Since 1973, seven out of nine Afghan Presidents have been removed from office by force, or the threat of it. Coups by their very nature take place by stealth, but they do not happen by surprise in Afghanistan. Rumours, gossip and exchanges of confidence precede the actual coup; killer and the victim know about it. As was the pattern with previous coups, this time too the Taliban have begun to stalk their prey.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are releasing Taliban prisoners by the dozen. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are eager to act as facilitators for talks between the Taliban and the current Afghan government. The US-led security forces are keen to quit with as much grace as possible. But their biggest fear is a major strike by hostile forces that leads to their panic withdrawal from the country.
The US hints that it will leave behind a token force to help the Afghan government. The hard questions that it will need to ask itself are the following. Who will the US assist and give aid to in case the Taliban take over partly or fully from Karzai? Second, if a force of nearly two hundred thousand foreign troops could not help save Afghanistan from the Taliban, how can a token force of a few thousand accomplish that task in a hostile environment?
That apart, the defeat of yet another foreign force would validate what the chaplain of the British army GR Kleig had said in 1843, “The First Afghan War (1839-42) was begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, and brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it.”
Today, these words ring equally true about this fourth western foray into Afghanistan. When the American troops finally leave, they would not have left behind many admiring Afghans. The Afghan security men resent the abrasive and insulting attitude of their American counterparts. Billions of American dollars in aid have not been optimally spent; corruption is rife and signs of development few. Afghans do not feel any more secure now than they were in 2001. Tragically, those who lived in hope and rooted for Americans in the interregnum are likely to be targeted first when the Taliban take over. And that may well include the education of 5 million Afghan children who go to school.
But the Taliban will not be steering Afghanistan all on their own. As in the past, this time too Pakistan will be the strategic mentor and tactical guide. It is true that the Taliban would be difficult to control, and that the ethnic anger of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities may be hard to suppress. It is also true that the Pashtun communities on the two sides of the Durand line have not reconciled to this division. All these portend problems. Yet, Pakistan is unlikely to miss the chance to govern Afghanistan by remote control. The temptation of finally attaining the strategic depth they longed for will be tough to resist.
That may please the military heart, but is this in Pakistan’s long-term interest? One thing is sure that this would be an acquisition that was not preceded by a national debate about the morality or necessity of achieving strategic depth. Moreover, if the Pakistani plans succeed and ISI is in virtual control, its hold over Afghanistan will be neo colonial in form. There will be Pakistani over-lords and Afghan second class citizens. Inevitably, this would lead to resentment and strife. Is that something to be looked forward to by the region?
As it is, democracy in Pakistan is constantly threatened by the sheer scale of the domestic political, religious and economic difficulties. These will then carry the additional risk of instability in Afghanistan.
Reflecting on the emerging scenario a Pakistani columnist had recently put the issue in this historical context: “Sadly, since the 1960s, Pakistan’s rulers have systematically destroyed or corrupted the central institutions of the state. Our short history is a chronicle of disasters: the 1965 war, the destructive experiment in populist socialism; the country’s break up; the induction of Zia’s Islamism; the lost decade of democracy; externally dictated involvement in the disastrous ‘war on terror’ and, most recently, a Hobbesian era of ‘all against all.”
That then is the crux. Are we about to witness a wider Hobbesian jungle that extends from the northern heights of Afghanistan to the deep seas below Karachi? And how deeply will India be singed by the triumphal flames that blow from its north-west?
A former ambassador, the writer is a novelist and artist.