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A graveyard waits

Today, a more complete dominance by the Taliban looms with the impending pull-back of US troops. The Chinese will maintain ‘hard-borders‘ given their own vulnerabilities with the Uighur uprising, and the pandemic-fatigued Iran will struggle to offer any meaningful opposition to the Taliban. Potentially, the Taliban could crush all opposition and become the ‘export hub‘ of its puritanical-revisionist impulses, for which the first porous destination would be Pakistan.

Bhopinder Singh | New Delhi |

Lt Gen Hamid Gul was a product of his fellow-cavalry officer and senior, General Zia-ul-Haq’s project of ‘Shariaisation’ of Pakistan. Like his mentor Zia-ul-Haq, Hamid Gul was given to political and ideological extremism that went far beyond the mandate of a professional Army Officer. In the heydays of the Cold War when the CIA-ISI combine would support the Afghan-mujahedeen, Hamid Gul was entrusted with the most sensitive role of Director-General of ISI (Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services-Intelligence) in 1987.

The curious case of exploding mangoes cut short the life of Gen Zia in a mysterious air crash and with that the extracurricular activities of Hamid Gul were temporarily suspended ~ the professional soldier in the then Pakistani Army Chief, Gen Asif Janjua, pushed him to a lesser post. But by then, the damage to the Pakistani narrative and its establishments’ instincts were irretrievably institutionalised, and in days to follow, Hamid Gul soon earned infamous and unprofessional monikers like ‘Godfather’, ‘Father of the Taliban’ etc.

As the key official in charge of funneling US-Saudi cash and weapons to the Afghan mujahadeen, Gul was also instrumental in laying the foundations of the patented Pakistani ‘double-game’ of murky loyalties, where misappropriation and even unauthorized ‘management’ of the mujahadeen (who would later morph into the Taliban) was masterminded by him. It was also the era when the concept of Pakistani ‘Strategic Depth’ in Afghanistan was conceptualised ~ a beholden and ‘controlled’ Afghanistan via loyal militias was envisaged.

So nefarious was Hamid Gul’s reputation that the 9/11 Commission Report suspected him of tipping off Osama Bin Laden just before a US missile attack in 1998 and his patronisation of the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (‘Butcher of Kabul’) is well documented. But perhaps the most viciously instructive comment attributed to Hamid Gul is when he chillingly forecast, “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence, the ISI, with the help of America, defeated America!” Today, Hamid Gul’s prophecy may just be proved right, as the United States joins the long list of foreign nations who figure on the epitaph of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ that is Afghanistan.

After the longest war (20 years) in US history with far more investments than what was spent to rebuild Europe after the Second World War ~ the same Taliban that was pushed out of Kabul in 2001 is waiting menacingly outside Kabul, to reoccupy the unforgiving war-torn lands. Pakistan had sown, nurtured and unleashed the fury of the Taliban to perpetuate its own ambitions of ‘Strategic Depth’ (not complete control, because Pakistan more than any other nation, understands the Afghan psyche and inevitabilities).

The reign of the Taliban with the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (1996-2001) had worked reasonably well for the Pakistani establishment, as it remained non-interfering in the affairs of Pakistan, whereas various irreconciled factions within Taliban were successfully played off against each other, to retain Pakistani leverage at all times. Since Afghanistan was not completely under Taliban control and fighting persisted in the Northern and Eastern parts, the lifeline for the Taliban was the invaluable support from Pakistan.

Today, a more complete dominance by the Taliban looms with the impending pull-back of US troops from Afghanistan, as any potential faction opposed
to Taliban will struggle to sustain itself in the landlocked country.

The Chinese will maintain ‘hard-borders’ given their own vulnerabilities with the Uighur uprising, and the pandemic-fatigued Iran will struggle to offer any meaningful opposition to the Taliban. Potentially, the Taliban could crush all opposition and become the ‘export hub’ of its puritanical-revisionist impulses, for which the first porous destination would be Pakistan.

For once, the Pakistani calculation of ‘Strategic Depth’ may have just overrun its suppositions, objectives and assumed constraints.

Despite strident public posturing, the Pakistani ‘establishment’ too has woken to the horrors of having a Taliban-run Afghanistan next door. Secondly, while historically the US grudgingly soft-peddled the notorious Pakistani ‘duplicity’ due to its selfish requirements of Pakistani supply routes to maintain its assets in Afghanistan ~ hereinafter it would no longer be necessary to pander to Pakistani whims, beyond a point.

If anything, the lens would sharpen on the Chinese angularity and within the US algorithms, Islamabad with its CPEC and other imperatives, would emerge as ‘China’s own’, further distancing Islamabad in Washington DC’s eyes. To complicate matters for Pakistan, the Taliban has also warned neighbouring countries from allowing US bases, and Islamabad is stuck if It does and also if it doesn’t.

Pakistan has already sounded the red herring on the ‘security vacuum’ in Afghanistan and added that it would not tolerate ‘terrorist activities’ in Afghanistan ~ even though, as the progenitor of the Taliban, it would know better. The so called ‘peace-dialogue’ with the Taliban that the Pakistanis had championed, is now stuttering and faltering, with the Talibanis gleefully reneging on their peace commitments.
The awkward situation has led Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf to openly state that the ‘sudden withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan was not ideal’. The history of Afghanistan and the ground realities have led the National Security Adviser to posit the inevitable future when he hopes ‘United States has assured us that Pakistan will not be made a scapegoat amidst the withdrawal (of US troops) from Afghanistan, but only time will tell whether (they stay true to their word) as history suggests otherwise’.

While Dr Yusuf is right in his apprehensions of ‘scapegoat’ and ‘history’ ~ it is perhaps too late for him to undo that path that Pakistan has paved in Afghanistan. The Imran Khan government will struggle to blame only the politicians of the past for the situation in Afghanistan.

But as some may just point out, Imran Khan founded his Tehreek-e-Insaaf party (PTI) together with a certain Lt Gen Hamid Gul – and it was he who once said, ‘The Taliban are our people’. The Graveyard of Empires now awaits its next usurper.