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History teaches that no one ever wins in Afghanistan, not even the native Afghans, who remain amongst the most deprived, denied, and regressive societies on the planet. As history is poised to repeat itself, for once, no one will be celebrating the exit of yet another empire, not even those who worked surreptitiously to support the forces inimical to the exiting empire.

Bhopinder Singh | New Delhi |

The proverbial ‘graveyard of empires’ has once again demonstrated its ability to outlast violence and bloodshed to consume yet another ‘empire’ in the shape of the United States of America-led Western powers. Historically, each time an ‘empire’ departed from the unforgiving swathes, the local tribes and their ruthless warlords took over to settle scores and assume power in their own way.

The accompanying undercurrents of the ‘Great Game’ that played out in Afghanistan, be it between  Tsarist Russia and the British Empire, or the subsequent Cold War shadowboxing between the Soviet-propped Najibullah’s PDPA government and the ISICIA supported mujahedeen, each exit of the interventionist ‘empire’ was followed by the vengeful takeover and mayhem by revisionist forces.

The ancient code of conduct, Pashtunwali, which binds the otherwise lawless tribes, is predicated, amongst other concepts, on the sense of Badal (revenge). It is this belief that haunts the scenario after the US troops withdrawal, when the return of the extremist Taliban, is almost certain.  History teaches that no one ever wins in Afghanistan, not even the native Afghans, who remain amongst the most deprived, denied, and regressive societies on the planet.

As history is poised to repeat itself, for once, no one will be celebrating the exit of yet another ‘empire’, not even those who worked surreptitiously to support the forces inimical to the exiting ‘empire’. Many locals who in the last twenty years saw a glimmer of hope to the return of the ‘Paris of East’, are now wary beyond belief. With the relentless surge of the Taliban towards Kabul, in a complete mockery of the socalled Doha Peace accord, there is growing palpitation in neighbouring Islamabad, Tehran, Dushanbe, Tashkent, Beijing and Delhi, and in Washington DC and Moscow, each for their own specific reasons.

Taliban is the creation, a nurturing and phantom phenomenon that owes its genesis and sustenance to the deliberate, inadvertent, or even circumstantial lifeline provided by many foreign capitals, even if they suffer selective amnesia about their complicity. The unmatched, consistent, and vested role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban, towards its own selfish doctrine of Strategic Depth in Afghanistan, is morally indefensible and incalculable in scale. As the chief protagonist of the movement, Pakistan was always unscrupulous, because it always had to play the patented Pakistani ‘double game’ which earned it the ire of Capitol Hill, as also across the Durand Line, where many Afghans recognised the pernicious role of the Pakistanis.

If the late Lt Gen Hamid Gul (once the Director General of the Pakistani spy agency, ISI) was known by the infamous moniker ‘Father of the Taliban’ amongst the Afghans, he was also popularly recognised as the ‘Butcher of Kabul’. Sovereign sentiments aside, necessities of landlocked Afghanistan required that the Talibanis also tacitly played along with the Pakistani ‘establishment’ to fight their internecine wars ~ but the lingering battles kept the Talibanis beholden, distracted and dependent on the Pakistanis, even when the ostensible Taliban government was in power (1996 2001).

But not anymore, as the Taliban seems set to steamroll any opposition within and the Pakistanis wake up to the horrific consequences of ‘overachieving’ their objectives. Strategic Depth had envisaged a dependent/vassal status for the government in Kabul and not a truly independent, irascible, and uncontrollable dispensation that could wreak havoc in the tinderbox of Pakistan. Taliban will be no one’s men, and the first port of their inevitable export of militant religiosity will be Pakistan.

Shiite Iran will remain a sectarian thorn for the Sunni-supremacist Taliban, as would the ethnically different nations of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Memories of the former ‘empires’ of the United States and Russia are too fresh to be forgiven, whereas history and perception within the Taliban ranks would rankle against India. The short 76-km border with China may be inactive and irrelevant for the Taliban ranks, but for the Chinese, the possible ‘nurseries’ of Melmastya (hospitality in the Pashtunwali code that was afforded to Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida) could be a concern with Uighur separatist organisations like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

China would rather have a moderate government like the current Ashraf Ghani set-up, as opposed to an unpredictable and puritanical Islamist dispensation of the      Taliban. The Arab Sheikhdoms had woken up to the Frankensteinian reality of Wahhabi extremism that they had unleashed and its boomeranged consequences ~ Osama Bin Laden’s Arab forces were the obvious expressions of ‘overachieving’ their objectives, just as Pakistan has now ‘overachieved’ its Strategic Depth doctrine to its own discomfiture. While the battleground of the Middle Eastern theatre may continue pitching rivals against each other, only in Afghanistan will Saudi Arabia and Iran fear the same ‘enemy’.

The same applies to Washington DC and Moscow or Delhi and Islamabad (or even Beijing). No one will accept it openly, but everyone is on the same page on Afghanistan. Given that Afghanistan was only a playground of competing interests, which has serendipitously and ironically become a point of convergence and alignment for all external stakeholders ~ chances that the ‘Great Game’ of the 21st Century stops (even selectively on Afghanistan) amidst the competing powers is impossible.

The optimum solution amongst the bad choices available, would be to somehow ‘contain’ Afghanistan and its foreboding instincts within. As most people living on either side of the Durand Line do not recognise or respect it, the foremost challenge to ‘contain’ Afghanistan would be for Pakistan itself. Geography and ethnic/sectarian ‘divides’ may aid sealing borders with the other countries, more practically.

The Talibanis too, beyond a point are inward looking and do not harbour internationalist agendas unlike other terror organisations like the Islamic State, Al Qaida etc. ~ though the subliminal sentiment of Pashtunistan (including tracts deep within Pakistan), could erupt, and be well within their agenda. Pakistan will have no choice but to do another U-turn, this time with the acquiescence and support of almost all capitals in the world to renege on its past duplicitousness, shun and even militarily ‘contain’ Afghanistan. That is the best bet, going forward.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)