Mono, Ethnic Solutions:The Taliban's Cheque Book Campaign, Autumn 1998

G.D. Bakshi,Officer,Indian Army


In military parlance, a campaign that is so flawlessly executed as to become a professional role model, is called a "text book campaign." The Pakistani sponsored Taliban, however, has given us a new genre of military campaigns. Tim McGirek of Time magazine has most aptly described this as a "cheque book campaign." Its core tactic relies upon simply buying off your opposition with huge doles of cash/bribes. This has been the leitmotif of Taliban operations in Afghanistan for the last four years and more. This "cheque book imprimatur" is most clearly visible in the Taliban's recent victory in Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998.

Most analysis would have thought that with Pakistan in dire economic straits after the economic sanctions, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may not be able to bankroll more "cheque book campaigns" by the Taliban. The financial inputs for most of these purchased victories, however (it is now crystal clear), have come from Saudi Arabia and the consortium of oil firms led by UNOCOL which have been hell bent on laying a twin oil-cum-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to the Makran coast. Pakistan raised, armed and trained the Taliban to deliver the new "Silk Route" to Central Asia. The Taliban was its instrumentality to effect a proxy conquest of Afghanistan and establish a client regime there. The aim was to gain strategic depth against arch rival India, corner the entire Central Asian trade and oil outflow, establish a bridgehead for the destabilisation of Central Asia, and outflank and marginalise Iran altogether from the Central Asian sweepstakes. This blueprint could exploit the low intensity warfare skills of the Taliban to raise the ante in Kashmir and possibly in Xinjiang. In short, Pakistan was in quest of a zero-sum-game option in which it would win all at the cost of each and every one of its neighbouring states--India, Iran, Russia, the Central Asian Republics and even its ally China. The stark tragedy is that a joint Iran-Pakistan initiative to get peace talks going in Afghanistan was well underway just prior to this Taliban offensive. The avowed objective of putting in place a multi-ethnic arrangement that would accommodate the aspirations of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, was a very sensible denouement that could have ensured long-term peace and stability in the region. After the earlier UN mediation efforts had failed due to the intransigence of the Taliban, another initiative was launched by Iran in concert with Pakistan. The Pakistan Times in its editorial of August 8, 1998, said that Ayaz Wazir, Director Afghanistan in the Pakistan Foreign Office and Mohiuddin Wajafi, former Iranian Ambassador, were scheduled to pay a joint visit to Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif to broker peace talks between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. It now appears that Pakistan's participation in these peace talks was a smoke screen for its plans for a "final military solution" of the Afghan ethnic problem.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UNOCOL had been eyeing the dissensions in the Jowzjani militia of the Uzbek warlord--Abdul Rashid Dostam--with great interest. The Jowzjani militia was once one of the KGB's proudest creations during the Afghan War. It was a highly professional force. The Uzbeks are amenable to barrack room discipline and had proved a disciplined and potent fighting force in the Afghan War. The Jowzjani militia, however, was sensitive to defaults on payment. Thus, once the Soviets cut off all arms and economic aid to the Najibullah regime, he defaulted on payments. The Jowzjani militia was the first to mutiny. It also suspected Najibullah of selling out the interests of the Afghan ethnic minorities to the Pashtuns. That is how Dostam helped to overthrow Najibullah and became a warlord.

The serious cracks in the Jowzjani militia came to the surface in 1997 in the bitter feud between Dostam and his "Pehelwan" quarter of Generals. General Abdul Malik Pehelwan suspected Dostam of having had his brother assassinated. He was given a hefty bribe (reputedly over a million dollars) by the Taliban and had changed sides in May 1997. The Taliban marched in triumph to Mazar-e-Sharif and began what it does best--high decibel theatricals that involve shooting up posters and beating hapless women. Malik was expecting the Taliban to give him a high position but they were cold. Abdul Malik was outraged by the double-cross. There was a spontaneous rebellion again the Taliban and over 2,000 of them were slaughtered. The Mazar-e-Sharif operation of May 1997 proved to be a dismal fiasco. Dostam had initially fled to Turkey. After the Taliban rout, he came back to resume charge. The bitter feud between him and Abdul Malik Pehelwan, however, simmered on and again burst into the open around March 1998. There were fierce internecine clashes between these Uzbek groups. Anthony Davis writing in Asia Week (August 28, 1998 issue) says that ever since his return from his four months exile in Turkey, Dostam was more busy trying to regain control over the Uzbeks and clashing with the Shias and Mahsood's forces. In March 1998, clashes had erupted between his troops and the Shias and in June with the Tajiks of Mahsood. He paid no attention to the joint offensive of the Northern Alliance against Kunduz. Even in Mazar-e-Sharif itself, lawlessness, rampant corruption and extortion and rape--typical characteristics of Mujahideen rule—had resurfaced under the Hezb-e-Wahdat. The locals were fed up with the incessant infighting and group rivalries. Pakistan's ISI felt that it was an opportune time to strike and take advantage of the serious disarray in the ranks of the Jowzjani militia. The oil pipeline dream once more seemed within reach and the long-term objectives of ethnic reconciliation and durable peace in Afghanistan were dumped unceremoniously for quick short-term gains.

The Saudi Connection

Tim McGirek (writing in the August 31, 1998, issue of Time magazine) states that in July 1998, the Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Turki El Faisal had flown into Kandahar for a meeting with the Taliban leaders (and their ISI handlers) and vast sums of money were handed over to the Taliban to purchase/bribe the feuding Uzbek commanders. Logistics had been the Achilles heel of the Taliban May 1997 fiasco in Mazar-e-Sharif. This time the Saudis had 400 brand new pick-up trucks flown into Kandahar. McGirek writes that these still had their Middle Eastern licence plates on when the Taliban pressed them into service for its Autumn 1998 campaign.

Herat was made the mounting base for this operation. The Taliban's combat performance had been fairly dismal in 1997. This time around the ISI was not taking any chances. Anthony Davis writes in the Jane's Defence Weekly (August 1990 issue) that over 1,700 Pakistani Pushtun and Urdu speaking troops in Mufti were airlifted to Herat to spearhead and control the operations. Some media reports indicate that Pakistan's 48 Infantry Brigade located at Quetta was directly involved besides the Mufti-clad personnel of the ISI's Afghan Bureau. The tragic lessons of the Taliban's two failed attempts to capture Mazar-e-Sharif (May and September 1997) were carefully studied by the ISI and detailed precautions were taken. Airlift of reinforcements was meticulously planned. The Taliban offensive commenced on July 10, 1998, with 400 supply trucks/food vehicles and petrol trucks following the advance on the Northern Highway from Herat to Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban's cheque book tactics paid handsome dividends. Two Opposition commanders at Maimana were purchased and changed sides. Thus, Maimana (the capital of Faryab province) fell without much fighting. Dostam and Mahsood launched a quick counter-attack. They succeeded in retaking the Maimana airstrip by end July 1998 and were soon fighting in the city itself. The Taliban offensive was stalled for two weeks. It was at this stage that the Pashtuns of the infamous Gulbuddin Hekmetyar (who had returned from exile and was now a junior partner in the Northern Alliance) turned sides treacherously. This purchase gave the Taliban a significant breakthrough on August 2, 1998. Western aid workers at Maimana reported that almost 25 to 50 per cent of the Taliban were Urdu speaking Pakistanis. From Maimana on the northern highway, the Taliban launched a pincer aimed at Dostam's home town of Sherberghan (via Andhkhovi). Internecine fighting had taken a heavy toll of Uzbek morale. By August 5, 1998, the Taliban's western thrust (led by its Interior Minister Mulla Karimulla Khair Khera) had succeeded in capturing Sherberghan (after a brief but reportedly intense fight). The Taliban took two days to consolidate. Simultaneously, it moved to the south to secure Sare-Pole to threaten Mazar-e-Sharif from the south and isolate it from reinforcements by the Shia Hezb-e-Wahdat. The Taliban's eastern pincer towards Mazar-e-Sharif was led by its 28-year-old Culture Minister Mulla Amir Khan Muttaquui. Saudi cash was put to good use to purchase the loyalties of opposing commanders with huge bribes. There were large scale desertions/switch around of Uzbek militia loyalties in the Baghlan province which weakened the eastern defences of Mazar-e-Sharif. Alarmed by the infighting in the Jowzjani militia, the Northern Alliance's Defence Minister sent reinforcements to Mazar-e-Sharif. On August 6, 1998, a 400-strong force of Mahsood's troops launched a counter-attack at Burqua in northern Baghlan province. Tajik and Shia reinforcements were sent to Mazar-e-Sharif to tackle turncoat Uzbek commanders. However, the Taliban had put the Saudi largesse to good use. On August 8, it broke through the defences of Mazar-e-Sharif even as two Uzbek factions (presumably Dostam's and Malik's troops) were fighting it out amongst themselves. The rift between Dostam and Abdul Malik proved fatal to the Northern Alliance. Mazar-e-Sharif was captured in this confusion and the Uzbek forces fell back in disarray. The Taliban pushed on to the Uzbek border and captured Hairatan.

On August 9, 1998, Mahsood launched a hasty counter-attack and for a time succeeded in re-entering Mazar-e-Sharif and temporarily pushing back the Taliban. Despite the turnaround of the squabbling Uzbek factions, the Tajiks and Shia Hazaras put up fierce resistance. Ultimately, Pakistani manned tanks and artillery turned the tide in this battle. Mahsood's counter-attack was poorly coordinated between the Tajiks and the Hazaras. Logistics failed to keep pace and Mahsood had to retreat as he was short of ammunition. The Taliban stormed back into Mazar-e-Sharif.

The operational significance of Mazar-e-Sharif lay in its excellent airport which Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan were using to re-supply the Northern Alliance with arms and ammunition. The Pakistanis now flew in a large number of sorties of heavy transport aircraft to fly in reinforcements and logistic support.

Ironically even as the UNOCOL was partly financing the August 7-8 victory of the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan based Osama Bin Laden's cohorts struck US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania with massive truck bombing attacks. This highlights the perils and pitfalls of American policies in this region that were apparently premised on very tactical, short-term agendas (the laying of oil pipelines). These short- term agendas have totally ignored the long-term consequences of placing in power in Afghanistan such a rabidly fundamentalist group as the Taliban.

The Taliban pushed ahead on August 11, 1998, to capture Taloquan, Pul-e-Khurmi and Nahrain in the Baghlan province, south-east of Mazar-e-Sharif. Ahmad Shah Mahsood fell back to preserve his forces in the face of betrayal by a number of turncoat Uzbek commanders. The Taliban also mounted attacks in the Badakshan province (home base of Rabbani at Faizabad) and captured Aibak. Subsequent media reports have spoken of gruesome massacres by the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif. The Shia Hazaras have been specifically targetted for ethnic cleansing of a most barbaric kind. CNN reports indicated that over 70 Hazaras were nailed to the walls and killed in horrific fashion. Ahmad Rashid, writing the Far Eastern Economic Review (September 11, 1998 issue) reports that on September 9, 1998, over 2,000 Hazaras were massacred in Mazar-e-Sharif by the Taliban. In the long-term, this will make any ethnic reconciliation in Afghanistan well nigh impossible.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the loss of Mazar-e-Sharif has been a serious blow to the Northern Alliance. It has lost a major city and prestigious political objective and more significantly a land and air communications link with its backers (Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, etc). The two air bases left for resupply were the Bamiyan airbase of the Shia Hezb-e-Wahdat and the small air base of Khawjaghar town in north Takhar province which is now the sole air base for the resupply of Mahsood's Tajik forces in the Panjshir.

The Taliban may have exploited the disarray in the ranks of the Uzbek Jowzjani militia to capture Mazar-e-Sharif but its long-term consequences for ethnic reconciliation in Afghanistan could prove to be fatal. Ahmad Shah Mahsood has said that his forces will switch back to the guerilla phase of warfare. Afghanistan has been conquered many times before. The Soviet Army did it in just five days. What was critical, however, was maintaining control over time. It is here that the combat performance of the Taliban will have to be carefully monitored. It may well be premature to write off the Northern Alliance. Heavy bribes paid to Uzbek faction leaders will have to be renewed annually. Problems could occur when the Taliban attempts to disarm these factions in the areas under its control. Similar attempts to disarm the Shia forces had led to massacres last year. Bribes to Opposition commanders have been standard tactics in Afghanistan. Recently declassified records of the Soviet 40th Army based at Termez (which directed the Afghan operation) indicate that once initial Soviet Army operations had failed against Ahmad Shah Mahsood, a significant intelligence operation was launched to buy him off. Soviet Col Zakin Kadyrov reportedly paid a bribe of $350,000 to Mahsood to buy peace. The Tajik military hero was under intense military pressure and accepted the deal. Two years later, he struck viciously at Soviet convoys crossing the Salang Pass. This necessitated the most major operations of the Soviet Afghan campaign to subdue him. Mahsood survived operations Panjshir VII and VIII launched by the cream of Soviet airborne forces. It remains to be seen if the ragtag Taliban outfit can do better in counter-guerilla operations even with massive Pakistani support. Enforcing a quick conquest of major population centres in Afghanistan through classic "cheque book campaigns" has been relatively easier. Enforcing that control over time will be the critical factor. The combat performance of the Taliban (both in 1997 and 1998) does not inspire much confidence in its ability to control the non-Pashtun areas over time. We could still witness many changes in the ground situation. With typical arrogance, the ISI has chosen ethnic confrontation and cleansing over ethnic reconciliation in Afghanistan. One is reminded of Bangladesh in 1971. This could have tragic consequences not just for that hapless country but also the whole region.

Iran's Reaction

As the Taliban swept into Mazar-e-Sharif, it overran the Iranian Embassy and captured 11 Iranian diplomats/intelligence personnel. The Iranians (already incensed by Pakistani's brazen attempt at torpedoing the peace process in Afghanistan) were livid. Pakistan's outright zero- sum-game mentality was transparent. It was attempting to secure victories at the prime cost of Iran and all other regional players. Iran's response was the massing of over 70,000 troops on the Iran-Afghanistan border under the guise of military manoeuvres codenamed Ashura III. There was a massive unprecedented military exercise by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Torbat-e-Jam area. The manoeuvres were conducted over a 600 sq km stretch near the Afghan border. The Revolutionary Guards Commander, Maj Gen Yahaya Rahim Safavi announced that the Iranian troops would continue to remain in the area even after the exercises were over. The Iranian military exercises posed a very potent threat to Herat, the launch pad and logistics base of the Taliban's Autumn 1998 offensive. This forced the Taliban to recoil and rush back reinforcements for the defence of Herat. So great was the initial panic in the Taliban (and Islamabad) that weapons were issued by the Taliban to the civilians in the border areas with Iran. The Iranian manoeuvres by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were given a suitable media build up in the Iranian TV and Press. For a time, this gambit totally succeeded in taking the pressure off the beleaguered Tajik and Hazara forces of the Northern Alliance. Iranian political leaders, however, made reconciliatory statements to the effect that Iran would not invade Afghanistan. This served to dilute the Iranian military threat. Emboldened, the Taliban (with strong Pakistani backing) now swiftly turned its attention on the Shia bastion of the Hazarjat. In case of an Iranian offensive, the Taliban was apparently very apprehensive about a Shia military presence in its rear. The Taliban mounted a concerted attack on Bamiyan, the last major city under the Northern Alliance's control and the only significant airport left for the resupply of the Shias. As the defences of Bamiyan crumbled, the Iranians panicked and sent in military supplies in their Air Force aircraft and helicopters even as the Taliban came within artillery range of the Bamiyan airfield. This was too little, too late, and Bamiyan fell. The Taliban essayed into another orgy of ethnic cleansing. This infuriated the Iranian leadership. It now upped the ante by ordering 200,000 troops of the regular Army (some nine divisions) to commence unprecedented war games in the Torbat-e-Jam area (codenamed "Zolfikar"). This brings the Iranian force concentrations against Herat to almost 270,000 troops (including the Revolutionary Guards). A worried Taliban now sent back the dead bodies of nine Iranian diplomats. This further inflamed passions in Tehran as the bodies were received with full military honours, creating a popular groundswell of public opinion demanding Iranian retaliation. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamanei, the supreme religious leader of Iran, ordered the country's top civil and military officials to go on full alert and complete all preparations for exercising the military option. On September 15, 1998, the armed forces reported full readiness. Ayatollah Khamenei said that he had so far prevented the lighting of a fire which would be hard to extinguish but that all should know that a very wide and great danger is quite near. This danger, he said, could only be prevented by forcing the Pakistani Army to stop intervening in Afghanistan.

(a) Military Option: Teach a Lesson Style Operation. Rather than attempting a permanent military conquest, a more viable option would be for Iran to launch a massive military thrust aimed at Herat to inflict heavy casualties on the Taliban and its Pakistani contingents and later reintroduce Gen Ismail's pro-Iranian Mujahideen in this area and withdraw. It could also serve to take off the military pressure from Mazar-e-Sharif and the Tajiks.

(b) Proxy Option. The other option would be to fight a proxy war with the Taliban using the 2,000 or so Herati troops of Gen Ismail who was earlier ousted from this region. This may not prove a very successful option militarily. Hence, it is far more likely that the stage for the reintroduction of the Iranian backed Afghan factions could be set by a regular military offensive by Iran to give a body blow to the Taliban. The prime objective of the Iranians would be the capture of Herat and the opening of a corridor to Bamiyan via the Harirud River Valley in the Shia majority Hazarajat area. It is, therefore, obvious that the ill advised Afghan venture may become a serious quagmire for the Pakistanis if they fail to learn the lessons of Afghan history. The reverse contagion of rabid fundamentalism may already be coming home to roost. Recently, Premier Nawaz Sharif announced his plan for the full Islamisation (Talibanisation?) of Pakistan. The US missile strikes have caused a fundamentalist backlash in Pakistan. Pakistan is setting itself up as the fountainhead of a new transnational jihad ideology that has scant respect for international borders and national sovereignty. It has succeeded in destroying the nation state of Afghanistan and sending it back to the Middle Ages. This new internationalist mindset is dangerous and could have grave security implications for Central as well as South Asia. The ripple effects of the Afghan vortex are bound to reach across to the Central Asian heartland and to the Indian subcontinent.

The Osama Bin Laden Factor: The Paradox of American Policy

Zeev Maoz, an Israeli analyst writing in his scholarly book on the Paradoxes of War: On the Art of National Self-Entrapment, has dwelt at length upon the paradox of how nations, guided by very intelligent and rational analysis, sometimes knowingly get into traps of tremendously destructive proportions. Maoz has studied the casually induced contradiction between reasonable expectations and the outcomes of motivated behaviour based on them--in short the Policy Paradox. Nothing highlights this theme better than the somewhat paradoxical American policy positions in Afghanistan. These have mostly been guided (surprisingly) by tactical and short-term and often emotive agendas. The initial crusade against Soviet occupation was fuelled by an emotive agenda of seeking historical revenge for Vietnam. Over five billion dollars of military aid and equipment were recklessly flung in and an Islamic jihad was started. The USA did not even bother to wind it down once the Soviets left. It simply lost all interest. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the Central Asian states and their huge hydro carbon deposits led to an equally sudden revival of American interest in this region. Now the revised tactical agenda went no further than seeking oil pipeline routes for its oil companies. The UNOCOL and Saudi Arabia went overboard in financing the Taliban to secure these oil routes. They completely ignored the perils of creating and letting loose such a rabidly fundamentalist organisation like the Taliban. The perils of such a course were painfully highlighted in the explosions that rent the US Embassies in Dar-es-Salam and Nairobi on August 7, 1998. The US has been bankrolling its own ultimate nemesis. Osama Bin Laden is now comfortably ensconced in the caves of the Zahawar Mujahideen base in the Khost province south-west of Jalalabad, (which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had financed and had constructed during the Afghan War).

Osama Bin Laden was once one of the star recruiters of the CIA who enrolled thousands of jihad volunteers from the Middle East (the Arabs, Sudanese, Egyptians and Algerians) for a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Laden had set up the Makhtab-el-Khidmat or service office to recruit these jihad volunteers for the CIA. Having won their jihad against the USSR--these jihadis have turned their attention onto the second superpower. It is a supreme irony. The CIA funded Bin Laden's operations. The British MI-6 supplied him Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons. This Saudi millionaire's son inherited a $300 million fortune from his family construction business. He zealously drove bulldozers to gouge roads and caves in Afghanistan. He helped build the Zahawar-kelli-El Badr Camp as a CIA showpiece for the Afghan Mujahideen. In May 1998, the self same Laden had issued a fatwa to attack American personnel and property all over the globe. On August 20, 1998 he was holed in the same Zahawar camp when 60 American Tomahawak missiles slammed into it in a bid to finish Osama Bin Laden--one time star recruiter of the CIA. His Taliban hosts refused to hand him over and there was considerable popular agitation in the Pakistani public as the Pakistani government tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on the business of the American Tomahawk strikes against Laden. That precisely is the paradox of American policy on Afghanistan. Even as the UNOCOL joins Saudi Arabia in bankrolling a Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, guests of the Taliban, ex-Mujahideen of the Afghan jihad, target US Embassies and personnel all over the globe. The New York World Trade Centre bombings are still fresh in the public memory. This jihad ideology has blurred international boundaries and made Lines of Control irrelevant. It is a dangerous new form of interventionism that threatens the established system of sovereign nation states in Central and South Asia. What is even more ironic is the threat that this jihad poses to American lives and interests all over the world. There is a very serious need for introspection and for developing long-term overviews for stabilising the region and putting in place a new security architecture that is not premised on a zero-sum-game mentality: a zero-sum-game in which Pakistan triumphs over each and every one of its regional competitors and assumes the sole responsibility for restructuring the security architecture of the region as per its wishes and the interests of Saudi and Western oil corporations.

Operation Infinite Reach

The most poignant epitaph to the Taliban's Autumn 1998 offensive in northern Afghanistan is provided by the American Operation Infinite Reach. On August 20, 1998, US Gen Joseph Ralston (Deputy Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) flew into Pakistan. He told Gen Jehangir Karamat that American cruise missiles were on their way to the Zahawar-kelli-El Badr Camp in Khowst. As per media reports, an American flotilla comprising one aircraft carrier (USS Abraham Lincoln), three cruisers (USS Shiloh, Compass and Valley Forge) and four destroyers (USS Milius, Elliot, Briscoe and Hayler) along with one submarine, launched a barrage of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from 120 miles south of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. The Americans had located Bin Laden in the Zahawar Camp with the help of his satellite phone. Luckily for him, he switched off his phone and fled just before the missiles slammed into one training camp (where Harkat-ul-Ansar volunteers for Kashmir were being trained) and one base and one support camp south of Khost and Tani in Afghanistan. Reportedly some 21 people were killed and scores other wounded in these attacks. The victory celebrations of the Taliban ended on a rather sombre note.

Ethnic Cleansing Versus Ethnic Reconciliation

The tragedy is that all UN and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) brokered peace talks for reconciliation between the warring ethnicities in Afghanistan have failed. Iran had made a sincere effort to rope in Pakistan for yet another bid at ethnic reconciliation between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Such a reconciliation could have possibly set the stage for a more durable peace and enabled a more representative and lasting arrangement to emerge in war-torn Afghanistan. Historic patterns repeat themselves. Pakistan has calculatedly used Islamic ideology and a Jihad facade to destroy one of the oldest nation states in South Asia. It deliberately prevented the emergence of any charismatic military leaders in Afghanistan who could act as the agents for the formation of a free and independent Afghan state after the Soviet withdrawal. It calculatedly starved militarily efficient and successful Mujahideen field commanders and routed over 70 per cent of the arms assistance provided by the USA and other countries to its Islamic proteges. This became so blatant that there was considerable acrimony between the CIA and the Pakistan government over this issue. Its failure to back up efficient Mujahideen military commanders assured that even after the Soviets withdrew, no Afghan Mujahideen forces were in any position to capture Kabul or any of the other key cities. Had the USSR not collapsed economically and had the Russians kept up their military and economic support, possibly Najibullah's regime could have continued to dominate the Afghan scene. His regime fell because of a shut-off of critical Russian support and the fierce ethnic cleavage between the Pashtun and the Farsiwan ethnicities. The KGB trained Jowzjani militia of Dostam and the Tajiks of Mahsood were the first to capture Kabul. First, Pakistan continued to back Hekmetyar till it realised that he was in no position to deliver Afghanistan. Then it dumped him unceremoniously and raised the Taliban. This triumphalist Pakistani mindset has led it to view itself as the winner of the jihad against the Soviet Union and it perceives Afghanistan not as a nation state that must be rehabilitated and reconstructed but as the legitimate spoils of its "victory" in jihad.

That is why Pakistan has deliberately eschewed the path of ethnic reconciliation and has encouraged the Taliban to embark upon a horrific programme of ethnic cleansing, especially against the Shia Hazaras. In March 1971, Pakistan had adopted a similar ethnic cleansing approach in Bangladesh. For a time it appeared as if it had brutally tamed the ethnic uprising of the Bengali Muslims. The long-term consequences of these brutal massacres were tragic for Pakistan itself. Invaders may have conquered Afghanistan in the past; retaining control of that country over time has always been problematic. The ISI advisors seem to have advised the Taliban to terrorise the non-Pashtun population into submission. It remains to be seen if this ethnic cleansing approach will not boomerang in a society which lays so much emphasis on badl--the tradition of revenge and the blood feud. Whatever short-term gains the Taliban may have made, its long-term effects could prove to be a horrific quagmire. Iran is so greatly incensed that it appears on the verge of massive military intervention. The nervous Taliban issued weapons to its border area civilians in panic. Initially, the Iranian military pressure had dramatically halted the Taliban's triumphalist march and relieved pressure on the beleaguered Hazaras and Tajiks. The Iranian troop concentration directly threatens Herat--the launch pad of the latest Taliban offensive—and initially forced the Taliban to recoil. The internationalist Islamic pretensions of the Taliban bode ill not just for the Central and South Asian region but also for the Middle East and Africa and as the Americans have tragically learnt to their cost (in the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania), even for the world's last remaining superpower. Even if the Iranians do not invade, their massive force concentration is poised against Herat, the logistical base for the Taliban's recent offensive. It has already served the purpose of relieving pressure on the north and putting the Taliban on notice that patience with its bizarre antics is running thin in this region. Crude attempts at ethnic cleansing are no solution to the intractable conflict in Afghanistan. Peace and stability can only return if a multi-ethnic, broad based and representative government comes to power in Kabul. The ethnic arithmetic is not such as would permit the domination of one tribe purely on the basis of terror and slaughter. Bribes for buying off Opposition commanders are a tactical gambit, not a long-term solution. Above all, Pakistan must realise that the zero-sum-game strategy that it is pursuing in the region--at the total cost of all its neighbours—is bound to boomerang. The Iranian military threat is just one manifestation. These could multiply as the patience of other regional actors begins to wear thin. What Afghanistan needs is ethnic reconciliation and not ethnic cleansing.

The Pakistani columnist, M.B. Naqvi, writing in the August 15, 1998, issue of the Dawn paper has summed it up most succinctly. Pakistan may soon be in no position to savour the Taliban's northern triumph. Its zero-sum-game mentality of imposing a win-lose situation on all its regional competitors has serious inbuilt pitfalls. Naqvi writes, "Let no one in Pakistan minimise the economic costs of the Taliban victory to Pakistan. One part of the cost is to ensure that the Taliban remains in power and that the internecine warfare among the various parties and groups comes to an end." He goes on to add, "As of now the political rear of the Taliban is not as securely united as it seems. At any rate, no one can think that the powers surrounding Afghanistan would take the defeat of their respective allies/proteges lying down. There is every possibility that these groups and factions of the Northern Alliance would be helped to regroup and start fighting the Taliban again. This implies a non-stop quasi-military vigil, which has to be maintained by continually aiding the Taliban forces. By and large, the Taliban government will have to be provided a security umbrella." Naqvi poses a very pertinent question: "Can we (Pakistan) afford it?" What is equally relevant for the Saudi and UNOCOL consortium is the ultimate price of the oil and gas that flows down this route. The Taliban's ethnic cleansing may well have guaranteed low intensity conflict for the next two decades along this route. The most worrisome aspect is that in its frantic attempts to prevent its fundamentalist Frankenstein of the Taliban from turning upon its own makers, Pakistan may well do its best to export jihad in a highly indiscriminate manner--simply to keep the footloose jihad warriors from turning upon itself. That could prove to be a very dangerous development for the region. In fact, media reports have quoted the former Pakistani Army Chief, Mirza Aslam Beg to the effect that the Taliban ought to repay Pakistan by sending its fighters into Kashmir.

The Final Denouement: The Paradox of the Oil Slump

Pakistan invested heavily in its anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. It put itself at serious risk by becoming the bridgehead for this jihad. It is somewhat ironic that when the time came to cash in on this very high risk investment, circumstances changed dramatically. Perhaps this paradox stems from Pakistan's over-ambition and over-reach, from a desire to play a remorseless zero-sum-game at the cost of all the regional states. In its quest for imposing a win-lose resolution of the Afghan conflict on all its neighbours, the Pakistani policy has been running into a series of paradoxes. Thus, Pakistan torpedoed all chances of ethnic reconciliation in Afghanistan by spurning the Iranian peace offer of mid-1998. Blinded by an ambition to corner all the trade and oil outflows from Central Asia, it used the fig leaf of the Taliban to impose a military solution. It encouraged the Taliban to adopt the route of ethnic cleansing and terrorising of the ethnic minorities. The Taliban victories were facilitated by large doles of dollars from Saudi Arabia which were used to simply buy off the opposition. In August 1998 came Pakistan's final triumph--the Taliban overran Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamiyan and militarily held sway over 90 per cent of Afghan territory. The inherent contradiction of the policy paradox now came to the fore. The Taliban promptly announced that UNOCOL could now lay the oil-cum-gas pipelines. Pakistan, however, had not catered for the Osama Bin Laden terror bombings of the US Embassies. Nor had Pakistan visualised the impact of the money meltdown in South-East Asia. This has resulted in a sharp downturn of oil demand in the Far East. Petrol prices are at all time lows. The oil companies are no longer interested in adding the Central Asian oil flows to the oil glut in the world market. A creeping world- wide depression will further impair the oil demand. Ahmad Rashid writes in the September 17, 1998 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review that after the US Tomahawk strikes on Bin Laden's camps, the US oil giant UNOCOL suspended its plans to build oil pipelines from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. It hurriedly pulled out its staff from Islamabad and fled the scene in a somewhat undignified exit at the very moment the Taliban secured the oil routes it wanted. This UNOCOL pull-out (for the time being) virtually ends US attempts to export Central Asian oil eastwards via pipelines that avoid Iran. In its attempts at over-reach, Pakistan and its creation, the Taliban, are now left facing an angry Iran--livid at the slaughter of ethnic Shias and the murder of its diplomats. Could there be a better example of a policy paradox of national self-entrapment based on perfectly rational but highly cynical calculations of a zero-sum-game strategy by Pakistan?