June 19, 1997
In a striking replay of the Great Game, the white flag of the radical Islamic Pashtun-majority Taliban fluttered over Afghanistan’s northern Uzbek citadel of Mazar-i-Sharif briefly — for a shorter time than the chequered flag flutters during the country’s national sport of budkashi. Here, the fight is over possession of a dead goat. In Mazar, the prize for the Taliban was equally useless: a defeat from victory.
All the elements of trickery and deceit came to the fore in the latest Taliban offensive north of the Hindukush to hold the anti-Taliban alliance blocking its quest of unifying Afghanistan. Surprise and subterfuge have been the hallmark of the stunning sweeps launched by the Taliban since September, 1996.
First, they stormed Kabul. Two months later enlarged the Kabul perimeter 100 km north to include Baghram military airbase and by late December, had reached the Russian-built Salang tunnel. But the vital bridge leading to the plains of Mazar-i-Sharif was blown up in October. The old route across the Hindukush is through Shiber Pass east of Salang, firmly under control of the Tajik warlord, Gen Ahmad Shah Masood. Unable to crack the passes, the Taliban were stalemated south of the Hindukush. A spring offensive around April-May when the snows would melt was widely expected.
In their military campaigns, the Taliban have committed three cardinal errors: wasted too much time cleansing Kabul last year rather than making a dash for the Hindukush passes; overstretched their forces ignoring their ancestors’ golden rule in frontier warfare of picketing; and alienated the people through their radical Islamic programme.
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Before the present round of fighting two Taliban-driven scenarios were on the cards — a limited offensive to secure and consolidate all territory to the Hindukush inclusive of the Salang and Shiber Passes. The more ambitious plan was the trans-Hindukush pincer to neutralise Dostum, capture Mazar, destroy the Massoud-Rabbani combine and seize the strategic Badakshan province. The risk in this option was the Russian threshold that might attract retaliation under Russia’s 1992 collective security agreement with the Central Asian Republics — less Turkmenistan (which is neutral).
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the Chinese Xinjiang province with common borders with Afghanistan would be seriously threatened by the influx of Islamic fundamentalists which would also jeopardise the Tajik peace process. Iran is the biggest loser of this endgame. Saudi Arabia, UAE, the US and Pakistan have revealed their hand during the abortive Taliban offensive.
Pakistan stands to be the net beneficiary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan though hazards of ethnic and sectarian unrest in Pakistan are inherent in this gamble. Pakistan wants to return the two million Afghan refugees, create strategic depth, become the economic conduit for resource-rich Central Asia, be the operative Muslim player in the region and redeploy the Taliban in Kashmir.
As early as January this year, reports from Mazar had suggested that the Taliban were expected to arrive any time and that they would not be unwelcome. The SOS from the anti-Taliban alliance to shore up its defences was ignored by friendly countries including India which attributes the history of its diplomatic failures to a lack of geographical contiguity. India burnt its fingers in Afghanistan ever since its backing of the Soviet invasion.
Today, MEA officials expect a divine solution. Their twin objectives are: preventing a pro-Pak regime in Kabul and the movement of Afghan Mujahideen into Kashmir. Though the Taliban have done a full dress rehearsal of their takeover of the north, they will have second thoughts after the rude shock of double deceit by opposing generals. It is also clear that Pashtuns cannot cohabit with the more liberal tribes in the north. For the present, the Taliban have missed the chance of geographically uniting a fractured Afghanistan.
The writer is a retired major-general
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