Pakistan's Afghan Policy at the Cross-Roads


-Sreedhar, Senior Fellow, IDSA


As the developments in the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan indicate, there is no denying the fact that Pakistan played and is still playing an important role in the Afghan imbroglio. Now it is public knowledge that the Taliban had neither the capacity nor the wherewithall to capture Kabul on September 26-27, 1996. Like in the Jalalabad offensive of 1993, Pakistan reservist troops went into action from three sides of Kabul on September 26, 1996 night, and completed their job before sunrise of September 27, 1996. The international media present in Kabul at that time, was surprised to see the gun wielding Taliban along with "Urdu speaking" Afghan Mujahideen on the streets on the morning of September 27, 1996. In the process, one Brig. Afridi of the Pakistan Army became a household name in Afghanistan. And if one is going to believe travellers' reports from Kabul after that fateful night, the then Interior Minister of Pakistan, Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Naseerullah Babar was in Kabul on September, 1996. Some of the travellers probably sympathetic to Dr. Najibullah, even accuse the Pakistani Interior Minister of being primarily responsible for Dr. Najibullah's execution.

Whatever may be the truth in these accusations against Pakistan, Islamabad's policy towards Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul has not produced the desired results. In fact, it isolated Pakistan in the region. None of the Afghan factions, other than the Taliban, is willing to trust Pakistan. Even the Taliban's faith in Pakistan, though the latter is the creator of the Taliban movement, is doubted by some Afghan watchers. And none of the Afghan neighbours are willing to trust Pakistan's ulterior motives. In this article an attempt has been made to identify what went wrong in Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan.

It is generally agreed that Pakistan got involved in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards with three objectives:

-- To have a friendly government in Kabul so that the vexed problem of the border between the two countries (Durand Line) could be resolved once and for all. This would also provide the much needed strategic depth to Pakistan in the event of a war with India.1

-- With a virtual scramble for the markets of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) from the developed countries, Pakistan thought it could provide the needed outlet for the landlocked CARs through Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan made elaborate plans to accelerate the pace of development of Gwadar port in the north-west of Pakistan, to meet the expected growing goods traffic to and from the CARs. In addition, Pakistan also thought that a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan could be built through Afghanistan not only to meet its increasing domestic demand but also help the former to export gas to other countries;2

-- To meet the emotional linkages of its Pakhtoon population in the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan Province with Pakhtoons across the border in Afghanistan.3

Before analysing the policies pursued by Islamabad to achieve these objectives, three factors need to be noted.

(i) Pakistan in its quest to establish a friendly regime in Kabul never took cognisance of the fact that traditions and tribal loyalties play an important part in Afghan politics. From time to time, the shifting preferences of Pakistan, of who should lead Afghanistan, resulted in Islamabad losing its credibility as an honest broker among the various Afghan factions. This also resulted in a leadership vacuum in Afghanistan. In fact, this point was well brought out by Adil Zareef, a Pakistani commentator in an article in the News.4 According to Zareef, the ongoing power struggle in Afghanistan is the result of protracted civil war at the height of the Cold War that resulted in a leadership crisis. It was deliberately created by Pakistani intelligence agencies. General Zia-ul-Haq's regime intentionally victimised the indigenous leadership of Afghanistan. Fearing the emergence of a nationalist consensus government in Afghanistan, the leading intelligence agency of Pakistan made all attempts during the 17-year conflict to discredit and demoralise the enlightened and nationalist segments of Afghans in favour of pliant and extremist factions. In the absence of a unifying and traditional figurehead, as was the case in Cambodia and Vietnam, it was only natural that warring factions with no central authority and popular leadership would eventually fall out among themselves. The resulting mayhem was the only outcome of this destructive policy of "divide and rule."

Zareef goes on to add that the rise and dramatic fall of the Taliban is the most recent failure of ad hocism and lack of a coherent Pakistani policy on Afghanistan. The dramatic reversal of fortunes after the Mazar-e-Sharif debacle was the beginning of the end of the Taliban phenomenon. It exposed them to hostile terrain. These raw and rural zealots had no idea about guerrilla warfare until they got knocked down by seasoned fighting forces in the north. Their lack of knowledge about the people, their culture and the terrain made them alien invaders and terribly unwelcome. This became their first and last blunder of historical proportions.5

Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the Northern Alliance confided that he is not averse to Pakhtoon leadership as such, but he does not consider the Taliban as true representatives of Pakhtoon culture. This represents all progressive and moderate Pakhtoons on both sides of the Durand Line. The Taliban are the product of seminaries and their rigid Islamic outlook is totally alien to the Afghan ethos and the egalitarian Pakhtoon culture. Any attempts to impose them on Afghan society by Pakistan will eventually meet with disaster like the policy of imposing previous proxies on a sovereign and independent nation. Hakim Ayubi, a noted Afghan scholar put it rightly by saying, "The Taliban urgently need a crash course on Afghan culture."6

Time seems to be running out for the Taliban and their sponsors. They began by being catalysts for peace and ended up as contenders for absolute power for themselves. The madrassas that trained and equipped the Taliban in the initial stages of the Taliban movement have now become a breeding ground for extremism, sectarianism and militancy and a threat to regional peace and stability.

(ii) It is generally accepted by Afghan watchers that Pakistan's Afghan policy is always being authored by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency and the Interior Ministry. And people like Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Naseerullah Babar as an Interior Minister in the second Benazir Bhutto government gave a new turn to the Afghan policy by creating the Taliban movement, thinking that they will be able to clinch the issue in Islamabad's favour. Unfortunately, they did not; and in the process the whole Afghan issue got messed up with Islamabad not being able to find a way out to resolve the impasse. This again proved the point many social scientists make that Generals are good in fighting a war but not in making policy.

In fact, this point was repeatedly made by many Pakistani commentators. For instance, Khalid Akhtar in a commentary on the Afghan situation observes that for most of the time Pakistan's Afghan policy has remained the ISI's baby with the Foreign Office coming out with its "bits" of wisdom now and then. Islamabad's patronage to reach Central Asia was partly a desperate gamble and partly a calculated move. After the conglomeration of various Mujahideen factions failed to deliver, partly due to their distrust of each other and partly due to Pakistani indecision regarding whom to support and when, Islamabad viewed the Taliban as a viable option. The one big plus point with the Taliban was that they were a single and coherent entity and a well disciplined lot. At the same time, Pakistan failed to take cognisance of the Taliban's minus points. The Taliban proved to be too rigid, intolerant and had definite ethnic leanings.7

The end result was that they were unwilling to go along with the Pakistani way and in the process, slowly Pakistan's plans as a gateway to Central Asia were getting frustrated.

(iii) The continued political instability in Pakistan also had its impact on Islamabad's policy towards Afghanistan. Since the signing of the Geneva Accord in 1988, Pakistani polity underwent a sea-change. While the Geneva Accord was signed under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, his sudden death in a plane crash in August 1988, resulted in Pakistan having four elected governments and four caretaker governments and each one of them thought they should leave their permanent imprint on foreign policy.

The shifts and vacillations on the political front made the Afghan Mujahideen, including the Taliban, come closer to the ISI, a constant factor, wielding considerable influence in Pakistani politics. Apparently the various Afghan factions that sought help from Pakistan perceived that the ISI could provide some continuity and protect their interests, as compared to the political leadership. Unfortunately, the Pakistani political leadership did nothing to correct these Afghan perceptions.

This point was well brought out by Rahimullah Yusufzai in his commentary, "Triangle of Afghan War." Yusufzai says political instability in Pakistan meant that Islamabad has had to change envoys dealing with Afghanistan much too often. "From Sahibzada Yaqub to late Zain Noorani to Agha Shahi and Sardar Aseef Ahmad Ali and from Gohar Ayub Khan to Maj. Gen. Naseerullah Babar to Iftikhar Murshed, we have tried a host of trouble-shooters hoping that they would deliver. Not that they were incapable, but the fact remained we often changed our horses mid-stream and also had to contend with extraneous factors like the ISI while taking decisions on Afghanistan."8

Yusufzai goes on to add that "Babar was doing the same shuttle diplomacy in late 1996 which Murshed is currently performing (1997) and he even succeeded in arranging face to face meetings between Taliban and the opposition leaders in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar. But his mission met with an abrupt end when the Banazir Bhutto government was dismissed just as he was entering on another trip to Afghanistan."9

Yusufzai makes an interesting point by saying that "probably a government functionary like Murshed rather than a politician was pressed into service this time to convince the shrewd Afghan leaders that he would still be around if the Nawaz Sharif government was shown the door."10

In this backdrop, if we examine the Pakistani policy towards the Afghan imbroglio, say from the beginning of the 1990s (prior to that Pakistan's Afghan policy was being conducted by the US-Saudi combine with Islamabad being assigned only implementation of the policy laid out by the former two), it becomes obvious that Pakistan became impatient in not being able to install a government in Kabul which is not only not hostile but also covertly and overtly friendly. The various permutations and combinations they tried, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, proved to be not successful. In fact, apparently their failure to clinch the issue regarding who rules Afghanistan, decisively in Pakistan's favour made Islamabad think in terms of alternatives. That was around 1993. With Benazir Bhutto coming to power, Naseerullah Babar, the Interior Minister in her Cabinet, came up with the idea of making use of students studying in madrassas in Pakistan; and selecting a relatively unknown man like Mullah Umer from the Afghan Mujahideen who is young, not a high profile character, unlike the predecessors chosen by the ISI, and is amenable to reason as perceived by Pakistan. Here Naseerullah Babar appears to have been influenced by the Mukti Bahini concept at the time of the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. If so, Babar failed to take cognisance of the fact that the Mukti Bahini was fighting a perceived alien force; therefore, it was motivated to fight the alien Pakistani armed forces far better than its mentors anticipated through "guerrilla" tactics. The Taliban are "fighting" their own people as the latter failed to bring peace and order in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. This crucial difference between the Taliban and Mukti Bahini made all the difference.

At another level, Pakistan was not able to finish the job of installing the Taliban as the new rulers swiftly to avoid being noticed by others. Between the Taliban's creation and the capture of Kabul by them, there was a time gap of almost two years. And in these two years, the attempted invisible presence of Pakistani military personnel in large numbers became visible to everyone, including the international media. In the process, the ferociously nationalistic Afghans realised that the Taliban were nothing but a stooge of Pakistan and refused to accept Mullah Umer's dispensation.

Other Afghan factions, especially the Uzbek and Tajik leaders like Rashid Dostum and Ahmad Shah Masood were quick to realise that the Taliban's strength is Pakistan only and not the traditional warrior qualities associated with the Pakhtoons. Time and again, the Uzbek leadership of Afghanistan asserted that the Taliban in no way represent the Pakhtoons and their culture and value system. Without money being given by the Saudis and routed through Pakistan, and Islamabad's covert military support, the Taliban are nothing but a "bunch of hooligans" they add.

At yet another level, Pakistan failed to restrain the Taliban in terms of talking about exporting their brand of Islamic Revolution to neighbouring states. According to reports coming from Tehran, Almaty and Tashkent, a section of the Taliban leadership, immediately after the fall of Kabul, talked in terms of exporting it first to Tehran and then to other Central Asian Republics. This brought about instant hostility towards the Taliban from the entire northern and western neighbourhood of Afghanistan.

Though a damage limitation exercise was attempted by Pakistan and Mullah Umer, saying that these were merely exuberant utterances and that the Taliban had no intention of interfering anywhere in the neighbourhood, they lacked conviction; and Iran and the CARs refused to accept them. In the process, the Taliban became pariahs in the neighbouring countries. This only enhanced the Taliban's and Pakistani woes; and Pakistan was forced to add to its agenda in Afghanistan not only to establish the Taliban's rule but also make it acceptable.

The next tactical mistake Pakistan made was to try to expedite the pipeline agreement between Unocal/Birmas, Turkmenistan and the Taliban for exporting Turkmenistan's natural gas via Afghanistan to Pakistan. By periodically announcing that it is the gateway to the untapped wealth of the CARs, Pakistan conveyed the wrong signals to Iran. In fact, it is a known fact that Iran has been assiduously trying to cultivate the CARs and act as a gateway to them. Iran has already built a railway line connecting its port Bandar Abbas to the CARs. Tehran is also exploring the option of inviting the transnational corporations to build the pipeline across its territory to export the hydrocarbon reserves and natural gas from the CARs.

In such a situation, Islamabad's pronouncement that it is a gateway to the CARs through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was perceived by others as a deliberate ploy to undermine Iran. In fact, though Pakistan made repeated announcements that an overland route in this direction is being laid, in reality no serious work has started as yet (August 1997). Pakistan can in no way match Iran in other aspects also to sustain such claims. It has neither the resources nor the political stability to cultivate the CARs as compared to Iran. In addition, as has been mentioned earlier, Pakistan lacks the much needed political continuity as compared to Iran. Since the former Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad has had eight governmentss, four elected and four caretaker governments. And if the reports from Islamabad are to be believed, and the present government of Nawaz Sharif that assumed office in February 1997 completes its term of five years, it would be a miracle. Above all, terrorism and violence have reached such monstrous proportions that the government in Islamabad is clueless of how to tackle them. As though this is not sufficient, the Pakistani economy has been tottering for the last four years. In other words, there is no single plus factor which can make Pakistan an ideal gateway to the CARs except geography--that too has been lost due to civil war like conditions in Afghanistan. Iran has no such hassles.11

In these circumstances, Pakistani efforts to pursue an independent policy vis-a-vis the CARs as though it is in competition with Iran and Turkey, sounded pretty hollow. In the process, Islamabad further complicated the already complex situation in Afghanistan. And it made Islamabad lose all its credibility. It made Iran, Turkey and the CARs look upon Pakistan as a compulsive maverick and a spoilt sport.

Pakistan next tactical mistake was its unwillingness to participate in the Tehran Conference convened by Iran for finding a way to resolve the Afghan crisis. Seeing no end to the Afghan problem, Iran decided to hold a conference on October 27-28, 1996, of all the parties involved in the Afghan crisis directly and indirectly, to find a way out of the problem. Giving a silly reason, that India which is in no way concerned with the Afghan crisis was invited, Islamabad refused to participate in it and lost a golden opportunity to mend its fences with Iran.12 However, in retrospect, it appears Pakistan had two compelling reasons for this extraordinary decision. First, after the capture of Kabul, the Taliban leadership and the ISI started feeling quite certain that a military victory to capture the whole of Afghanistan was within their reach. And that it was only a matter of time. This Taliban/ISI assessment was supposed to have stemmed from the Pakistani military personnel's (who participated in the capture of Kabul) perceptions of their adversaries' strengths and weaknesses.

It is generally believed this group of Pakistani officers prodded the Taliban to refuse to attend the Tehran Summit. The political leadership in Islamabad, instead of accepting the invitation and agreeing to attend with or without the Taliban, decided to stay out and express their solidarity with the Taliban.

This has sufficiently irked Iran; and Iranian and others' suspicions about the linkages between the Taliban and Islamabad were further strengthened. Much worse was that Pakistan tried to convene its own peace conference inviting all the CARs, Iran and Russia, which never materialised.

Simultaneously, Pakistan worked to break the Northern Alliance through covert means. The stories coming from Mazar-e-Sharif indicate that from the beginning of 1997, the ISI worked assiduously on singling out Dostum and isolating him from the Alliance. When the various temptations offered by them proved futile in winning over Dostum, they concentrated on his Deputy, General Mallick Pehlwan, offering him many incentives. According to various reports from Mazar-e-Sharif, Mallick Pehlwan had a grouse against Dostum for the alleged involvement of the latter's associates in the death of Mallick Pehlwan's brother in 1994. Nobody is sure about the authenticity of this allegation against Dostum.

Whatever may be the reasons for the differences between Mallick and Dostum, the ISI cleverly exploited them to its advantage; and around May 20, 1997, Mallick revolted against Dostum along with his men. Dostum fled from Mazar-e-Sharif, first to Uzbekistan and then to Turkey.

Having achieved their objective, the ISI should have handed over the seizing of the city to the professional infantry men from the Pakistan Army. That was essential because Mazar-e-Sharif is a crowded city and the untrained Taliban were in no position to take control of it. Stories emanating from Islamabad say that after the Jalalabad fiasco, the Pakistan Army never wanted to get involved directly in the Afghan adventure in any big way. One story says that the ISI underestimated the opponents and thought that it would be a walkover in Mazar-e-Sharif: all they require is a few hundred Army reservists and they will do the job along with the Taliban.

The end result was that after entering Mazar-e-Sharif, the operations were conducted in a cavalier fashion. According to eye witness accounts, the way the ISI/Taliban men started dictating terms to the local diplomatic corps created its own problems, especially in terms of undermining the authority of Mallick Pehlwan. According to one report, General Mallick contacted Islamabad on May 25, 1997, and informed them that the Taliban/ISI were not keeping to their part of the agreement brokered by Islamabad between him and the Taliban.13

What resulted from this haphazard and callous attitude was that Mallick Pehlwan refused to cooperate with the ISI and the Taliban. He went a step further and took the entire Taliban militia and around 400 Pakistan Army reservists into custody. The capture of such a large number of the militia, more or less, broke the back of the entire Taliban movement. The ISI also got into disarray with some of its key men being captured by Mallick Pehlwan's men. With the Pakistan Army unwilling to get involved in the operations at this stage, no one in Islamabad seems to be clear about what to do next.

While this confusion was on in Mazar-e-Sharif, Pakistan suddenly decided to recognise the Taliban government in Kabul. If one goes by the account by a Pakistani commentator, Ikram Ullah, in the Nation, there was a high level meeting between the President, Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff on the morning of May 25, 1997, (interestingly, this meeting is reported to have been held a few hours after General Mallick's telephone call to Islamabad) and in that meeting it was decided to accord recognition to the Taliban government as it fulfilled all the criteria laid down by the international community for recognising a government. The Foreign Secretary was instructed immediately to contact the Ambassadors in Islamabad of Russia, China, the USA, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and all the CARs. Ikram Ullah goes to the extent of saying that the government in Kabul and the senior leadership in Kandahar as well as Mazar-e-Sharif, had given full assurance to Pakistan's Ambassador, Aziz Khan, about (i) their determination for taking steps for the earliest possible establishment of a broad-based government in Kabul; (ii) the desire by the Taliban, Uzbek and Tajik elements to work together in harmony for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of war-torn Afghanistan; (iii) strict adherence by the Kabul regime to non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan; and (iv) honouring of all international commitments made by previous regimes in Kabul.14

Since Ikram Ullah claims that this was told to him by no less a person than Shamshad Ahmad Khan, Foreign Secretary of the Government of Pakistan, this must be true. This line of thinking indicates that Pakistan was certain down the line that things would not go wrong in Mazar-e-Sharif. Whether such an assurance was given by the ISI operatives in the field or the Foreign Office made such an assessment is not known.15 The developments after the recognition of the Taliban government by Islamabad (and at Islamabad's instance, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also recognised the Taliban government in Kabul) on May 25, 1997, proved that Pakistan failed to read the situation correctly. Whatever may be the justifications given by Pakistan for recognising the Taliban government, the ground realities indicate that it was a hasty decision, totally unwarranted at that juncture. As has been mentioned earlier, the sharp differences between the ISI's and the Foreign Office's assessments of the ground realities, and the former's clout in decision making resulted in this hasty decision. Apparently, the ISI miscalculated that its recognition of the Taliban government, followed by that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would force others, or at least, a majority in the Islamic world, to follow suit.

The way events have unfolded since the Mazar-e-Sharif fiasco have shown that nothing the ISI expected happened either in Mazar-e-Sharif or with the international community. In Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban and their supporters, as has been mentioned earlier, were taken prisoners by the local leadership; and none in the international community was willing to follow Pakistan's example of recognising the Taliban.

However, Pakistan lost considerably on various counts by its hasty recognition of the Taliban government in Kabul. Foremost is the trust factor. Among various factions in the Afghan civil war, apart from the Taliban, no other faction is willing to consider Pakistan as a neutral party, trying to help the Afghans to end the civil war.

To sum up, Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan is another misadventure like its policy towards India. By a series of policy initiatives, which are not in tune with ground realities, Pakistan lost its clout in Afghan politics. In fact, during the last one year, its position became so untenable that no faction other than the Taliban was willing to have any faith in Islamabad. Equally unfortunate for Islamabad is that to the other parties concerned with the Afghan situation like Iran, the CARs and Russia, Pakistan has become an untouchable. No one is willing to trust Islamabad's actions on the Afghan front and every action of Islamabad is looked upon as being done to favour the Taliban. Added to this is the contradiction in the Pakistani policy of recognising the Taliban government and talking of a need for a broad-based government in Kabul. This by itself indicates how Pakistan's policy has gone wayward.

As far as the Taliban are concerned, Pakistan is clueless of what to do with them. They were not able to clinch the issue the way Islamabad wanted it. With the cream of the Taliban languishing in the prisons of General Mallick Pehlwan in Mazar-e-Sharif, along with Pakistani reservists, the Taliban have now became a liability. The remaining forces are unwilling to fight until and unless their brethren in the Mazar-e-Sharif prisons are brought home. And the people of Pakistan will revolt against the Pakistan government if the Pakistani prisoners of war (POWs) are also not brought home. Reports coming from Islamabad already indicate that some of the families of Pakistani POWs are bringing pressure on the Foreign Office. Like it did in the past in similar situations, Pakistan's Foreign Office keeps on denying that there are any Pakistani POWs in Mazar-e-Sharif.

At this late stage the Pakistan government's talking in terms of bringing all parties of the Afghan civil war to the conference table, therefore, is not being taken seriously by anybody. It is being viewed as a suggestion of a helpless party trying to salvage some of its lost credibility.

Therefore, one can sum up Pakistan's Afghan policy on the first anniversary of the capture of Kabul as one at the cross-roads, not knowing which way to go.



1. For a detailed discussion on Pakistan's strategic objectives in Afghanistan, see my chapter on "Pakistani Calculus" in Sreedhar ed., Taliban and the Afghan Turmoil, (New Delhi: Himalaya, 1997).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Adil Zareef, "Light at The End of Tunnel of War," The News, August 6, 1997.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Khalid Akhtar, "Missing Link in Afghan Solution," The News, August 7, 1997.

8. Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Triangle of Afghan War," The News, August 5, 1997.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. G.G. Khan, "Iranian Economic Stakes in Afghanistan," The Nation, July 12, 1997.

12. Subsequently, Pakistani leadership including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, made a number of visits to Iran since the beginning of 1997 to mend fences with Tehran. But the Iranians refused to trust Pakistan.

13. Nasim Zehr, "Islamabad's Hasty Recognition," The Nation, June 5, 1997.

14. Ibid.

15. Ikram Ullah, "No About Turn on Afghan Peace Plan," The Nation, August 3, 1997.