Afghanistan: what next?

Published August 29, 2021
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.

IN the last few weeks there have been several articles in the media worldwide on how the present state of affairs was arrived at in Afghanistan. Not one has touched, except cursorily, on what should be the principal question: how the architect and executor of 9/11, Osama bin Laden got to Afghanistan in 1996 in a chartered flight, carrying vast sums of money derived from his business activities in Sudan. And then, how, after 9/11 a beleaguered OBL, trapped in Tora Bora and surrounded by US forces escaped because the US military decided to entrust the shutting off of the escape route to Hazrat Ali and his cohorts from Jalalabad rather than letting US forces do what they were fully capable of doing. Letting OBL move to Afghanistan, the one place where he was much admired for his role in the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation was folly compounded by letting him escape from Tora Bora after 9/11.

Admittedly, in 1996 the US had no relations with Sudan but even the somewhat edited Wikipedia biography of OBL states that at that time (1996) the Sudanese had offered to transfer him to the US authorities or to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi rejection of the Sudanese offer was probably heavily influenced by the position the Bin Laden family had in Saudi Arabia. Was the US position also determined by the Bin Laden family’s association with American politicians? After OBL’s 2011 killing, the meticulous records he kept were all seized by the American SEALs, who carried out the attack on his Abbottabad house. Surely these records must have shown how his exit from Sudan in 1996 was arranged and how he escaped from Tora Bora post 9/11. The media should have made every effort through the freedom of information legislation to secure access to these papers. If it had not done so earlier it should do so now.

Read: After the Osama Bin Laden raid

On a personal note, having learnt from newspaper reports of OBL’s arrival in Afghanistan I, as foreign secretary, asked our intelligence agencies to keep a sharp eye on his activities since they would not be in Pakistan’s interest.

As regards the emergence of the Taliban, again a personal note. The Americans having secured the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the consequent disintegration of the Soviet Union left it to Pakistan to cope with the detritus of the war and the infighting among the mujahideen. America’s status as sole superpower had been confirmed and Pakistan’s pleas notwithstanding, they wanted nothing further to do with Afghanistan. For Pakistan they only wanted to and did impose sanctions because of our nuclear programme which they were well aware of and had turned a blind eye towards while the Soviets were in Afghanistan.

The media should have made every effort to secure access to OBL’s meticulous records.

The Taliban who emerged from the madressah in Kandahar were largely foot soldiers in the Nabi Muhammadi Mujahideen group. They had no officers among them. They were outraged by the crimes committed by these warlords, the last trigger being the killing of a young boy who had been sodomised by these predators. They were no doubt encouraged by the transporters but they emerged both because of this and because of the turmoil in all of Afghanistan occasioned by the infighting among mujahideen factions.

Late Maj-Gen Naseerullah Babar was a figure I long admired for his valour in the 1965 war and perhaps even more for bringing together in Peshawar all opponents (not just Tajiks) of the Sardar Daud regime in Kabul.

While this was yeoman work for Pakistan one must also state clearly that Naseerullah Babar did not create the Taliban nor did they, as Mullah Omar told me, even know who he was. They were followers of the Karachi-based Jamia Yusufia Binoria but to me this too seemed to be only token. Their base of support was, by my reckoning, expatriate Afghans and Saudi private philanthropists. They conquered virtually all of Afghanistan holding the Holy Quran in one hand and dollars in the other.

Pakistan did not create the Taliban. Our strategists climbed on the bandwagon but in this they were not alone. To the extent that American interest was aroused, they too supported the emergence of the Taliban as a force that was bringing peace to Afghanistan.

All this is of course a repetition of what Afghan watchers had long seen developing but does it help the stage for what to expect now?

Read: The fall and rise of the Taliban

One watched with horror the suicide attacks outside the Hamid Karzai airport that resulted in 13 US troops being killed along with several Taliban and ordinary Afghans. This was clearly a Daesh [IS] Khorasan chapter operation as claimed by the group. Would it lead to the Taliban agreeing to extend the deadline for the airport to be vacated?

My assessment was that the Taliban were eager to end the evacuation and keep as many Afghans and their expertise in Afghanistan so that they would have a pool of trained personnel to help govern the country. This was based on my assessment that the Taliban leaders are genuinely committed to reconciliation; whether this applies to all Taliban and whether the leadership can enforce this remains an open question.

One takes heart from the fact that this time no ceasefire was suggested by the Taliban for Eidul Fitr. Was this because even the most conservative among the Taliban were tired of war and the bonhomie that prevailed during the last such ceasefire may have caused the leadership to believe that a ceasefire would erode the fighting spirit at a time when it could ill afford it?

Perhaps one is being too optimistic but it behoves the US to forget the lessons of Vietnam where it took the US 20 years (1975-95) to re-establish relations with Vietnam or of Iran where the settlement process seems stalled and recognise that the stability of the region requires a more generous approach and a less suspicious view of what the Taliban represent.

Make no mistake. Russia, China, India and even Pakistan — the chosen scapegoat and home to fantasy creators — may want to play a part, but the decisive player is the US.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2021

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