Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

August 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 5)


The Afghan Conflict and Regional Security
By P. Stobdan *


During the last phase of the Cold War, an influential school of thought in the United States felt that if the Soviets’ “fraternal” aggression against Afghanistan had not happened, it would have had to be invented. 1   On the other hand, Gorbachev felt in 1988, that “the untying of the Afghan knot” would have a profound international impact on resolving conflicts in the Middle East, in the Gulf region, in Southern Africa, in Cambodia, and in Central America. Gorbachev was perhaps right—the East-West disengagement from Afghanistan paved the way for wider peace in the post-Cold War era, either through successful UN conflict resolution efforts or through unilateral intervention by the only superpower, the US. Contrarily, in Afghanistan, the collapse of the bipolar system led to the internal collapse of the Afghan state, plunging the country into political anarchy and civil war, thereby, posing the question; was the Afghan conflict the cause, or a consequence of the end of the geo-political order?

February 15, 1999, marked the tenth anniversary of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union disintegrated after that. The US was supposed to have disengaged from Afghanistan. The pro-Soviet Najibullah regime stepped down from power in 1992. The Geneva Accords that symbolised the hope for world peace became a point of further discord. The United Nations, authorised to implement the peace plan for a “period of transition,” has remained ineffective so far. The international community is busy elsewhere in the face of other impinging issues arising close to the Western world. Afghanistan today has descended into complete anarchy, imperilling its people and scaring its neighbours with multiple threats. But the world is quiet, while there is no visible sign of any form of stability returning to that country in the near future.

The Afghan conflict, at the same time, raises the intriguing conceptual question pertaining to the international system, as to whether the conflict still has any organic linkage with bipolarity or is it a part of the symptoms of the changing international order characterised by the rise of multipolarity. There are no analytical frameworks available to suggest such a pattern affecting the Afghan scene. Nevertheless, the absence of a bipolar system has not necessarily led to the rise of regionalism managing regional security issues like the Afghan conflict. The regional actors still look to the United Nations and other world bodies for conflict management.

In the case of Afghanistan, the situation is further complicated by its geo-political and historical background. Though Afghanistan as a state existed since 1747, its current political borders evolved only toward the end of the last century (1880-1901) as an outcome of rivalry between British India and Tsarist Russia. Though there are several myths associated with the land and people of Afghanistan being invincible for outside powers, the fact was that the political and military compulsions demanded the creation of a buffer state between the two giant powers in Asia. Politically speaking, it was the issue of security between British India and Russia that determined Afghanistan as a state more than the factor of its sovereignty. Afghanistan’s spatial location denied it the resources for it to be a viable state. Historically, various Afghan rulers sustained their power on revenue drawn from conquests in India. Both the political stability and economic sophistication of the Afghan regimes depended largely on resources generated from loot, plunder, raids and taxes from the neighbouring regions. The stabilisation of Afghanistan also required careful understanding among the external powers concerned, specially with regard to its independence, its borders, as well as assured resources for the rulers in Kabul to maintain control over territory and population. In other words, Afghanistan was useful for the great empires for sustaining the balance of power. In return, the rulers in Afghanistan received enough resources from the neighbouring powers to sustain control and internal stability. The traditional Afghan rulers knew what is, and how to act as, a buffer state. The Soviet intervention may have caused damage to Afghanistan’s buffer status—the associated fall-out of that has been too severe to be corrected soon. Nevertheless, the internal political conflict that erupted in Afghanistan following the Communist coup in 1978 continued primarily due to aid and support rendered by the opposing external powers concerned. The Geneva Accords of April 1988 and the termination of aid to both sides were aimed at reinstating international cooperation for peace rather than war. But before they could be fully implemented, a number of other actors, including sectarian groups, quickly filled in the vacuum in Afghanistan. Gorbachev may have had good intentions in withdrawing from Afghanistan, but the US and its proxy alliance continued support in one form or the other to various armed factions. As the Kabul regime weakened, external powers got tempted to join internal Afghan factions. In the absence of a powerful central government, peripheral forces emerged stronger, resulting in the rise of suppressed ethnic/tribal animosities. Notwithstanding the frequent shifts in power relations within and outside Afghanistan, the regional/ethnic power blocs fighting for control of Kabul since 1992 failed to agree for a unified institution to govern the country. The rise of a new group, the Taliban has proved not logical enough to undo the structural collapse. Afghanistan today, as Barnett R. Rubin described it, is “a legally undivided territory of fragmented power.”

This paper is an attempt at summarising the study on the Afghan conflict in the international, regional and domestic contexts, particularly in the backdrop of the post-Soviet developments. It is a brief analysis of the Afghan situation impacting the regional security environment in its immediate South and Central Asian region, specially in terms of security policy relations among the regional actors involved in the conflict. The paper examines the way in which traditional security profiles of regional countries are undergoing changes as a result of the threats posed by the on-going conflict in Afghanistan. It also analyses the consequent impact of the changing regional security environment on India’s security concerns.


International Context

Afghanistan is no longer a priority agenda on the international stage. International commitment for resolving almost the quarter of a century-old conflict has slipped down amidst unfolding of new events in Europe and elsewhere. Even before the Kosovo developments, the world concern for Afghanistan had slowed down. As compared to the late 1980s, when international donors poured in billions of dollars to help the Afghans, the agencies dealing with Afghan repatriation programmes such as the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) now complain that the goodwill among donors for Afghanistan has dried up. They find it increasingly difficult to raise funds for anything to do with Afghanistan. 2   Recently, the UNHCR could get only $761,000 from Sweden, in response to an appeal for $17 million needed for humanitarian concerns. There are a number of factors for this declining attention on the Afghan issue:

  1. In the first place, nobody in the Western world, especially in the US, ever envisaged that there would be a post-Soviet Afghanistan. The post-mortem analysis of the US’ Afghan policy suggests that Washington had great confidence in Pakistani assessments of the developments in Afghanistan, and little understanding and control over the tragic developments in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal.

  2. Throughout the 1990s, the Western world remained preoccupied with the events in the Gulf and later in Europe. Stabilisation of Central and Eastern Europe remained the primary issue of concern and Afghanistan attracted little notice in countries that had earlier shown commitment to the resistance movements.

  3. The Taliban came in as a handy tool for the West to contain Iran. The militia’s rise was also seen in the context of increasing Indo-Iranian cooperation in Central Asia. The Afghan politics also seemed hostage to the new geo-politics of oil. The USA and Saudi Arabia, in connivance with Pakistan, took a series of steps to deny Iran the strategic advantage it had acquired in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Iran claimed that the US Administrations had spared no effort in using US diplomatic and financial influence to frustrate any positive result that may derive from Iran’s mediation in Afghanistan.

  4. The Afghan conflict took a different turn in the post-Soviet era, in terms of both its cause and nature, characterised more as a localised conflict with few ramifications for the international community. The US policy goals with respect to Russia, Central Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia dictated Washington’s attitude towards Afghanistan. In short, the US adopted a “hands-off” policy with regards to Afghanistan, while only pushing for the UN-sponsored peace plan.

  5. After a brief relative disengagement, the US, much to its disbelief and dismay, discovered in 1993 that many of its past Afghan policies had started to boomerang against the US interests. Many of the good old Mujahideen, including the Americans’ own favourites and proteges like Gulbuddin. Hekmatyar, had turned Afghanistan into a breeding ground for terrorists. The Afghan War veterans, also known as “Afghanis” numbering in thousands, had got involved in anti-Western terrorist acts. 3   The increasing menace of terrorist threat to the West, originating from Afghanistan since 1993, led to intense debate in the US, in both official circles and outside, that questioned Washington’s policy, ignoring the tragic aftermath, and sought suggestions for rectifying the past policies that had begun to backfire on American interests. The concern began after the pipebomb explosions at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the loss of 230 lives on board TWA Flight 800 in 1996, the bomb explosion at the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, the killing of CIA officials in Karachi, and the abduction of six Europeans by the Al-Faran in Kashmir that sent shock waves in the Western world. The Group of Seven Anti-Terrorism Conference was held in July 1996, in Paris, to initiate a global, coordinated effort to identify and locate thousands of veterans of the US-backed 1979-89 Afghan War against the Soviets. It was in this backdrop of the American commitment to combat the terrorist network, based in Afghanistan, that Washington provided a clear-cut incentive for the introduction of the Taliban movement that emerged on the Afghan political scene in October 1994. The US also saw a strategic interest in the Taliban, as the latter promised to work towards, (i) disarming of armed guerillas; (ii) driving out international terrorists from Afghanistan; (iii) fighting against Islamic fundamentalism, putting an end to drug-trafficking; (iv) doing away with the unexploded landmines; (v) reuniting Afghanistan under a single stable government. The Taliban victory over Kabul, therefore, was welcomed by the US. Washington talked about plans to dispatch diplomats to Kabul to confer with the Taliban, and expressed interest in reopening its embassy. The State Department spokesman expressed the hope that the Taliban “will act quickly to restore order and security and to form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nation-wide. ”Washington only expressed “regret” at the execution of Najibullah. The State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, acknowledged that the US had had contacts with the Taliban “regularly in the years past but also this year.” 4   In general, the Americans welcomed the militia as a moderate force for peace and stability. The editorial comment of the New York Times said, “The Islamic fundamentalist movement that gained control over much of Afghanistan with a recent string of military victories has brought a measure of stability to the country for the first time in years.” Similarly, a former State Department official who dealt with the US Afghan policy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that “the US should actively assist the Taliban because even though it is fundamentalist, it does not practise the anti-US style fundamentalism of Iran.” 5   The Americans described the Taliban as “anti-modernism” rather than “anti-Western”, and also noted that they are keen on restoring a “traditional society” rather than “exporting Islam.”

Within less than a month of the Taliban’s take-over of Kabul, the US made a U-turn in its position, when it abandoned the plan to send an envoy to Kabul. The US policy shift came amidst mounting international criticism against the Taliban’s appalling policies. The savagery and arbitrary medieval rule, while imposing a strict Islamic social code, banning women from working and shutting down girls schools, turned off the international community, drawing condemnation even from the orthodox Iranian clergy. Washington’s denouncement of the Taliban action also came in the backdrop of the presidential election in the US, as supporting a regime that had no respect for human rights would have negatively affected Clinton’s position. Robin Raphel said that the “US had little influence in Afghanistan, and supports none of the warring factions, and has no plan for bringing the conflict to an end.” Another senior official of the US Administration denied that the US had assisted the Taliban in capturing Kabul. The official asserted that “as far as US policy is concerned, we have always maintained that peace and security in Afghanistan can only be achieved through the establishment of a broad coalition government.” 6   Washington got rattled not only with the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISIs) ill conceived plan but also horrified and ashamed at the Taliban’s defiance. The US’ Taliban policy evoked mounting criticism for being too dependent on Pakistani inputs and analyses. One US official was reported to have noted: “The US’ initial embrace of the Taliban, which proved to be an embarrassment, was prompted by Pakistan, which had misled Washington into thinking that the Taliban could stem narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan and close down all the exports-oriented terrorist camps in that country. We soon realised the Taliban could do neither, and more so, we found that they were to a large extent funding their own operations with the profits from drug-trafficking.” Since then, the US followed only a policy of engagement with the Taliban and called for the formation of a broad-based government in Afghanistan.

Gradually, the international focus on Afghanistan has changed qualitatively from that of internally stabilising the country to the problems concerning only international terrorism, narco-trafficking, human rights, etc. Afghanistan today receives a “cartoon type image of goodies and baddies.” The focus on the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women and children, championed by no less a person that Hillary Clinton, supported by the American Feminist Majority (AFM) and the National Organisation for Women has completely overshadowed the other problems in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other officials deplored the Taliban’s “despicable” treatment of women and children and their lack of respect for human dignity. 8   Similarly, the sheltering by the Taliban of the world’s most sought-after terrorist, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, has given it a negative image among the world community.

If Afghanistan captured the centre-stage of international affairs through the 1980s, the issues today are shaped more by other events. The global security concerns of non-proliferation, the emergence of nuclear power states in South Asia, the Saddam Hussein phenomenon in West Asia, the democratisation and human rights issues in Central Asia, the fear of religious and ethnic uprising in the region, and above all, the need to tap the vast natural resources in Central Asia, etc, have emerged as important issues of concern in the region of Central and South Asia.

The Afghan issue has also receded from the primary agenda of concerns of other world organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) and others. In fact, the NAM in its recent meetings has shown concern about the need to curb the menace of international terrorism in all forms. The OIC initiatives on Afghanistan are also becoming less effective due to divergence of interest about the issue among member countries.


Regional Security Concerns

Interests in Central Asia

If the Afghan conflict has got marginalised on the international stage, it has become the most alarming issue of security concern for regional countries in South and Central Asia. In fact, in the post-Cold War era, both the reasons and nature of the conflict in Afghanistan have assumed a regional character. What appears now in Afghanistan is the East-West confrontation being replaced by sectarian conflict among powerful Islamic states. The Afghan conflict posed a challenge to the regional countries at two broad levels. First, the geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan following the Soviet disintegration has become more critical for the regional countries. The emergence of new ethnic based states in Central Asia has fundamentally altered the security environment. The politics in terms of religion, ethnicity, regionalism has made Afghanistan most explosive for the entire region. Secondly, the Cold War had left a legacy in strategic thinking and security policy perception among the major regional countries that resulted in a clash of interest and formation of loose regional alignments around Afghanistan.

If we elaborate further, the Afghan conflict has posed a challenge to the three Central Asian countries—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—to deal with the practical aspect of coping with possible spillover of turbulence into the region. 8   The Afghan conflict negatively impinging on their security includes: (i) the threat of religious ideology affecting the domestic political cleavages; (ii) the relative backwardness of the Afghan society and economy affecting the future developmental programmes of Central Asian states; (iii) the Afghan conflict as a major constraint for developing communication and energy pipelines towards the southern direction; (iv) the threat of Central Asian states getting drawn into the “narco-corridor” originating from Afghanistan; (v) the threat of trans-border terrorism, especially in the wake of Wahhabi activists’ presence in Afghanistan; (vi) the threat of refugee influx.

After the Soviet distengration, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan became “frontline” states which had to deal with the major hotbed of instability in Afghanistan. They have found themselves being encircled by an arc of crises in the immediate neighbourhood torn apart by internal conflicts—encouraged by ethnic intolerance, religious extremism, sectarian violence, regional and tribal conflicts, drug trafficking and external pressures of different kinds. The Central Asian fear in this regard is compounded by the fact that the Uzbek and Tajik Diasporas are the largest among others in Afghanistan. In fact, there are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan itself. Uzbekistan’s approach to the Afghan issue is shaped mainly by the fear of an Afghanistan type situation getting repeated in Tajikistan, which in turn would have direct implications for Uzbekistan’s security. The fear is that any solution of the Afghan problem on the basis of Pushtun ethnic affinity will lead to greater Tajik nationalism that will inadvertently undermine Uzbekistan’s national unity.

The Afghan conflict has in many ways redefined the contours of post-Cold War regional alignments and power relationships around the South, Central and West Asian regions. At one level, the strategic axis between Pakistan and the US, as well as between Pakistan and China has not undergone changes. On the other hand, the traditional perceptions of security interests between Russia and India, as well as Russia and the Central Asian states are being fractured or getting diluted. Many of the agreements concerning security envisaged in the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty of May 1992 are becoming redundant or are deliberately being floundered. Although the threat from the Taliban continues to activate consultations among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members, many problems have cropped up on account of the inability of the organisation to do more than defending the CIS borders against the Taliban’s advance towards the north.

The Afghan conflict is encouraging a trend among the Central Asian states to diversify their security policy ties and orientations with countries other than their traditional security guarantor, Russia. A greater degree of ambiguity with respect to security is emerging in Central Asia today. For example, Russia is perceived as the guarantor of Central Asian security, but, at the same time, also a threat to their national independence and sovereignty. This paradox is widening as Russia is neither able to regain its control over its former territories nor able to completely retreat from the region because of its own national interests. Kazakhstan, for example, considers its ties with Russia as geo-strategically unavoidable but, at the same, time, it sought to develop a substantive strategic partnership with the United States under the 1994 Charter on Democratic Partnership between the US and Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan, too, in the initial years, had a strong bilateral defence cooperation with Russia, but since 1995, there has been increasing shift in Uzbekistan’s security planning away from Russia. Tashkent refers to Russia as “imperialistic,” refuses to support Russian views on North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO’s) eastward expansion, and instead has become an ardent advocate of the Partnership of Peace (PfP) programme. It supports transport and pipeline routes that bypass Russian territory. Recently, Uzbekistan opted out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty of 1992, and promotes military integration within Central Asia through the Central Asian Union (CAU). Ambiguity also exists in the Uzbek security policy. Tashkent tends to reject Russian’ troops presence in Tajikistan because it could undermine Uzbekistan’s interest, but it seeks strong Russian support against the rising Islamic threat from Afghanistan. Similarly, Uzbekistan objects to Iranian involvement in the Tajik conflict, but goes along with the Iranian position of supporting the anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan.

A similar orientation of military security interests is being displayed by Turkmenistan, which tends to pursue a posture of “positive neutrality” and advocate close ties with Russia but does not approve of the collective security and the CIS. It remains close to Turkey but understands the importance of Iran. It has forged close relations with Pakistan but remains sensitive to India’s concerns. Turkmenistan’s close ties with the Taliban have caused unease among other Central Asian states, whereas, Kyrgyzstan has diversified its security policy goals and adopted a more balanced orientation. Both Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have become active participants in the PfP.

The differing views on national security interests among the CIS states have created opportunities for the US and other international organisations to enter the region with greater intensity of security policy engagement. Already, the US has signed bilateral defence treaties with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The 1998 treaty with Georgia covers American air and marine defence. The US Sixth Fleet flagship visited the Georgian port of Poti in September 1998. Turkey and the US conducted naval exercise “Sea Breaze-97” in the Black Sea. It is expected that the Sixth Fleet would soon penetrate the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has offered the US a military base on its territory. Baku has proposed that the US should include a platoon of Azerbaijan’s armed forces to the Balkans as part of the Turkish military contingent. Georgia and Azerbaijan are also seeking NATO peace-keeping operations in Abkhazia, Karabakh, and the Dnestr Republic. 9

The US has already brought in the Central Asian states into its Central Command (Centcom) responsibility. The military exercise by Centcom that airlifted units of the 82nd Air Mobile Division direct from the US to Central Asia for the conduct of the Centrabat-97 exercise in September 1997, clearly demonstrated the US’ intention to build new structures for regional security in Central Asia. The Russian sources consider that the US has already defined the areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus as “zones of American responsibility” and these are already subject to intelligence monitoring and tactical planning. Except for Tajikistan, the others have joined the NATO affiliates, the North American Cooperation Council (NACC) and PfP, which provide mechanisms for individually tailored programmes of security cooperation, like training and joint exercises. The new military-security profile of each Central Asian state, which is currently evolving in response to the Afghan conflict, may influence decisively the future security policy environment of Russia and even India.

On the other hand, the mutual defence treaty signed under the CIS framework shaped in the form of the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty of May 15, 1992, by Russia, the Central Asian states, except Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and others, is weakening due to the following reasons:

However, despite all the weaknesses and constraints, the Collective Security Treaty remains operational in response to the threat from Afghanistan and geo-political pressures from China. In response, to counter the threat from the Taliban, a joint exercise was conducted in July 1997, in the Trans-Volga Military District as a test for a “Pamir coalition army group.” The treaty nevertheless failed to take a decision to get directly involved in the Afghan conflict except to reinforce its border troop contingent in Tajikistan to 20,000 men to confirm the demilitarised zones along the Tajik-Afghan border. There is, however, talk about expanding the CIS Treaty beyond the confines of the former USSR to include Iran in the activities.

The new Central Asian security profile, such as the CAU, actively associated with NATO’s PfP, does not, however, indicate the region acquiring any pan-Turkic identity or pan-Islamic orientation. Instead, the new profile is being projected as a mechanism to counter the threat of Islamic fundamentalism that the CIS Collective Security Treaty has failed to provide. The CAU’s objectives do not appear to be against Russia, but Moscow may lose influence in Central Asia by default. Nevertheless, an anti-Russian realignment is taking a shape in the Transcaucasus region after the formation of a grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GAUM) in October 1997. Initially started as an economic grouping, the GAUM is now getting a security dimension as the member states are talking about forming a joint battalion. Uzbekistan has also lately shown interest in sending its troops to be a part of the GAUM contingent.

With both Afghan and Tajik conflicts at the back of their minds and considering that each has its own Kosovos, NATO’s recent bombing in Yugoslavia has put the Central Asian states in a dilemma. On the one hand, they reject NATO’s style of military actions in resolving ethnic problems, but they are not sure who will help them in case such ethnic problems occur in Central Asia.

There are other initiatives like Kazakhstan’s Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) modelled on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But the objective of the CICA is too amorphous and covers too many diverse conflicting interests to emerge as a functional security organisation. It is also highly unlikely that the ECO will develop a security profile, despite efforts by Pakistan and Iran to use it as a vehicle for political rhetoric. On the other hand, China is keen to give a security dimension to the “Shangai Dialogue”, a confidence-building measure (CBM) among three Central Asian countries, Russia and China to resolve the CIS-China frontiers. This dynamic at the moment appears tactical rather than strategic.

In the regional security complex of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is appearing to be the key and most decisive factor in the events to come. First, Uzbekistan has become a “frontline” state after the Soviet collapse, dealing with multiple threats emanating from the south. Second, notwithstanding Uzbekistan being the biggest state in terms of demography, it is the hub of the Central Asian civilisation and, therefore, has the potential to become the dominant regional power. The population of Uzbekistan is projected to grow from 23 million at present to 50 million by the year 2010. Third, like India in the case of South Asia, Uzbekistan shares borders with all other Central Asian states, including Afghanistan. Fourth, the Uzbek Diaspora is the largest among the ethnic minorities in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Fifth, Uzbekistan has the potentials to diversify its economic resources and may become an economically powerful state. Sixth, it has no border with Russia and China, which makes it easy to formulate independent foreign and domestic policy postures.

The above mentioned factors of Uzbekistan are bound to generate suspicion between it and other regional countries. Already there is strong competition between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in a variety of areas in the region. The fear of Uzbekistan becoming a bully is making Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan look internally towards Kazakhstan. Whereas Turkmenistan wants be neutral for the same reason. Externally, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are looking towards Russia and China to counter-balance Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are taking an orientation towards Iran for the same reason. No state in Central Asia is willing as yet to approve of Uzbekistan’s dominant position in the region. But Uzbekistan’s regional ambitions may have implications for China, Iran and Russia getting more entrenched role in Central Asia in the medium term. Already Uzbekistan-Israel relations, Uzbekistan-US relations, and Uzbekistan-Turkey relations have evoked suspicion in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, further complicating the Afghan conflict.

In short, as the open-ended Russian military engagement may not continue for a long time, the states in Central Asia may go closer to the European security structure or look elsewhere, in order to seek a guarantee for their national security. This may generate new circumstances and implications for resolving conflicts like those in Afghanistan and other hot spots in Asia.

Interests in South Asia


Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, especially in the post-war period has been most crucial; however, it has not been able to settle the issue on the lines it desires. It was expected in influential Pakistani circles that an indebted Afghan nation would become a satellite of Pakistan. Some even hoped that Afghanistan would eventually federate with Pakistan. The concept of strategic depth for Pakistan was not just acquiring military space, but a wider political canvass of diluting and undermining of “Afghan nationalism” that threatened to exacerbate the demand for Pushtunistan. To that extent, Pakistan seems to have achieved its purpose, as the concerns about Afghan irredentism around the issue of Pushtunistan seem to have virtually disappeared, especially after the rise of the Taliban. Although, at the official level, the strategic depth concept as propounded by Zia is no longer propagated, the idea remains attractive among religious groups and political parties in Pakistan. They see a greater possibility of expanding Islamic solidarity beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia to strengthen its rivalry against India. Again, to that extent, Pakistan has achieved success in completely cutting off the traditional Kabul-Delhi axis, which historically acted as a strong counterweight against Pakistan.

However, on other accounts, the Afghan conflict has a strong negative bearing on Pakistan’s domestic stability. The fighting in Afghanistan and the continued presence of more than a million Afghan refugees are having a corrosive effect on the Pakistani domestic order. There are concerns expressed openly in Pakistan that any deeper involvement with Afghanistan will distract Pakistan from the Kashmir issue. Among other thing, the critics in Pakistan argue that Islamabad is in a situation of over-stretch, resulting in failure on both fronts—Afghanistan and Kashmir. The other fear is that in a situation of Afghanistan getting fragmented along ethnic and regional lines, the issue of Pushtunistan may be revived. 10   The emergence of the Pushtun dominated Taliban may further increase the possibility of revival of the Pushtunistan issue. The Durand Line Agreement expired in 1993, and the Afghans have every right to reclaim areas up to Attock, on the lines of Hong Kong’s merger with China. One school of thought even suggests that Pakistan raised the Taliban militia in anticipation of interested parties like India and Britain bringing up the Durand Line issue after the treaty expired in 1993. From Pakistan’s point of view, the Taliban’s creation has helped put the universal goal of Islam ahead of any Afghan nationalist aims. 11

Although, at present, Pakistan appears to have firm control over the Taliban leadership, its ability to orchestrate the militia’s activities in the long term may be limited. Both internationally and among the regional countries, Pakistan stands isolated on the Afghan issue. Islamabad is too deeply involved in the conflict to be seen by other regional actors as a dispassionate negotiator to end the conflict.

Pakistan’s traditional intimacy on the Afghan issue with Iran has also disappeared, especially after the emergence of the Taliban. The bewildering sequence of developments in November 1998, after the deplorable murder of Iranian diplomats at Mazar-i-Sharif, had brought the Iranian forces and the Taliban to a near military confrontation. Iran amassed troops along the sensitive border with Afghanistan—an action that sent out enough signals to the Taliban about Tehran’s concerns. Iran achieved a number of objectives out of its military manoeuvre along the Afghan border. First, the Taliban well understood the role of Iran in Afghanistan, particularly its concern about the Shia population in Afghanistan. Second, the Iranian uproar compelled the UN to deplore the genocide by the Taliban against the Shia minority population in northern Afghanistan. Third, the Iranian image in the eyes of Central Asian countries improved considerably. Fourth, and most important, the Iranian action forced Unocol to withdraw its pipeline project, to be built via Afghanistan. Iran displayed wisdom in opting out of a direct military action in Afghanistan, as that could have helped Pakistan in getting out of its isolation on the Afghan front. It is more than clear that Iran will keep up its pressure if the Pakistani backed Taliban undermines its interests.


Afghanistan has traditionally engaged different sets of Indian security policy concerns. For reasons dictated by history and geography, India’s strategic concerns are tied up with the regions bordering our north and north-west. For a variety of reasons, India’s abiding strategic interests demanded a cordial and friendly relationship with the regimes in Kabul. The close historical and emotional proximity of Afghan nationalism with Indian nationalism had brought the interests of the two countries together. India’s benign presence in Afghanistan during the Soviet period had been enduring. However, the developments in Afghanistan after the fall of Najibullah, have confronted India’s security policy with tough challenges. The recent events have proved that instability in Afghanistan has an adverse influence on India. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave a pretext to Pakistan to pursue its own interests based on General Zia’s concept of “strategic depth” vis-a-vis India. Pakistan took it as an opportune time, and in fact, saw to it that the Soviet forces remained bogged down in Afghanistan for a longer period, the ultimate objective being to draw the spectre of the Cold War closer to the South Asian situation, which in turn could internationalise, if not help solve, the Kashmir issue. The Mujahideen’s victory against the Soviets had also inadvertently given rise to a belief in Pakistan that it can replicate a similar strategy vis-a-vis India. In fact, there has been a corresponding relationship between the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and heightening of Pakistani inspired terrorist acts in the Kashmir Valley. 12   A significant portion of Western supplied weapons for the Afghan Mujahideen were later transferred to the Kashmiri separatist forces in India, sustaining a low-intensity conflict since July 1988.

India’s overriding interests in Afghanistan emerge from its security concerns. First, India’s vital security interests are linked to the territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Any prospect of Afghanistan’s disintegration or the creation of Pushtunistan or its integration into Pakistan would severely undermine the principle on which India’s political and social stability is built. Even during the British Raj, upholding of Afghan independence was considered vital to the Indian state.

Second, with the Soviet strategic retreat, it became crucial for India, much more than before, to moderate the changing security relationship across its north-west frontiers. Afghanistan assumed importance for India’s Central Asia policy as well as for the purpose of tempering the Pakistani aggressiveness towards India.

Third, India has been the worst victim of the post-Soviet Afghan imbroglio, which manifested in the form of trans-national terrorism. The Pakistanis and Saudis continued to provide funds for Afghan War veterans to recruit and train Muslim volunteers from other Islamic countries in various terrorist training camps opened in several towns on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. These came to be known as the “Afghanis” (estimated at some 30,000 according to the US sources) and were implicated in terrorist attacks in India and the Western world. Since the summer of 1992, the infiltration of “Afghanis” into Kashmir increased, numbering about 2,000—from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia—at the peak of the militancy in the Kashmir Valley.

The fall-out of religious fundamentalism pursued by Pakistan as an instrument of regional policy and the subsequent post-Najibullah events in Afghanistan also saw the infusion of several negative patterns with deeper ramifications for India’s security. The large scale weaponisation of the population in Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the intertwining relationship of weapon production and narcotics trade, lumped together as the “Kalashnikov culture” has set off fundamentalist drives into Kashmir, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and elsewhere. India’s vulnerability increased from the growing narcotics trade across the border, bringing with it a host of other social and political problems.

There is no doubt that India’s traditional security response in dealing with Afghanistan at the strategic level has progressively eroded after the Soviet disintegration. The unsettled conflict in Afghanistan, especially after the rise of the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, seemed to have put India in geo-political defensiveness, thereby limiting its concerns to defending its own borders in Jammu and Kashmir, similar to the Central Asian situation.

If the Afghan conflict has so far negatively affected India’s security concerns in Kashmir, the scenario of the Taliban not being able to hold onto power in the near future would generate yet another threat from Afghanistan to India. The chances of India’s security interests getting affected directly by the Taliban are at the moment countered on three accounts. First, the Taliban is too deeply engaged in Afghanistan to pose a threat to others. It would take at least 10 years for it to consolidate internally. Second, India’s interests will be secure as long as Iran continues to checkmate the Taliban on the western front of Afghanistan. Third, there will be no direct threat from the Taliban as long as Ahmed Shah Masood controls the Badakhshan areas in the north-east.

However, in the longer term, India’s security concern will be shaped less by the intra-Afghan conflict and more by externally induced developments in that country, similar to the scenario that unfolded after the Soviet occupation and the subsequent war. India will need to regain political influence, if not direct leverage, in Afghanistan, not only because of increasingly Western as well as Pakistani presence but also due to the growing Chinese nexus with the Afghan militia. India’s strategic interests would be further threatened if the Chinese influence increases in the south of the Pamirs, apart from in Pakistan. There have been alarming reports about the Taliban’s increasing economic and security ties with China. The agreements between the two signed in February 1999 included training of the Taliban forces in Chinese training centre. The Chinese announced that they had agreed to start direct flights between Kabul and Urumchi. 13   It is possible that China is developing its relations with the Taliban on the model it had had applied in the case of Myanmar’s military junta. The drug money available in Afghanistan provides the ideal condition for China to replicate its earlier Myanmar policy of exporting arms to its neighbours, bordering India. Although it may take some time for such a situation to develop, the implications of China’s growing interest in Afghanistan even in the areas of commerce would be serious for India.


The Afghanistan Conflict and Energy Security

Afghanistan figures importantly in the context of American energy security politics. Unocal’s project to build oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan for the export of oil and gas to the Indian subcontinent, viewed as the most audacious gambit of the 1990s’ Central Asian oil rush had generated great euphoria. The US government fully backed the route as a useful option to free the Central Asian states from Russian clutches and prevent them getting close to Iran. The project was also perceived as the quickest and cheapest way to bring out Turkmen gas to the fast growing energy market in South Asia. To help it canvass for the project, Unocol hired the prominent former diplomat and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and a former US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, as well as an expert on the Caucasus, John Maresca.

Even though the wisdom of planning the project to go across war-ravaged Afghanistan was challenged by many, Unocol remained highly optimistic and opened its offices in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and even in India. Like the US government, the Unocol officials, too initially welcomed the taking over of Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996. The president of Unocol even speculated that the cost of the construction would be reduced by half with the success of the Taliban movement and formation of a single government. It was reported by the media that the US oil company had even provided covert material support to help push the militia northward against Rabbani’s forces. Since 1996, officials from Unocol and Saudi Delta have been involved in behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to bring peace in Afghanistan. Marty Miller, a top executive of Unocol, said that the projects are an important part of the conflict resolution process. Unocol officials travelled all over Afghanistan trying to convince all the warring factions to endorse the pipeline project 14   Unocol also offered the Afghans assistance in clearing the landmines along the proposed pipeline route, engaging Afghan labourers, while also promising free gas supply to Afghan towns such as Herat and Kandahar from where the pipeline would pass. Besides, Unocol proposed to set up a “Pipeline Council” representing all the Afghan factions to supervise the project.

Interestingly, for a long time, prior to Unocol, a Latin American oil company, Bridas, had been trying to win the same oil and gas pipeline projects. Initially, it got support from the Turkmen government, as well as from Pakistan, when Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister. For a long time, both Bridas and Unocol had been competing for the project, with both sides getting powerful political backing. Turkmenistan strongly supported Unocol, while the Taliban preferred to give the contract to Bridas. It is believed that almost all the Afghan factions, including Ahmad Shah Masood, preferred the Argentinian company. In 1997, he had even hoped that “the US would not be duped by Pakistan and that US plans to build a pipeline with Unocol were unhelpful.” 15   Similar sentiments were expressed by the Taliban in favour of the Argentinian company, Bridas, the reason being Unocol’s association with Russian Gazprom, to which the Taliban had serious objections. Whereas Bridas has an equity share with the Saudi company, Ningharco—which in turn, is close to Prince Turki al-Faisal Saud, the head of the Saudi General Intelligence, which has been backing the Taliban. 16   In October 1997, an international consortium was set up, known as the Central Asian Gas Pipeline Ltd (CENTGAS), which included Unocol the Turkmen government, Saudi Arabia’s Delta Oil Company, Japan’s Itochu Corp and Inpex, South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co Ltd, Pakistan’s Crescent Group, and Russia’s Gazprom (10 per cent). However, Gazprom withdrew from the consortium in January 1998. According to their plan, the 1,250-km-long pipeline project at the cost of $2 billion, was to be started in December 1998, and completed by 2001. An additional cost of $600 million was envisaged for an additional 640-km-long pipeline to be extended to India.

Unocol promised the Taliban $50 to 100 million a year as transit fees should the pipeline be built. Unocol even invited a Taliban delegation to Texas for detailed discussions with the oil company officials. Among other things, the Taliban delegation, headed by Mullah Mohammad Gaus, was shown the latest deep-water drilling technology. In fact, much effort had gone into getting the Taliban delegation to Texas, including an operation by the Pakistani ISI of holding up five Taliban officials who were going to Buenos Aires to finalise the agreement with Bridas. The ISI insisted that the delegation first go to Texas instead of Buenos Aires. Earlier, in November 1997, Unocol provided $900,000 to the Afghan Studies Centre at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to start a programme to train 400 Afghan teachers, electricians, carpenters and others in pipeline-building skills. 17   Besides, Unocol had also sponsored young Afghans getting technical training in southern Afghanistan.

Suddenly, on August 20, 1998, Unocol had to indefinitely suspend all its work on the pipeline in the wake of US bombing of terrorist camps belonging to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Although Unocol has pulled out of the consortium, efforts are on to complete the project. In a meeting held in Islamabad on April 29, 1999, energy ministers of Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan confirmed their adherence to the tripartite gas pipeline project. 18   However, the pipeline from Afghanistan may remain a non-starter even in the longer term, for the simple reason that there exists a strong contradiction between the oil pipeline and drug-trafficking in the region of the Golden Crescent. According to Western estimates, the region generates revenue worth $45 billion (some give the figure of $90 billion) from drug related activities. 19   There are so many stakes involved in the region, which actually become the cause for perpetuating conflict in Afghanistan. In such a situation, it would be highly difficult for anyone to replace drugs with oil, specially when Afghanistan being only a transit state would generate not more $100 million per year as transit fee. There is also the question of the security of the pipeline, as the Taliban officials themselves had not guaranteed its safety against attacks by non-Taliban factions. In any case, the Taliban’s control over the whole of Afghan territory is not going to bring peace in that country. Historically, too, trade caravans originating from India to the Mediterranean region and passing through Afghan territory were often looted and plundered by various Afghan tribes on the way. Both politically, and from the operational point of view, the implementation of the proposed pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan may not be easy. Although Islamabad believes that it can obtain Western support to complete the transit route to Central Asia, the involvement of both Russian firms and the US may be disliked by some faction or the other in Afghanistan—thereby increasing the risk of sabotage.

On several occasions, the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to India had been pushed as a good non-military confidence-building measure (CBM) between India and Pakistan. Several international think-tanks including the Washington based Henry Stimson Centre, in their study reports, suggested the viability of a possible trans-national pipeline. Technically, this the most feasible project, as there are no topographical constraints along the route up to India and even beyond, but the strategic and security apprehensions have discouraged both Pakistan and India from being too enthusiastic about the proposal. The argument in support of the pipeline enhancing the CBMs is undermined by the fact that even the Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960 for the sharing of Indus waters, failed to prevent conflict between the two countries. The pipeline under consideration is not going to be acceptable to Pakistan for political and national security reasons. Several such proposals made in the past to get a gas pipeline from Iran and other Gulf countries to India via the overland route of Pakistan have no made headway. India’s fear is not just the security of the pipeline, but also includes possible blockade of the supply line by Pakistan at its will, which will cause serious economic disruption in India. However, of late, Pakistani officials have assured that Pakistan will not disrupt the supplies if the pipeline is built, stressing that the economics do not work out in favour of stopping gas supplies. 20   The Indian apprehensions, according to a study, can be allayed, if the project is merged with a larger multilateral arrangement to extend the pipeline to Bangladesh and Myanmar, and finally to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) market. In such a situation, Pakistan will hesitate to take the unilateral step of blocking supplies. Besides, Iran or Turkmenistan are likely to stop the supplies from the source, before Pakistan can take such a step of denial. Since Bangladesh and Myanmar have their own gas reserves, it is difficult to identify as to what degree they would be in favour of a trans-national pipeline, specially when both Bangladesh and Myanmar have similar fears about India having the option of blocking the supplies, if New Delhi chooses to stifle its neighbours in the east.

The optimists, such as India’s former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, on the one hand, believe that an eventual cooperation in energy would be the “precursor” for regional cooperation in South Asia, while, on the other hand, fears have been expressed by many that the issue of energy, like any other good proposal, will ultimately be stalled because of the “political differences” between the two countries. Neither is the pipeline via Pakistan going to be feasible for India’s own security reasons as it would be highly vulnerable to attack and sabotage by Pakistan. The pipeline across the Thar Desert will also entail many obstacles for military operations in a war-like scenario, especially when Pakistan will concentrate its military installations along the pipeline running towards India.

The issue again is not whether the oil and gas pipelines should come via Pakistan or not, or that they will bring prosperity to Pakistan and its people. The mute point here is, primarily owing to the Pakistan’s own insecurity and its inability to reconcile with India, the revenue generated from such projects will be diverted to large scale arms procurement, resulting in furthering the arms race in South Asia, as well as promoting destabilising implications for the entire region of Central, West and South Asia. The negative aspects of this pipeline are many as it involves not only the regional stability factor, arising out of war-torn Afghanistan, but will also have to confront the ever increasing sectarian strife and growing lawlessness in Pakistan’s own Sind province. In the recent months, Iran had demonstrated its military muscle along the Iran-Afghan frontier, indicating the political vulnerability of the areas which the pipeline will have to pass through. In the absence of a legitimate government in Afghanistan, recognised by the international community, it would be difficult for the investors to get support from international financial institutions. Yet another factor would be that Pakistan may not require gas from either Turkmenistan or Iran, after the recent discoveries of vast quantities of offshore reserves at Qadirpur and Zamzana in Sind province. 21   Although, several Western companies including Monument Oil and Gas, Premier Oil, and Lasmo are already exploring the Zamzana field in Pakistan, the complex business and political environment will make it difficult.


The Afghanistan Conflict: Domestic Situation

The emergence of the Taliban has once again raised the question of the role of the clergy in Afghanistan politics. Traditionally, the ulema, the most qualified clergy in the Sunni Islamic hierarchy, played a most important role in Afghan history. The ulema’s role became important especially in the absence of a central government in Afghanistan. They displayed an extraordinary role during times of dynastic conflict, wars of succession, and invasion by an external enemy. They legitimised political authority and endorsed power succession. The ulema invoked jehad as the main concept of resistance in Afghanistan against foreign invaders. Not only did they instigate and mobilise the masses for jehad, but also provided leadership for the war effort. There have been many instances when the Afghan clergy declared jehad. For example, the battle of Panipat (1761) was deemed a jehad against the Maharata Hindu. In 1837, jehad-i-akbar the “great jihad” was declared against the Shia invadors from Persia. Jehad was launched against Russian and British invaders and lately against the Soviets.

The upper echelons of the ulema hierarchy belong to four Sufi-Islamic orders: the Qadiriyya, Naqshbandiyya, Chistiyya, and Suhrawardiyya. Belonging to a noble religious lineage, the ulema adhering to the Qadiriyya order displayed significant control over the Pushtun population in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The mullahs, on the other hand, formed the lower ranking clergy, restricted to mosque functionaries, who performed daily prayers, conducted marriages and funerals, and taught in the madrassas. The mullahs excercised greater power through the network of madrassas and mosques; and thereby had more influence on the people at the grassroots level. There is no doubt that the ulema and mullahs had an effective catalyst role to play in the Afghan polity and society. In fact, during the resistance against the Soviets, the party Harakat-e-Inqalab was built on the same madarassa networks. But the lack of an established structure, and limited military skills severely restrained the earlier effort for a political mobilisation along the mullah networks.

The Taliban’s genesis can be linked to the old inclusive Afghan resistance Harakat-e-Inqalab party, led by Mohammed Nabi Mohammadi. But, unlike the traditional mullahs, the Taliban outfit, composed primarily of the fanatic illiterate mullahs, belonged to the disbanded forces of other Mujahideen groups who had fought the Soviets. Predominantly a Pushtun group, the Taliban’s strength was drawn from Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) in Baluchistan and the Frontier province. The students were mobilised by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and trained by the Frontier Constabulary Corps and the Sibi Scouts near the Baluch border with Afghanistan. Gradually, new recruitments were made from other madrassas in Pakistan, especially from the Karachi based Jamait-il-Uloom-il Islamiyah. Run by Maulana Mohammed Yusuf Binnori in New Town area of Karachi, the Binnori chain of madrassas has acquired a name in Pakistan for producing the best Taliban. Several members of the Taliban’s Shura Council, including Mulla Omar are supposed to be products of the Binnori School. Subsequently, reinforcements for the Taliban militia also came from Afghanistan’s south-eastern provinces of Ghazni, Kandahar and Helmand. These students belong to the landless and weakest sections of Afghan society and are generally orphans, who preferred to live in madrassas for free meals and shelter. 22   They were mostly convicts and mercenaries, identified particularly with the smuggler gangs operating from the Pak-Afghan frontier. Devoid of any social obligation, as they represented only the peripheral section of Pushtun society, the Taliban were easy to provoke and lure into the new movement, either through money or religious indoctrination. Trained by Deobandi ideologues, these students generally lacked the sense of Afghan nationalism, as compared to the Islamists (Mujahideen) who were ferociously nationalist. The economic and ideological underpinning of the Taliban as a deprived group had motivated the movement against the traditional Afghan leadership, including the resourceful tribal chieftains and warlords. The Taliban denounced the Mujahideen as “corrupt, power-hungry and un-Islamic”. They promised to put an end to the ongoing factional fighting among the different Mujahideen guerillas and to replace them with a purist regime for the country.

Considered as a successful force, the credit for the Taliban’s creation goes to General Nasserullah Babar for his brilliance in assessing the then prevailing sense of despondency amongst ordinary Afghans who were tired of the Mujahideen’s intra-factional fighting. General Babar chose Mulla Mohammad Omar, formerly an ustad at the Miram Sha town, to head this motivated group of talibs. After rescuing a Pakistani truck convoy, the first batch of Taliban entered Afghan territory, capturing the small town of Doorahi near Kandahar. From there, some 30 students of madarassas, headed by Mulla Omar, laid the foundation of the Taliban movement in the Mewand district of Kandahar in south-western Afghanistan in early October 1994. With the supervision of General Babar, the JUI chief, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, conferred on Mulla Omar the title of Amir-ul-Momineen, through an Ulema Shura in Kandahar. The public display of the cloak worn by the Prophet, after a gap of 61 years on that occasion, was a part of the design to shore up international legitimacy for Omar and his organisation, the Taliban. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who also headed the Committee for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan’s National Assembly, was believed to have been instrumental in writing the Taliban’s Constitution and the day-to-day code of conduct of the militia’s regime in Kabul. Maulana Fazhur Rahman, along with Pakistan’s Interior Minister General Babar, was the first to reach the Afghan capital the day the Taliban captured Kabul and supervised the execution of Najibullah from a square of Kabul.

In ideological terms, the Taliban is a carefully designed conceptual body to pursue the political and military goals of Pakistan. This guerilla force tends to be different from the old Mujahideen groups in a number of ways. First, the Taliban is set on the Islam of the village level, illiterate mullahs (those who give), rather than ulema who represent the upper hierarchy in Islam. Second, unlike the Islamists (Mujahideen) groups, well known for their independent thinking and wide exposure to the world outside, the Taliban enjoyed no external contacts, particularly with foreign agencies. Third, unlike in the case of Mujahideen, who were divided into seven major groups among many others, the Taliban are commanded and controlled by one single leadership, under the patronage of the ISI. Fourth, unlike the Mujahideen who were too pan-Islamic and anti-Western in their rhetoric, the Taliban militia is sought to be based on the purist fervour of the Wahhabi variant, the one practised in the Arab world, which is tolerated by the West. Generally belonging to the Deobandi donomination, the movement to establish a purist form of trans-national Islamic ideology was aimed at providing an antidote to Afghan nationalism. The sustained support and funding by Saudi Arabia to the Afghan militia indicated the link between the Taliban and the Wahhabi movement.

The initial ideological motivation displayed by the Taliban was to get rid of the corrupt and so-called un-Islamic Mujahideen, and establish a purist regime in Afghanistan. The movement gained a certain legitimacy, specially since large segments of the Afghan population were fed up with the disorder under the rule of local Mujahideen commanders. Among other things, the Taliban had promised to disarm the Afghan population, as well as open a trans-Afghan highway to Central Asia. However, the Taliban actually spelled out its ideology only after capturing Kandahar, when an effort was made to impose a very narrow interpretation of the Sharia. The banning of photography and films, imposition of strict rules on women and children and capital punishment for men without a beard, all generated the image of an “obscurantist force” for the Taliban.

The Taliban also spelled out its intention to curb poppy cultivation as it considered it to be un-Islamic. Besides, it also talked about doing away with the terrorist camps within the Afghan territory. Some assurance was also given about demining the thousands of landmines in Afghanistan.

Will the Taliban gain legitimacy within Afghan society and the outside the world permanently? First, the clergy in Afghan society has played an important political role but only during the transitional period. They have been the kingmakers but not the rulers in Afghanistan. Second, the ulema in Afghanistan had a noble ancestry and followed religious lineages, legitimised by society, but the Taliban mullahs enjoy no such status and were created in exile in Pakistan. The answer to the above question may be in the negative if we apply the tribalist thesis to Afghan politics. Most academic and political analyses and policy-formulations with regards to Afghanistan tend be based on the dynamics of tribal society, dominated by the Pushtuns. However, the current academic analyses of the current political developments in Afghanistan suggest that the Taliban movement is fast assuming a revolutionary character. The new breeds of Afghan mullahs have introduced an altogether a new phenomenon of political Islam, and if successful, it will became a model for Sunni Muslims elsewhere, in the next century. In revolutionary terms, the Taliban is perceived to be more threatening than any Iranian Islamic ideology.

The pre-war paradigm may not provide adequate analyses of the current realities that have been brought about by the processes of war-induced changes. Even the demographic strength of the Pushtuns has been reduced to less than half of Afghanistan’s population. More than anything else, for the Taliban, the Islamic revolution in Iran has a demonstrative effect, as a model for revolutionary change, breaking the traditional power-based structures. Not only does the Iranian case become a model, but also a rival model for the Afghan Sunnis to emulate. In fact, it has been pointed out by many analysts of Afghan affairs that much before the Sunni Pushtuns, the Shias of Afghanistan, under the banner of the sheiks, organised a similar movement to establish a shura in central Afghanistan, during the period of resistance against the Soviets. Possibly modelled on the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Shia movement became the most successful resistance force, providing significant strength to the minority Hazara Shias in Afghanistan. The Shia movement became more established when it got reorganised as the Hezb-e-Wahdat in 1989, putting up tough resistance against all the other warring factions in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Just as the Taliban was created in exile in Pakistan, the Shia movement too was built up outside Afghanistan.

The current status of the Taliban movement tends to suggest that its display of ruthlessness and negative sanctions were tactical exercises for an early mobilisation and consolidation of compliance. As it moves ahead, the Taliban is likely to show greater maturity, broader policy posture. Most importantly, the social profiles of the Taliban mullahs are undergoing massive transformation. They are no longer the fighters, but holding important administrative positions, earlier held by feudal chieftains and warlords. The increase in the mullahs’ political influence is accompanied by their increased economic power. Earlier, they were riding bicycles but today they drive cars. They lived in refugee camps in the past; today they live in big houses. Most influential mullahs have acquired large tracts of land. The revenues generated from drug-cultivation have made them affluent. These changes have transformed the image and the profile of the Taliban at the level of the villages. The current trends in Afghanistan show that the Taliban would gradually gain legitimacy both within and outside Afghanistan, in the way the Iranian mullahs did in the post-revolution period. However, the only difference here is that Afghan society is still dominated by tribal traits and values. The regional, ethnic, topographic and other factors that strongly determine the Afghan scene will never allow the Taliban to entirely pacify the country.



The Afghan conflict no longer looms large on the international stage. The West is only worried about the international terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. The international activism has made no significant headway in resolving the post-Soviet Afghan crisis. Since 1991, one after another, four chiefs of the UN Special Mission on Afghanistan (UNSMA) have concluded that their mission is “impossible”. Dr. Norbert Heinrich Holl, the last one to quit, admitted that his two years efforts had yielded precious little. The UN peace-making formula included “shuttle diplomacy,” forming of “technical groups”, and “intra-Afghan dialogue” to evolve a common denominator of peace. The UNSMA’s new chief, Lakhdar Brahimi, advocated a “six-plus-two” approach as the only route to peace. The UN peace broker now feels that the “decisive factor” for peace lies not among the warring Afghan factions, but among the meddling neighbours. To this effect, Brahimi toured the regional countries, including India, in September 1997, to assess opinion and shore up support.

Brahimi’s “group of eight” initiative, which has already met several times, is based on the concept of involving Afghanistan’s immediate “bordering neighbours” and “meddling neighbours” supporting the Afghan factions. The six bordering neighbours include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iran and China, the other two being the US and Russia, as observers. India has been excluded from the international initiative on the Afghan conflict, even though it has been the most affected victim of civil disorder in Afghanistan. It is incorrect to say that India shares no contiguous border with Afghanistan (except that Pakistan’s continued military occupation of J&K comes in the way). Secondly, while it is justified that India is not a “meddling neighbour” and a party to the endless Afghan tragedy, the same can be said about Turkmenistan and China as well, which are members of the group. India’s exclusion in the Afghan peace process needs to be seen in the light of Pakistan’s sinister campaign to isolate India from Afghanistan and also Central Asia historically, politically, and on the grounds of religion and physical access. Understandably though, the UNSMA’s limitations, depending largely on Pakistan’s good-offices, compel it to avoid the process becoming hostage to Indo-Pak animosity. India, for its own reasons, has failed to be more assertive on the Afghan front. In the recent years, India’s foreign policy postures had their own implications in the receding of India’s influence beyond South Asia.

The “six-plus-two” meeting sponsored by the UN, held in Ashkabad in February 1999, has made no headway mainly due to the Taliban’s tough stand on the issue of power-sharing. The regional powers are unlikely to be able to impose solutions in Afghanistan, as they themselves are deeply involved in supporting their favoured warring factions. The initiatives made by individual states have also shown limitations. Pakistan’s heavy-handed efforts, at times through “parallel initiatives” have severely undermined the UN efforts. Pakistan’s behind-the-scene manoeuvres have seriously come in the way of resolving the conflict. Amidst criticism, Islamabad had to abandon its much-publicised plan to hold a “five nation” conference on Afghanistan. The UN secretary general’s November report noted that “the Taliban’s backers professed support for UN resolutions...their actions, regrettably spoke the opposite”. Given the Afghan complexity, whether any solution can be found on Pakistani terms of reference is doubtful. By making Afghanistan an adjunct to its rivalry with India, Pakistan has obscured the reality of the crisis. Pakistan not only reduced the 5,000-year-old Afghan history to an Islamic issue but also exploited the simple Afghan people, subjecting them to bigotry and fanaticism, which has no precedent in Afghan history and culture. Many even suspect that Pakistan is using the Afghan conflict as a pretext for its own geo-political actions in the region.

The conflict has alarmed the neighbourhood. There are strong signs of the Taliban’s influence spilling into adjoining countries, including India. There can be only two scenarios for the short and medium-term: (a) in a scenario of the Taliban successfully taking control of the whole of Afghanistan, the first possible fall-out will be the entire region getting exposed to the threat of similar ideology. The Taliban’s success would only mean a boost for the Pakistani military to gain access to the borders of Central Asia. The possibility of the Taliban further eliminating the ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks will alter the nature of the civil war there. In such a situation, the risk of refugee influx into Central Asia will increase. (b) If the Taliban fail to control the whole of Afghanistan, the consequences for regional security would also be negative. More so, for Pakistan that will face all the risk of internal ethnic explosion. The military consequences in terms of weapons stockpiles reaching across the border, particularly in Central Asia, will be high. Once the Taliban militia is dislodged from Afghanistan, thousands of these battle-hardened guerillas, like the Mujahideen, would take up international missions, threatening regional and international peace and security.

Already the regional countries are faced with the dilemma of whether to confront the militia or to engage it in a regional political process. The experiences in the recent period have shown that the approach of confrontation leads to escalating rather than resolving of tension. It is high time that regional powers find a regional solution to incorporate the various Afghanistan warring factions and also Pakistan into a wider peace process. It will not be possible for the Central Asian states to shy away from such conflicts in our region. An integration with Europe may ensure security for Central Asia but not peace. Here, a lesson needs to be learnt from the ASEAN’s constructive engagement policy with regards to resolving the internal conflicts in Cambodia and Myanmar.

India has consistently supported the idea of a regional approach to conflict resolution in Afghanistan. India should continue to support all UN initiatives that will fulfill the fundamental interests of the Afghan people. Many of the problems in Afghanistan seem directly related to the breakdown of the agriculture and irrigation system, tribal and social laws, and unless and until those areas are effectively addressed, the return of peace and stability in that country would remain elusive. India’s opposition to the Taliban regime should not be seen as an anti-Afghan or anti-Pushtun stand. Matters of principle primarily guide India’s objections. The Taliban have blatantly ignored all the international norms subscribed to by the United Nation’s Charter. India’s traditional bonds of friendship and trust among the vast majority of the Afghan people are its biggest strength. In fact, the silent majority of the Afghan people still appreciate India’s position of non-interference in their country. While, efforts at undermining India’s legitimate interest may have had an unsettling impact on the Afghan peace process, it is evident that the world community has not endorsed the Pakistani and Saudi recognition of the Taliban. India needs to take more autonomous action on the Afghan front.



*: Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).  Back.

Note 1: Dimitri Simes, “The Death of Detente,” International Security, no. 5, 1980, pp. 111-139. Back.

Note 2: “UN Says no Cash to Get Afghans Home,” Reuters, March 21, 1999, “Afghan Refugees Feel Kosovo Impact,” Reuters, April 30, 1999. Back.

Note 3: Marvin G. Weinbaum, “Pakistan and Afghanistan: The Strategic Relationship,” Asian Survey, June 1991, p. 507. Back.

Note 4: Hindustan Times, October 10, 1996. Back.

Note 5: As quoted in Times of India, October 12, 1996. Back.

Note 6: “US Claims it Was Misled on Taliban,” as reported by IANS, Pioneer, November 23, 1996. Back.

Note 7: In the recently held meeting of the Physicians for Human Rights, Hillary Clinton echoed the 1998-99 Annual Report of Freedom House that said, “The Taliban’s violent, arbitrary rule has imposed order through terror. Its de-humanisation of women and girls has turned educated women into beggars; left widows, mothers and daughters to die of illnesses that have been treatable for decades; and denied a generation of girls access to basic education,” Voice of America, April 30, 1999. Back.

Note 8: P. Stobdan, “The Afghan Conflict and India,” Delhi Paper No. 6, IDSA, New Delhi, 1998. Back.

Note 9: Times of Central Asia, April 8, 1999. Back.

Note 10: Abid Ullah Jan, “The Way Out for Taliban,” The Frontier Post, March 9, 1999. Back.

Note 11: The Frontier Post, March 9, 1999. Back.

Note 12: P. Stobdan, “Kashmir: The Key Issue,” Strategic Analysis, April 1996, pp. 111-139. Back.

Note 13: Far Eastern Economic Review, March 11, 1999. Back.

Note 14: Ahmed Rashid, “Pipe Dreams,” The Herald, October 1997, p. 50. Back.

Note 15: Ibid. Back.

Note 16: Ahmed Rashid, “Unocol and Bridas Battle to Build Pipeline in Afghanistan,” Far Eastern Economic Review, June 19, 1997. Back.

Note 17: “Taliban’s Treatment of Women Leaks Into Pipeline Deal,” International Herald Tribune, January 12, 1998. Back.

Note 18: Itar Tass, April 30, 1999. Back.

Note 19: Stobdan, n. 8, p. 39. Also see “Opium Poppy Production in Afghanistan: High But Stabilised, New UN Survey Finds,” UN Information Service, (Vienna), September 1996. Back.

Note 20: This was said by the secretary of the Pakistan Petroleum Ministry, Dr. Gulfaraz Ahmed. See “Pak Promises Not To Disrupt Gas Pipeline,” The Hindu, December 8, 1996. Back.

Note 21: “Shell, Premier Plan $390m Pak Venture,” Khaleej Times, June 18, 1998. Also see, “Explorers Report Big Pakistan Gas Find,” Financial Times, June 1, 1998, and “Major Gasfield Discovered in Pakistan,” Business Standard, April 29, 1998. Back.

Note 22: Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Who Are the Talibans,” Newsline, Islamabad, October 1996, p. 55. Back.