For too long have the people of Afghanistan walked through the dreadful valley of despair. Tuesday’s attack by the Taliban near the presidential palace in Kabul portends an escalation of violence and the atmosphere is charged with hideous whispers of a thousand different things. The talks with the Taliban in Doha are yet to get underway and chaos after the withdrawal of the US-led troops next year seems a near certainty.
The eyes of the international community are focussed on Pakistan in the hope that it will persuade the Taliban not to derail the Doha process. Although the perception of Islamabad’s influence on the obscurantist clerics of Kandahar is grossly exaggerated, it was reinforced when Pakistan recognised the Taliban on May 25, 1997. The circumstances that prompted this decision, to which I was privy, have to be clearly understood, or else erroneous assessments are likely to be made in this critical phase of the Afghan conflict.
From January-May 1997, I had several meetings with Mullah Ghaus, the Taliban foreign minister. He was a shrewd negotiator and would persistently insist that Pakistan should extend diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. The reply he invariably received was that this was unimportant. Recognition would follow as soon as peace was restored in all of Afghanistan and the Taliban had got the other ethnic groups on board. They had the advantage of being able to negotiate from a position of strength and should, therefore, talk to their enemies.
Such responses irritated Ghaus. On one occasion he said that he was willing to do much more than merely talk to his enemies. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, he observed with caustic humour, was a generous man who readily gave his daughters in marriage. He (Ghaus) was even willing to become a Hekmatyar son-in-law if that would help in the restoration of peace!
On a parallel track there were credible reports as early as December 1996 that the fissures within the Northern Alliance had become more pronounced. Sharp differences emerged not merely between the components of the alliance but also within the individual parties.
The political tensions were compounded by the virtual collapse of the economy in northern Afghanistan. Officials stopped going to work as they were not even paid their salaries while skyrocketing prices had all but demolished the purchasing power of the local currency. People blamed the powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord and leader of the Jumbish-e-Milli, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who, at that point in time, was the most important of the Northern Alliance leaders.
But beneath the surface, there was bitter hatred among the Jumbish leadership. Dostum had masterminded the assassination of his archrival, Rasul Pahalwan in June 1996 and the brother of the slain warlord, General Malik, swore vengeance. A rebellion within the Jumbish was waiting to happen.
Strains also appeared in the Hizb-e-Wahdat (Khalili Group). The military commander of the Hizb, General Hashmi, was vehemently critical of Karim Khalili and told Pakistan’s consul general in Mazar-e-Sharif that he was ready to cooperate with the Taliban if he was provided financial assistance.
Similarly, Dostum and General Malik also sought Pakistan’s help to advance their respective ambitions. This was turned down by Islamabad because any form of interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs would have been hugely counterproductive.
It became glaringly obvious that it was only the hatred and fear of the Taliban that prevented the Northern Alliance from tearing apart at the seams. Though both Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Jamiat-e-Islami and Dostum had mobilised for action against the anticipated Taliban advance to the north, their contempt for each other intensified. This was evident in the jamming of the Jumbish air force’s radar system by Massoud’s agents.
The revolt against Dostum was eventually launched by General Malik, on the night between May 18 and 19, 1997. The insurrection spread like wildfire across northern Afghanistan and the next day the Taliban declared their support for Malik.
On the morning of May 24, I had a detailed meeting with Mullah Ghaus in Islamabad. As expected, his first question was about when Pakistan was going to recognise the Taliban now that they had General Malik on board. He was told that Malik and the Jumbish-e-Milli represented only the Afghan Uzbeks. It was therefore necessary for the Taliban to also reach out to the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami and the Hizb-e-Wahdat of the Hazara Shias.
Ghaus was visibly annoyed and said that they were already doing this. The Hizb-e-Wahdat had sent a delegation to Kabul for talks with the Taliban that very day. Furthermore, the previous night Ahmed Shah Massoud had telephoned Mullah Omar to say that he wanted to negotiate an honourable surrender. Omar had accordingly designated Mullah Obaidullah, the Taliban defence minister, and Massoud had nominated General Fahim, to sort out the terms of the surrender.
Ghaus continued that this was evidence enough that all the major ethnic groups of Afghanistan were either in alliance with the Taliban or in the process of joining them. Pakistan’s reluctance to extend formal recognition was, therefore, incomprehensible. He then added, “Need I remind you that on September 6, 1995, a mob of three thousand instigated by the Rabbani regime set your embassy in Kabul ablaze. This was not the first such outrage. The previous year your mission was ransacked by Rabbani’s hoodlums and yet you continued to recognise his illegal government.”
He was told that merely talking to the other groups was not enough. The time for recognition would come when all the ethnic minorities had joined the Taliban. During the meeting Ghaus received a phone call from Kandahar and, after speaking for a couple of minutes, informed us with a broad grin that Sheberghan, the capital of Dostum’s home province Jowzjan, had been captured by the Taliban.
That evening the ISI chief General Naseem Rana phoned to say that Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen to the joint forces of the Taliban and General Malik. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had already been briefed and had given the go-ahead for the immediate recognition of the Taliban. I replied that the decision would have to be held in abeyance till foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan, who was returning from a visit to Washington early next morning, had spoken to the prime minister himself. But on his return Gohar Ayub insisted, “I will first announce recognition and, only then speak to Mian Sahib. I don’t want to give him the chance to change his mind.”
Prior to the formal announcement, the envoys of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US, China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were taken into confidence. In the absence of the diplomatic staff at the Turkmen embassy, Pakistan’s ambassador in Ashgabat appropriately briefed the flamboyant president of Turkmenistan, the late Saparmurat Niyazov. The reaction of all the countries was surprisingly positive.
The Russian ambassador said that he fully appreciated the circumstances under which Pakistan was taking this step and then added unexpectedly that the developments in Afghanistan could turn out “to be a blessing in disguise”. His deputy foreign minister would be in Islamabad on June 7 and wanted to meet Mullah Ghaus.
A similar understanding was expressed by the Iranian ambassador who also stated that Pakistan and Iran should coordinate their Afghan policies closely and that this would be the main item on the agenda for the talks in Tehran between the foreign ministers of the two countries on June 1.
President Niyazov was even more forthcoming. He told the Pakistan ambassador that events in Afghanistan had moved in the right direction. Without a strong central authority in Kabul the turmoil would continue. The establishment of Taliban supremacy in Afghanistan, he felt, would facilitate the gas pipeline project.
Our assessment was that as the new multiethnic entity demonstrated its staying power, the Taliban would become more moderate, but within days it became clear that this assumption was ridiculously naive. Their short-lived success made the Taliban insufferably arrogant and Pakistan was told to immediately introduce their distorted interpretation of Islamic tenets in the country. It is virtually impossible to change a mindset and the Kandahar clerics are determined to impose their beliefs not only in Afghanistan but also on neighbouring Pakistan through their offshoot, the TTP. Islamabad has to decide where its interests lie.
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed @gmail.com