“In the dream,” Osama bin Laden recalled to a biographer, “an army mounted on white horses moved towards me, all wearing black turbans. ‘Are you Osama, the son of Muhammed bin Laden?’ a horseman with shining eyes asked me. ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘Then hand this flag over to the Imam Mahdi Muhammad bin Abdullah at the gates of Jerusalem’. I took the flag from him, and saw that the army was marching behind me.”
His dream, Bin Laden continued, was interpreted for his father by a cleric: “Muhammed bin Laden,” he said, “this son of yours will prepare an army for Imam Mahdi, and for the sake of protecting his religion, he will migrate to the region of Khorasan [Afghanistan].”
In the summer of 1996, Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, beginning the long journey to 9/11, and the brutal wars that have followed it. Though Bin Laden has long been dead, his apocalyptic fantasies are not: in Afghanistan, the crucible in which the global jihad was forged, their triumph seems inexorable.
Last week, world leaders met in Islamabad for the annual Heart of Asia conference, in a last-chance bid to contain that outcome. Pushed by the United States and United Kingdom, the strategy rests on getting Pakistan to rein in the Taliban, in the hope of marginalising al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Pakistan-brokered talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, which broke down six months ago, are expected to begin again.
The discussions were overshadowed by the resumption of comprehensive India-Pakistan dialogue — but the fate of this audacious project has not a little to do with the lesser-known one.
Like past efforts at bringing about dialogue with the Taliban, this one has begun badly. Even as Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, were talking peace, there were savage Taliban attacks. Fifty-one civilians were killed in a strike on Kandahar airport, many burnt alive in a nearby bazaar. Fourteen police officers died in a strike in nearby Helmand’s Khanshin district.
Furious with the peace deal, Afghanistan’s highly regarded intelligence chief, Rehmatullah Nabil, resigned from his office — but not before posting an acid message on his Facebook page directed at President Ghani. “When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif once again stated that Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy,” Nabil wrote, “our compatriots were being martyred and slaughtered.
“At least 1,000 litres of the blood of our innocent people was shed, in the same red colour as the carpet that we catwalked on [in Islamabad],” he continued. “Thank God I am not part of it.”
Nabil’s pessimism is shared widely in Afghanistan. In essence, the Afghanistan-Pakistan negotiations involve giving what are called “reconcilable Taliban” — put simply, those over whom Pakistan has influence — a share of power in Kabul, in return for an end to violence.
Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban’s chief, shuttles between homes in Quetta’s Ishaqabad area and on the Benares Road in Karachi. His deputies and their families are also Pakistan-based, in theory making it easy for the Inter-Services Intelligence to pressure them.
The facts on the ground, though, are bleak: violence in Afghanistan has surged under Mansour’s command, with both civilian and military casualties reaching record levels. Earlier this year, the Taliban for the first time occupied a major population centre, Kunduz, sparking fighting which claimed 848 lives.
In addition, jihadist groups have grown in strength. General John Allen, who commands United States forces in Afghanistan, said in October that his troops had destroyed what he called “probably the largest” al-Qaeda camp seen in the 14-year war.
The camp, Afghan intelligence sources told The Indian Express, housed over 150 fighters from across South Asia, flying the banner of the newly-formed al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, led by Gujarat-origin jihadist Asim Umar.
Either Pakistan isn’t interested in shutting down the Taliban, or it just doesn’t have the heft to do so. Mohammad Mohaqiq, Afghanistan’s deputy Chief Executive, has plainly called for Afghans to prepare for a “long drawn out war”.
From Pakistan’s point of view, the issue is muddier, involving hard policy choices. Pushing the Taliban and their Pakistani allies too hard could lead them to join hands with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the anti-Pakistan jihadists who retreated into Afghanistan in the face of a military offensive. Even worse, dissident Taliban commanders like Mullah Mohammad Rassoul Nowrozi and his military deputies, Mullah Baz Mohammad and Mullah Mansour Dadullah, could depose the Pakistan-backed leadership.
In the end, using its influence to support the peace process could leave Pakistan with no cards to play in Afghanistan.
The answer that has emerged from the Heart of Asia conference is to offer incentives to Pakistan to act — and that’s where New Delhi has a key role. On Sunday, the TAPI pipeline, which will pass from Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan, was inaugurated. The pipeline will give Pakistan desperately-needed energy, and transit revenues from gas headed to India — but construction work in Afghanistan can only begin if there’s relative peace.
Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khwaja Mohammad Asif, has said his country will use its influence on the Taliban for the security of the pipeline — a promise that will be tested in the coming months.
The course of action Islamabad chooses will depend, in key senses, on whether Pakistan’s military has finally decided to abandon the ideological core of its Afghanistan policy — the construction of a polity and civil society around political Islam.
In 1933, the poet Muhammad Iqbal travelled to Afghanistan, and to the ruins of the great fortress-city of Ghazni, once the capital of one of Asia’s most powerful empires. He asked God, the scholar Abdul Aleem Hilal has written, “Why are you so kind to the British who have confined mankind to bondage?” Iqbal answered his own question: “The Muslim has lost his zest for life, and his heart beats no more.”
The idea of Afghanistan as the land from which a new Islam would rise, reshaping Asia’s geopolitical destiny, guided Pakistan’s military long before it did Osama bin Laden — shaping its support for jihadists in 1973 and again, famously, from 1978 on.
Few of the leaders who gathered in Islamabad for the conference would have been aware of the ideological context of Iqbal’s calling Afghanistan “the Heart of Asia”. The question now is, has that ideology finally run its course?