The battle for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir

The First World War of the 21st century

On 7 October 2001 the US and Great Britain engaged in a blitzkrieg against a small and very poorly equipped Afghan army. Ten years later, this attack turned into the longest war the United States has ever fought. It has become an international operation of epic dimensions. Why does the situation seem so desperate? In Opstandland (Rebel Land) Gie Goris argues that the West’s military intervention fails to take the regional contradictions–such as the conflict between India and Pakistan– into account.

  • Gie Goris Gie Goris

According to Nato, last summer there were 132,457 troops on duty in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the coalition of 48 countries led by Nato that wants to guarantee stability in Afghanistan under the current constitution and government. The American army also relies on at least 140,000 private operators to complete and support the military work – which is sometimes even plainly subcontracted – and about 100,000 military staff with supporting tasks for Operation Enduring Freedom or the International Security Assistance Force. The number of Special Forces used in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not known, but there are about 19,000 private security agents operating in Afghanistan. And add some 160,000 military in the Afghan army and 120,000 police officers in the Afghan police force.

This armada of 670,000 is used to fight some 30,000 armed Afghan insurgents. The Afghan vice-minister of Defence, Enayatullah Nazari, told a parliamentary committee in April 2011 that 1820 insurgent groups operate in Afghanistan, most of which are tied to larger networks. He probably referred to ties between local militia and the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Hizb-e-Islam of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The three major networks of the insurgency are not only tied to each other but they also have ties with Pakistani militant organisations, Kashmiri Jihadists and internationalist networks like Al Qaeda. In April 2011, American General Petreaus estimated the presence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to ‘less than a hundred’. A highly placed American official told the The New York Times at the end of April of ‘50 or 75 actual fighters in Afghanistan, mostly as part of the Haqqani-groups’.

Why do international superior numbers not achieve a resounding success, which until 2004 seemed so close? The main reason for this is probably because the West is caught in the logicc of its War on Terror and also builds its intervention on the idea that Afghanistan is about a fight between good and evil, between democratically elected powers and annoying fundamentalists, between the values of the 21st century and the principles of the early days of the Islamic calendar.

Because of the obsession with the terrorism doctrine, politicians and generals do not see that the Afghan insurgents are deeply rooted in the population and can use the regional differences to organise and finance their insurgency. To be successful in Afghanistan the international community should start from the broader context of regional conflicts: the long after-effects of the colonial period, 64 years of international conflict over Jammu and Kashmir, 32 years of uninterrupted war in Afghanistan, 22 years of armed insurgency in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, 10 years of Western occupation of Afghanistan and at least 5 years of armed conflict between sundry Jihadists and the Pakistani state, which has financed and supported them.

The Pakistani and Indian armies have failed to deal with insurgencies on their own territory. What’s more, their strategy proved counterproductive. Also the superpowers – the Soviet-Union, the United States and Nato – have had to admit that military interventions in Afghanistan only add to problems. At the end of 2008 – before he was elected president – Barack Obama launched his analysis that peace in Afghanistan or at least a Western victory is impossible unless Pakistani authorities cooperate for a full one hundred percent in the international efforts.

In Opstandland I extensively describe why Pakistan and other neighbours of Afghanistan play a double game and why the population of Afghanistan does not itself and unambiguously support ISAF. In this article I give a summary of some of the key insights.

Colonial hangovers and current insurgencies

1. Pashtunistan

Any decent analysis of Afghanistan requires an outline of Pashtun nationalism. Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are under Pashtun leadership, which, beside recent Islamist idealism, especially advocates the restitution of past Pashtun unity and grandeur. Pashtuns are not separatists who want a separate nation, even though they advocate the association of all Pashtun and Baluchi regions in Pakistan with a Pashtun-governed Afghanistan.

The border between Afghanistan and current Pakistan – the “Durand Line” – has never been accepted by Pashtuns, not even by the Taliban who were put in power by Pakistan.

On the Afghan side, the government encouraged Pashtun nationalism from 1947 onwards because it saw the dissolution of the British Empire in India as an opportunity to regain the “lost” regions east of the Hindu Kush and add them to Afghan territory. That was why in 1947 the Afghan representative with the United Nations was the only one voting against admitting Pakistan when it applied for membership to the international organisation after obtaining independence. That point of view was quickly changed, but the negative feelings remained and for decades would lead to continuous frictions between Kabul and Islamabad, especially because the Afghan leaders often had good relations with India.

2. Jammu and Kashmir

The conflict between Pakistan and India is probably the most determing conflict for the region and at the same the main factor in the dead-end war for Afghanistan. The symbolic key issue between the two neighbouring countries is Jammu and Kashmir, the princely state in the high north of the subcontinent.

One and a half month before independence, in the middle of August 1947 Great Britain had not resolved the issue of the more than five hundred princely states. Yet, the two inheritors of British India succeeded in convincing almost all Maharajas, nawabs and other feudal rulers to become part of Pakistan or India, depending on the location of the princely state and the religion of the majority of the inhabitants. The Hindu Maharaja of dominantly Islamic Jammu and Kashmir dreamed of independency and neutrality – a ‘Switzerland from the East. At the end of October 1947 the political uncertainty surrounding the future of Jammu and Kashmir was stopped by an invasion of irregular, tribal groups from northern Pakistan, which were probably supported by the Pakistani government. The Maharaja signed the deed that integrated his land into India, after which the regular armies of the recently independent countries fought a first war. The war ended undecidedly with a divided Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1965, 1971 and 1989 the Indian and Pakistani armies confronted each other again in the Himalayan state and in 1962 also India and China fought a short war about an almost uninhabited piece of Jammu and Kashmir, which according to China belonged to Tibet, whereas India claimed it was part of Ladakh. As no arrangements were made about this border with Tibet under British rule, there was room left for different interpretations. China won that war and took over Aksai Chin.

The persistent conflict for Kashmir has made the army in Pakistan much more powerful than the government. And it is the basis of the army’s ideology of “strategic depth”, which boils down to the imperative of having a reliable ally along the western border – in Afghanistan – so Pakistan does not have to fight on two fronts in case of a war with India. The retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Talat Masood warned that these ideas of strategic depth are responsible for the fact that the state is besieged by extremist groups and yet keeps supporting these organisations because they advocate fighting against India and “liberating” Jammu and Kashmir.

3. Baluchistan

Pashtun colonial disillusionment still attracts quite a bit of attention in international analyses about the Afghan conflict. The Baluchi frustration about the splitting of the Baluchi territory between Russia, the British Empire and Persia rarely gets any attention. This is strange because Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, is only at 190 kilometres of Kandahar and has been the home of the highest council of the Afghan Taliban since 2001.

The largest part of Baluchistan today is part of Pakistan, where Baluchi nationalists are fighting their fourth war for independence since 1947. Their nationalism goes back to historical injustices and is further fed by present-day marginalization. Currently, 63 percent of the population in Baluchistan lives below the poverty line, whereas this is “only” 26 percent in Punjab. Yet, in the official Pakistani view there is no poverty or underdevelopment, let alone negligence.

Instead, the insurgence in Baluchistan is to be ascribed to criminal elements that are supported by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian military intelligence service. That Indian service operates, according to the official conspiracy theory, both from the consulates in Afghanistan and the consulate of Zahedan, Iran. India denies these allegations, of course. But the cooperation that India developed with Iran to create a commercial corridor from the Iranian deep sea harbour in Chabahar to Central Asia is one more piece of evidence for Pakistan that its arch rival India is “surrounding” the land with friendly states. With Chinese aid, Pakistan itself has developed its own deep sea harbour in Gwadar, at about 72 kilometres of Chabahar. The Baluchi territory thus increasingly becomes a second front in the regional struggle for dominance.


Turning Islam into a political tool

1. The Pakistani context

Long before Afghanistan became an Islamist emirate under the Taliban, the real breakthrough of political Islam in the region occurred in Pakistan. This happened between 1977 and 1988, under the Pakistani General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Zia staged his coup less than seven years after the civil war in East Pakistan – present-day Bangladesh. That war made an end to the promise that a shared belief could foster national coherence between very different peoples and regions like the Bengali from East Pakistan and Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan. Worse even, the West Pakistani army committed a real genocide in East Pakistan on Bengali intellectuals, killing three million Bengali in 1971 and raping four hundred thousand Bengali women.

In spite of such massive violence the insurgency was not suppressed and in the evolving confrontation with India the Pakistani army was humiliated and forced to accept the birth of Bangladesh. The trauma of 1971 did not only deepen the enmity with India, but also reinforced the distrust of ethnic or provincial identity movements – which were and are numerous.

With his Islamization policy Zia-ul-Haq wanted to suppress the ambitions of Sindh, Baluchistan and the “Afghan” northwestern region. In reality, the prohibition of political parties and activities only strengthened ethnic identities. His policy of Islamization only heightened sectarian tensions between the Sunni majority and Muslim minorities like Shiites and Ismaelites.

2. The Cold War context

For Zia-ul-Haq the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan was an opportunity to break the isolation of his country and regime. In April 1979, on the initiative of president Jimmy Carter, the United States had suspended economic and military cooperation with Pakistan, but the US soon reconsidered once the Soviets moved into Afghanistan. In 1980, the new government under Ronald Reagan promised Pakistan immediate assistance to the amount of 3.2 billion dollar over a six-year period. Weapons and money for the Afghan resistance were channelled through the Pakistani military intelligence service ISI, which has gained major influence ever since in determining and implementing the Pakistani foreign policy.

Zia could not only rely on generous American support for the Pakistani role in the fight against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The Saudis, who were keen on stopping the expansion of revolutionary Shiism of the Iranian leader Khomeini, would cofinance the Afghan resistance by doubling each American million with Arab oil dollars. The Saudis paid a first order of forty F16 fighter planes for the Pakistani air force. They also provided the starter’s budget for the Pakistani zakat fund, which was to help the poor, but which was mainly used in the eighties to finance madrasahs. From 1985 onwards the Saudis would spend a lot of money on the transport of international volunteers to the Afghan battlefields.

That way nationalist resistance against a foreign occupation shifted to an internationalist and Islamist fight for the worldwide restitution of Muslim pride. This evolution was beyond the grasp of Pakistani powers –Zia meanwhile had to fight for his political survival against the inescapable democratic and provincial forces– and it was not grasped well by the Americans either. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, waved away the strategy that went awry later by asking what had been the most important for history: forcing the Soviet Union on its knees and ending the Cold Ward, or a few excited Muslims? A certain Osama bin Laden was also among these ‘excited Muslims’.

3. The subcontractors start building themselves

The Pakistani policy to subcontract armed conflicts to so-called autonomous groups of armed civilians is as old as the partition of the subcontinent. The first war for Jammu and Kashmir was provoked by an invasion of tribal militia from the northwest of Pakistan. In general it is believed that this invasion was jointly set up with or at least actively tolerated by the Pakistani army. In 1965, the Pakistani government thought the time was ripe again to send armed groups to Indian Kashmir. The aim was to stir up frustration and to channel it into a real popular insurgency, which would then be supported by the regular Pakistani army.

The difficult relation between Pakistan and Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan was approached with the same set of tools. Already in 1973 the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started in Pakistan with religiously motivated groups of Afghans, the mujahedin. They were to undermine the secular republic and Pashtun nationalism of the new Afghan leader, Mohammad Sardar Daoud. That mujahedin strategy was boosted in the eighties to engage into war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in such a way that it was very hard for Moscow to treat Pakistan as an enemy in an open war. The Pakistani army at the time – and still today – uses what the Americans call plausible deniability: You devise an operation in such a way that you can deny responsibility afterwards in a credible way. By subcontracting violence to ideologically driven groups, the army – and therefore the state – could wash its hands in innocence, making a conventional war of retaliation improbable.

After the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, the Pakistani secret service ISI immediately supported armed resistance in Indian Jammu & Kashmir. To do so, Kashmiri nationalists were pushed aside and made room for Islamist-inspired groups of mujahedin that were supported by Pakistan. A few years later that same ISI intervened in the Afghan civil war of the nineties by providing all necessary support to the Taliban militias of Mullah Omar. After 2001, both Kashmir-oriented groups (like Hizbul Mujahedeen and Lashkar-e-Taiba) as well as the Taliban developed agendas of their own in relation to the internationalist ideology of Al Qaeda.


Allies, enemies and shifting coalitions

1 The importance of the neighbouring countries

Without the support of Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian republics, India, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia there is no sustainable agreement possible between the fighting Afghan fractions or between the Afghan people concerned and the international community.

Abdul Nafi Olomi, a young Afghan scholar, says the war in Afghanistan is a war for power with national, regional as well as international players. And therefore, says Olomi, during a discussion in Kabul, any solution for Afghanistan must involve these three tiers. Oddly, according to Nafi, there is a lot of attention for the national power relations and a little bit for the international aspects, but surprisingly little for the regional interests and oppositions. Olomi: ‘Once Obama announced the time schedule for the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, the regional players picked up their game from the early nineties, when competing mujahedin groups each fought for the account of another neighbouring country.’ The destruction of Afghanistan has never been so profound as in the 1992-1996 period.

Most diplomats and analysts I have met this last year, believe that a consensus on Afghanistan’s future is almost impossible among the neighbouring countries, even though not everybody was as willing to abandon the idea of a regional peace conference. ‘As long as there is no functioning political framework in the country [Afghanistan], the neighbouring countries will never be involved in a reasonable way. They protect their own interests and the result is dangerous for everyone, said former British Foreign Affairs minister David Miliband in a recent speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That this logic also works the other way around seems to be forgotten by everyone: As long as the neighbouring countries do not reach a reasonable agreement, the chance for internal reconciliation is small. The interference of the West does not make this exercise any easier because of the mistrust that it generates but also because of the hostile attitude of the West against Iran and the ongoing competition for aid and military contracts.

2. The West versus the regional powers

Early in February 2011, when he returned from a trip to India and Germany, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai confirmed that the United States insist on keeping permanent military bases in Afghanistan, even after the “full withdrawal” of the American troops planned for 2014 ‘if circumstances permit’. On 10 February the website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the website of the Taliban – published a communiqué under the title No single country in the region wants permanent American bases in Afghanistan.

The announcement of permanent presence of the North-American army was immediately denied by Washington, but it did not diminish the unrest in the region. Iran’s Minister of the Interior brought a surprise visit to Kabul, closely followed by the national security advisors of India and Russia. The New York Times pointed at concerns from India, Iran and Russia – exactly the countries whose own interests fit best with the declared intentions of the United States in Afghanistan.

Pakistan – the inevitable ally of the US and also the undeniable support of the Afghan insurgents – has good reasons to distrust permanent American presence in the region, especially after the raid on Abbotabad at the beginning of May during which Bin Laden was eliminated. ‘The US must be able at any time to hit targets in Pakistan. This is best done from Afghanistan’, said AfPak expert Bruce Riedel.

With friends who are suspicious, allies who support the enemy and partners that are opposed on grounds of long-term interests, it is no surprise that the United States are knee-deep in the quagmire, and so are the Nato member states like Belgium.

Opstandland. De strijd om Afghanistan, Pakistan en Kashmir (Rebel Land. The struggle for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir) by Gie Goris is published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij. 364 pages. ISBN 978 90 8542 268 6. Research for the book was made possible by support of The Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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