October 9, 1998
All the famous captains of Kipling’s Great Game were baptised on their long march from Kabul to Kandahar. This expeditionary force, called the Punjab Frontier Force, was nicknamed Piffers with all its regiments at the time of partition going to the Pakistan Army. Almost a hundred years later, in August,their descendants led and guided the Taliban in the opposite direction from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharief in a stunning military victory in Mazar.
This is not the first time the Pakistan Army has spearheaded Taliban thrusts in Afghanistan. Their spectacular sweep into Kahul two years ago and the failed swipe one year later on Mazar were mastermined by the Great Game players. Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan has been challenged by Iran.
The latest Taliban offensive was different. It had the hallmark of a professional army combining conventional strategy with guerilla-type operations. At least one Pakistani infantry brigade and a large logistic force went about emulating their Piffer forbears in the triumph atMazar.
There are today at least 3,000 elite infantry soldiers in Mazar and another 900 fighters in Kabul under one Brigadier Aziz. It is clear the lessons of the failed attack on Mazar were heeded this time mopping up and consolidation, no alienation of locals, buying off opposition and ensuring there was no treachery. In less than a month Pak Army-Taliban mobile columns had rolled over from the West Dostum’s Uzbek strongholds of Maimana, Shebergan and Mazar. Ironically this grand offensive was sprung on the same day (July 12) the Northern Alliance had met in Mazar to plan the recapture of Kabul.
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The Northern Alliance counterattacks arrived two months too late, just recently from the Panjshir Valley by the forces of Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Masoud, that too after Mazar had already fallen. Masoud’s forces made local gains north of Kabul but suffered heavy losses. Bamiyan, held jointly by the Shiite Hazaras and Hizb-i-Wahdat and being aerially supported by Iran, fell a few weeks ago. Along with Bamiyanthe vital Shiber Pass linking Bamiyan and Panjshir valley has also been lost. But the ultimate strategic prize Badakshan province north of Panjshir valley is still held by Masoud.
A new grand alliance consisting of Iran, Russia and even India is in the making with Iran determined to use all military and diplomatic means to avenge the killing of its diplomats in Mazar and the Shias in Damiyan. The combined might of Iranian mechanised forces and revolutionary guards can, at any time, do a Mazar on Herat and Farah, in northwest Afghanistan, close to its borders, cutting off the land line from Kandahar to Kushka on the gas-rich Turkmenistan border. Once Iran joins the war overtly, it will open yet one more chapter in the all-snakes-no-ladder great game in Afghanistan and the western front for Pakistan.
The question is why did the then Army Chief Gen. Karamat and the ISI take the overt plunge into the Afghan quagmire, just when the military stalemate had divided the country north and south of the Hindukushinto a Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun Afghanistan?
Emboldened by its nuclear tests and desperate to help Taliban pacify Afghanistan quickly against a brittle northern alliance opposition, Karamat inducted the new Piffer brigade sometime in June this year to mop up territory beyond the Hindukush up to the Amu Darya. Unlike the Indian Army, its Pakistani couunterpart gets little live training in low intensity conflict these days.
Besides, there are larger strategic and commercial benefits up for grabs, if and when the pacification objective is achieved. Having failed in gaining strategic depth in Kashmir, Pakistan must acquire strategic space in Afghanistan before it can declare itself the gateway to the resource-rich Central Asian Republics (CAR).
But there are problems of pacification and unification without which there can be no acceptable and internationally recognised national government in Kabul, the key to gas and pipeline funding. Then there is Iran, Pakistan’s rival for the strategic gateway slot. Stillmore important for Shia Iran is preventing a Sunni Pakhtun nation along its 900 km-long eastern borders.Unwittingly Pakistan may have reopened a closed military front fighting protracted guerilla warfare.
The writer is a retired major-general
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