Post-American Afghanistan through looking glass

Debris of Afghan civil war: A boy runs past a destroyed Soviet-made armoured tank on a Kabul street, Afghanistan. (File photo) 

Ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel at Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, whose familiarity with Afghanistan is never in doubt, has held a looking glass to figure out the future course of events even as the US troop withdrawal commences. 

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Riedel sees in the haziness old familiar shapes appearing — the erstwhile Northern Alliance warlords. And he invokes the fate of the communist regime led by Dr. Najibullah after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Can the two strands supplement each other? Riedel’s bottom line is that after the US withdrawal, although the civil war will escalate further, “victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is not inevitable.” Riedel recommends continued American backing for Afghan army and synergy with former Northern Alliance leaders to create a revamped agenda to defeat the Taliban militarily. 

Clearly, there is an influential body of opinion within the US military and intelligence establishment rooted in the belief that any hope of mainstreaming Taliban is futile, since the movement is wedded to the extremist ideology of Islamic Emirate. However, on reflection, Riedel’s conclusions rest on shaky ground. Yet, his is a prestigious voice. Consider the following. 

Anyone who knew Najib would agree that he was an extraordinary personality, immersed in Afghan Pashtun tribal culture and folklore but with the professionalism of an intelligence officer trained by the KGB. After the Mujahideen takeover in 1992, when I went to Kabul to meet Najib in the UN compound, he was still phenomenally well-informed.

Late Abdul Rahman, Ahmed Shah Massoud’s ace negotiator (who was murdered in Kabul in 2002 in mysterious circumstances) once told me he used to consult Najib regularly. I have absolutely no doubt that Massoud and Pakistan’s ISI were determined that Najib should never find his way to Delhi. 

This is important, as President Ashraf Ghani is not a patch on Najib — not by a long shot. Najib was fighting an insurgency but also had a solid power base and a fully functioning state apparatus and cadre-based party. That is not the case with Ghani or his cabal. This is one thing. 

Once Mikhail Gorbachev took over as General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, Najib anticipated a potential shift in Soviet policies. When the Geneva talks got under way in 1988, Najib revved up his National Reconciliation policy, while also keeping lines open to Pakistan. In the famous Battle of Jalalabad (1989), ISI tested his mettle, but Najib won because the Afghan army trained and equipped by the Soviets was of high calibre and rooted in institutional traditions and structure that dated back to the 1800s, drawing sustenance from a healthy society and a government with functioning institutions and state ideology. 

By contrast, a majority of today’s Afghan army units consist of soldiers who enrolled for economic reasons, serving under an officer corps mostly comprised of illiterate former militia members who are neither fighting for a core set of common beliefs and goals nor inspired by patriotism and commitment to the ideals of a unitary, democratic, and multi-ethnic Afghanistan. 

If the mujahideen were decisively defeated in the Battle of Jalalabad due to a lack of unified command, inexperience in large-scale offensive operations, and an over-reliance on the ISI, the Taliban operate in vastly different conditions. Put differently, any support for Ghani Govt will not make sense except as stop-gap arrangement. Enduring peace is not achievable without reconciliation with the Taliban. This is the second point.  

True, Najib held on for three years after the Soviets pulled the plug, but he had a harrowing time. To jog memory, the last columns of the Red Army left Afghanistan in February 1989. It took less than a year after that for the ISI to plot a major coup to murder Najib and seize power in Kabul. The ISI lured none other than Najib’s defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai, a former general and friend of Najib. 

The coup attempt failed and Tanai fled to Pakistan in March 1990. When I reached Kabul within a few weeks to hold charge of the Mission, I saw a regime that was losing steam. Kabul city was under siege and the Mujahideen were pounding the valley with rockets from the surrounding hilltops. A daily curfew from 6 pm was enforced, lest the Mujahideen cadres and ISI agents infiltrated the city under cover of darkness. (Read my piece in Rediff titled The Butcher and Kabul and I.)

One day Najib’s office summoned me for a sensitive message. It was an SOS that Najib had run out of money to pay the salary of the militia under Rashid Dostum who were threatening to mutiny. (Najib never allowed the unruly violent Uzbeki militia to enter the city.)

Simply put, any scenario today should factor in that the US and its allies, while preoccupied with their post-pandemic recovery, will also be called upon to bankroll the Afghan economy and state. What I wrote in a column in March last year in Tribune newspaper still holds good — Tread with extreme caution. ) This is the third point.

Finally, by 1990, once the Soviet forces withdrew, Dostum began searching for a Faustian deal with the Mujahideen. In fact, Dostum, whom Riedel warmly remembers, has been a rank opportunist. He collaborated with the ISI to facilitate the Taliban victory over Ismail Khan and the conquest of Herat in 1995. 

At least on one occasion, I know for a fact that he was talking simultaneously with us and the ISI. Dostum himself admitted in a conversation in Shibirghan once that then Pakistani Interior Minister Major-General Naseerullah Babar had been to see him in his citadel just the previous week accompanied by Taliban supremo late Mullah Mohammad Rabbani. (Dostum recounted jovially how Babar treated the mullah with contempt, tapping him with the baton he was carrying.) 

The former Director-General of ISI, Lt. Gen (Retd.) Asad Durrani wrote recently, “There is a fable about the frogs. They could not come out of the jar because anyone who tried would be pulled back by the rest. No idea how it ended: the pot broke, or the frogs died of exhaustion! Afghanistan is not breaking apart, but the US is still lucky. None of its adversaries want it to be buried in the proverbial graveyard. Only its friends keep tugging at its legs to keep it in.” 

True, it can be very exasperating. The Afghans never let go their benefactors. Hundreds of millions of dollars went down the drain to support the North Alliance. Did the foreign patrons achieve anything? They couldn’t even save Massoud.

But for that incredibly foolish enterprise — 9/11 attacks —the Islamic Emirate would be still ruling Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance was gasping for breath by the fall of 2001. There is no knowing where all that money went. Wild rumours were in circulation in the Central Asian bazars. The Northern Alliance warlords are millionaires today with assets and bank accounts abroad. How that happened no one wants to tell.   

To pursue Gen. Durrani’s metaphor further, do imagine a jar containing  Dostum, Mohammed Atta, Ismail Khan, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Ghani, Amrullah Saleh, Hamdullah Mohib, Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Rasul Sayyaf  — and President Joe Biden. How long will that jar hold?     

The most insightful thought in Riedel’s analysis is actually his acknowledgement that “Pakistan does not control the Taliban and it will suffer negative as well as positive consequences from their improved position… The Afghan Taliban will become more independent.” If so, what is the need of paranoia? The door is opening wide to engage with the Taliban based on mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual interests. Give diplomacy a chance.