ISLAMABAD – America has got what it wanted – for now. And Pakistan has lost any remaining vestiges of the “strategic depth” game it played in Afghanistan. These are the immediate results of the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul on Tuesday in the face of advancing Northern Alliance troops following their capture of Mazar-e-Sharif.
A high-level source in Islamabad, a Pashtun married to a Dari-speaking Kabuli, has his reading of history in the making. He thinks that “Pakistan has lost this game” and that the name of the game now is the West’s. And Pakistan’s ultimate nightmare has emerged – a total power vacuum in Kabul.
This is the beginning of the balkanization of Afghanistan. Commander Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik – the successor to the legendary Northern Alliance army chief Ahmad Shah Masoud – is at the gates of Kabul. Commander Abdurrashid Dostum, an Uzbek gangster, is in power in Mazar-e-Sharif. Commander Ismail Khan, a Tajik with a Pashtun mother, recaptured power in Persianized Herat to the west of the country, where he once ruled as governor. The country could be split in four parts, with these commanders ruling the north and the west and Taliban ruling the Pashtun belt in the south and southeast.
Our source says, “Pakistan is forced to support the Pashtuns. They have no other choice as a civil war will probably take place.” Pakistan faces a virtual rebellion among the mostly Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where support for the Taliban is strong – and opposition to Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf even stronger.
Reports trickling in from Afghans inside the country tell that whenever Northern Alliance forces find Pashtuns they are executed. In Mazar-e-Sharif, 174 Pakistanis from the tribal areas – followers of religious leader Sufi Muhamad, not regular soldiers – were surrounded and summarily shot. The same fate was met by “hundreds, maybe thousands” in Kunduz province, where “dead bodies are scattered around everywhere,” according to eyewitnesses.
If the Taliban lose Kunduz city, which sits midway between Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan, they lose all of the north – which, for the Taliban, is a foregone conclusion anyway. The bodies of Taliban and Pashtun alike are not on television yet because no-one is there yet, and none of the action has been captured because of the remarkably swift Northern Alliance push – with the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloqan and Herat happening in less than 48 hours.
Mujahideen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – a former Afghan premier and a man whose forces single-handedly destroyed whole neighborhoods of Kabul and killed thousands of people – is planning a major comeback to fight alongside the Taliban. Herkmatyar is the proud owner of at least 90 Stinger missiles. He is originally from Kunduz province – about to fall into the Northern Alliance’s grip. He is currently self-exiled in Iran, and will return to Nangarhar province – a stronghold where it is said that he could gather tens of thousands of pro-Taliban guerrilla fighters without the slightest effort. Some of these fighters are already gathering in Kunar province under the command of Kashmir Khan. And Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, Ghairak Baheer, currently in Dubai – where he works in the “transport business” – is also busy gathering commanders for the now-in-place Taliban guerrilla movement.
Our source is adamant: the Taliban “would never have retreated if Pakistan was still supporting them.” The predominant feeling among them is betrayal – and to betray a Pashtun does not exactly make one’s life easier. Pakistan, through its Inter-Services Intelligence, was largely instrumental in getting the Taliban into power in Kabul in 1996.
For now, though, the Taliban will be concentrated in the eastern parts of Afghanistan close to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, where, the source says, their back is strong. “They will get food, and they will avoid the harsh winter months. If they stayed in the north during winter, with only one supply line cut off, they would face certain death.” So now the Taliban “will spend winter in the east, and in spring they will attack Kabul and Kandahar.”
This strategy of a temporary “tactical withdrawal” is the Taliban’s plan to cut their losses – human and military – to a minimum and to draw the US into a guerrilla war. America, though, could blow the strategy to pieces simply by flattening Kandahar and its environs to a Martian landscape – with a little help from a tactical nuclear weapon.
The Pashtun problem at the moment is that they are not getting their act together. The Pashtuns of the south and southeast are in a wait-and-see frame of mind – stunned by the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance advances, but unable to decide on a common strategy to support or not a Pashtun push to take control of Kabul. Former mujahideen commander Haji Zaman echoed some of the Pashtun sentiment when he warned the Northern Alliance not to take Kabul. But the rapidly evolving events on the ground point already to a north-south divide, with the mighty Hindu Kush in the middle.
This Tuesday, a group of Peshawar-based commanders, anti-Taliban leaders and tribal elders gathered to hammer out a strategy – for the first time since former mujahideen commander Abdul Haq was executed by the Taliban on October 26 for trying to encourage rebellion among their ranks. But the group is still unable to decide on how to fight the retreating and encroaching Taliban in the Pashtun belt with their inadequate military resources. No-one knows where the fierce Afghan-Arabs, who make up much of the numbers of the Taliban, are at the moment: they could be lurking in the mountains in Nangarhar province, waiting for their prey.
There is widespread talk of a possible defection by a crucial Taliban commander in the next few hours or days – something that could turn the game completely upside down, and open the way for a Pashtun push towards Kabul. This commander would be in charge of a force of at least 20,000 to 30,000 fighters – something that easily dwarfs the Northern Alliance. Masoud himself told this correspondent last August that the Northern Alliance had no more than 15,000 troops.
The US at this juncture is completely at odds with the idea of a Pashtun nation – a fact that before the Northern Alliance sweep of the north was being deftly exploited by the Taliban. But the taking of Kabul is entirely another matter. According to Haji Mangal Hussain, a former associate of Hekmatyar, the time for a Pashtun alternative to the Taliban is now. Or never.