Pakistan Replays the 'Great Game': Hussain Haqqani
Far Eastern Economic Review October 2005
by Husain Haqqani
For over two years, Abdul Latif Hakimi regularly telephoned Pakistani and Western reporters and described himself as the spokesman for Afghanistan's Taliban. He claimed responsibility on behalf of the Taliban for several terrorist attacks. In June, when a MH-47 helicopter was shot down during an antiguerrilla mission in Afghanistan's Kunar province bordering Pakistan, killing all 16 U.S. troops on board, Hakimi reported the incident to the media before U.S. or Afghan officials.
Hakimi's claims were often exaggerated or even totally fabricated. But no one doubted that he was based in Pakistan and that he spoke on behalf of the Taliban.
Hakimi's telephone press conferences and interviews, conducted on satellite and cell phones, offered an embellished version of an emerging ground reality. After being toppled from power in the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban have reconstituted themselves in part of the Afghan countryside as an insurgent force, especially in provinces dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Since the beginning of 2005, casualties in Afghanistan have been rising. Some 84 American soldiers and 1,400 Afghans have been killed this year, more than any year since the arrival of U.S. forces in 2001. The Taliban insurgency is weak and not yet as threatening as the challenge in Iraq. But Afghan insurgents are clearly getting arms, money and training. Through propaganda of the type waged by Hakimi, the Taliban are also recruiting new members.
When Pakistani authorities announced on Oct. 4 that Hakimi had been arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta, just across the border from the Taliban's traditional support base of Kandahar, officials in Afghanistan were not impressed. Why had it taken the Pakistanis so long to silence Hakimi when he operated freely in Pakistan for over two years, they asked. What about other Taliban leaders who roam the streets
of Quetta and other Pakistani cities and towns quite openly?
Pakistan's decision to arrest the Taliban spokesman was attributed to relentless U.S. pressure. Days before Hakimi's arrest, U.S. officials reportedly raised the issue of the Taliban operating freely in Pakistan during meetings with President Pervez Musharraf in New York.
U.S. officials are usually restrained in publicly criticizing Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, for fear of embarrassing the country's pro-U.S. military strong man, Gen. Musharraf. But last summer U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad questioned Pakistan's commitment to eliminating the Taliban in an interview just before leaving Afghanistan for his new assignment in Iraq. Ambassador Khalilzad wondered why Pakistan's security services could not find Hakimi and
another deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Akhtar Usmani, when they were readily available to the media and occasionally gave interviews to Pakistani television channels.
U.S. and Afghan officials realize that it will be difficult to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan if the Taliban and other enemies of President Hamid Karzai's government continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan. Notwithstanding the high profile arrest of the Taliban spokesman, there is no evidence that Pakistan is about to sever all links with the Taliban or to give up its dreams of a client state in
During the war against the Soviets, Pakistan's military leader General Zia ul-Haq had adopted a policy that would bleed the Soviets without goading then into direct confrontation with Pakistan. Pakistani intelligence officers used the metaphor "the water must not get too hot" to describe that policy.
It seems that Pakistan is pursuing a similar policy in relation to Afghanistan today. By allowing the Taliban to regroup and mount insurgent attacks across the border, Pakistan's hopes to make it clear to Afghan leaders such as Mr. Karzai that they cannot stabilize their country without Pakistan's help. At the same time, Pakistan does not want the situation to reach the point of inviting U.S. reprisals.
Ties between Pakistan and the Taliban date back to the founding of the movement in 1994. Then, the Taliban-Pashtun students of madrassas, or Islamic seminaries-rose to end the bitter civil war that had ravaged Afghanistan for almost two years after the collapse of a pro-Communist government. Pakistan had fueled the civil war as well, trying to promote the cause of its client Islamist leaders, especially Gulbeddin
Hekmatyar, who earned notoriety by raining rockets on Kabul in a bid to wrest control of Afghanistan's capital.
Pakistan's role, with U.S. help, as the staging ground for the guerrilla war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988 is widely known. What is less well known is Pakistan's historic concern with extending its influence into Afghanistan long before the arrival of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan's attitude toward Afghanistan was formed largely by historic developments of the 19th century when Britain and Russia competed for influence in Central Asia in the "Great Game" of espionage and proxy wars.
Concerns about security against Russia pushed the frontier of British India westward and the British lost precious lives in their effort to directly control Afghanistan. Recognizing Afghanistan as a buffer between the British and Russian empires saved both from having to confront each other militarily. By accepting a neutral and independent Afghan Kingdom the British sought to pass on the burden of subduing some
of the tribes the imperialists considered lawless to a local monarch, albeit with British economic and military assistance.
Afghanistan's frontier with British India was drawn by a British civil servant, Sir Mortimer Durand, in 1893 and agreed upon by representatives of both governments. The border, named the Durand Line, intentionally divided Pashtun tribes living in the area, to prevent them from becoming a nuisance for the Raj. On their side of the frontier, the British created autonomous tribal agencies, controlled by British political officers with the help of tribal chieftains whose loyalty was ensured
through regular subsidies. The British used force to put down sporadic uprisings in the tribal areas but generally left the tribes alone in return for stability along the frontier.
Adjacent to the autonomous tribal agencies were the "settled" Pashtuns living in towns and villages under direct British rule. Here, too, the Pashtuns were divided between the Northwest Frontier province and Baluchistan. Although Muslim, the Pashtuns generally sided with the cause of anti-British Indian nationalism and were late, and reluctant,in embracing the Muslim separatism of the All India Muslim League's campaign for Pakistan. When the majority of British India's Muslims
voted for the creation of Pakistan, the Pashtuns elected leaders who emphasized ethnic pride over a religious national identity.
After Pakistan's independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistani leaders assumed that Pakistan would inherit the functions of India's British government in guiding Afghan policy. But soon after Pakistan's independence, Afghanistan voted against Pakistan's admission to the United Nations, arguing that Afghanistan's treaties with British India relating to Afghan borders were no longer valid because a new country
was being created where none existed at the time of these treaties. Afghanistan demanded the creation of a Pashtun state, "Pashtunistan," which would link the Pashtun tribes living in Afghanistan with those in the nwfp and Baluchistan. There were also ambiguous demands for a Baluch state "linking Baluch areas in Pakistan and Iran with a small strip of adjacent Baluch territory in Afghanistan."
From Pakistan's perspective, this amounted to demanding the greater part of Pakistan's territory and was clearly unacceptable. The Afghan demand failed to generate international backing, and Afghanistan did not have the military means to force Pakistan's hand.
Although India publicly did not support the Afghan claim, Pakistan's early leaders could not separate the Afghan questioning of Pakistani borders from their perception of an Indian grand design against Pakistan. They wanted to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from being "crushed by a sort of pincer movement"
involving Afghanistan stirring the ethnic cauldron in Pakistan and India stepping in to undo the partition of the subcontinent. Pakistan's response was a forward policy of encouraging Afghan Islamists that would subordinate ethnic nationalism to Islamic religious sentiment.
Pakistan's concern about the lack of depth in Pakistan's land defenses led to the Pakistani generals' strategic belief about the fusion of the defense of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan's complicated role in Afghanistan beginning well before the Soviet invasion of 1979 and through the rise and fall of the Taliban can best be understood in light of this desire.
Pakistan's position as the principal foreign player in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal changed with the arrival of American and NATO forces in the aftermath of Al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Pakistan has recognized that changed situation, deferring a great deal to American concerns. But it has clearly not abandoned its long-term national objective of ensuring that the government in Kabul is subordinate to Pakistan's regional agenda.
Pakistan provided crucial logistics and vital intelligence support when the U.S. went to war to topple the Taliban from power. Initially, Pakistan had hoped for a role for some Pakistani clients in the new government in Kabul and had floated the idea of "moderate Taliban" joining the future Afghan government. Although Taliban leaders were completely excluded from the interim government formed in 2001, they
have been allowed by President Karzai to participate in parliamentary elections upon renouncing violence.
But Mr. Karzai and other Afghan nationalists remain unwilling to accept Pakistan's vision of Afghanistan as a subordinate state. Afghanistan maintains close ties with India and expects to pursue an independent foreign policy. Although Pakistan is engaged in a peace process with India, its generals remain fearful of Indian domination. India's size coupled with its economic and military might make its ascendancy inevitable, but that does not deter Pakistan from pursuing options of
low intensity and subconventional warfare for greater regional influence. The decision to continue to back or tolerate the Taliban is part of Pakistan's grand design for positioning itself as a major player
in a contemporary version of the Great Game.
Pakistan will crack down on the Taliban, and give up the option of supporting Islamist insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir, only when it finds the cost of positioning itself as a major regional power unbearable. The U.S. could help Pakistan realize the dangers of persisting with its traditional policies by refusing to publicly pretend that it is unaware of Pakistan's regional double-dealing. An
American-brokered accord between Pakistan and Afghanistan to end the latent dispute over the Durand Line, coupled with international guarantees to end Pakistan's meddling in Afghanistan, might be the minimum requirements for durable peace in the region where the 9/11 plot to attack the U.S. was hatched.
Mr. Haqqani is director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, and author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Carnegie Endowment, 2005).