent a large contingent of bureaucrats and military advisors into Afghanistan to help Taliban run the Government. Funds, too, were pumped in. In 2021, Pakistan is on the brink of an economy disaster; it can ill-afford to send in troops and administrators when its own security as well as administrative setup are going bonkers. And with US cleverly plucking all the intellectuals and technocrats from Afghanistan while leaving the country, Taliban with 14 of its ministers on UN list of designated terrorists, is up for a tough spell. It is also because of this specific reason wherein Taliban may break and get thrown out (with the help of Tajik-Uzbek-Russian support or France-Iran-UK help), it will need Pakhtunistan to fall back upon. Pakistan, thus must grieve rather than celebrate today!
Col Ajay K Raina