Taliban’s hurrah at Kabul Intercontinental

The dramatic attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel earlier in the week ties in somewhat convolutedly with the arrest in Karachi in February 2010 of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban commander who led the Quetta Shura and directed the insurgency from Pakistan. Let me explain.

The dream of strategic depth in Afghanistan, nurtured by the ISI, which helped train the Afghan Mujahideen against Soviet occupation, was eventually to be realised by “installing” a government of its choice in Kabul whenever an opportunity arose.

Towards this end, the Taliban that the ISI was nurturing would be helped and protected to climb up the ladder. This facile game plan was blown to smithereens after 9/11 when President George W. Bush, egged on by the neo-cons, mounted a massive military retaliation in Afghanistan and the Pak-Afghan border which became the sanctuary for the Al Qaeda-Taliban operations.

The US could not have thought of a more menacing figure than Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to deliver the threatening message to Pakistan. If Pakistan did not support the US-led war against Islamic terrorism, the country would be “bombed back to the stone age”. This quote would be unbelievable had it not been repeated by Musharraf himself on CBS News 60 minutes in September 2006.

The complications of what Musharraf was being asked to do are clear as daylight. He was being asked to eliminate exactly the force his ISI had helped create and nurture over the past two decades. Double dealing was built into Musharraf’s response – shoot the Taliban (or their look-alikes) when the Americans were watching, hide them behind the sofas when they were not. Ambidexterous though he was, he could not avoid participating in the “rendition” programme or in helping American’s ferry Afghan Taliban to Guantanamo Bay. Remember, when the lawyers’ agitation began to destabilise Musharraf, a sensitive issue the Army and the ISI had to duck concerned “missing persons”. If the Army’s hand in the “missing persons” came to public notice, the army would invite public anger on a massive scale.
Over the years much more came to light. Some sort of a crescendo was reached with the Lal Masjid affair. The blow-back from the Afghan war, which was by now raging in the North West Frontier Province and FATA, eventually consumed Musharraf.

Despite Musharraf’s departure, neither the ISI nor the Army, could disengage itself from its dream – strategic depth in Afghanistan. For this, Baradars, Haqqanis and their tribe had to be pampered as well as kept on a leash.
Pushtoons in Afghanistan have had to cope with so many traumatic shifts since the ouster of President Daud in 1978 that the traditional social structure has broken down. Pushtoon society on the Pakistan side has been relatively less unsettled. This explains why the Pakistani Pushtoons were able to open their “hujras” or hospitality quarters for their cousins escaping disturbed conditions in Afghanistan. A large Pushtoon population has therefore spread as far as Karachi where Al Asif is a Pushtoon ghetto on an epic scale, like Dharavi, in Bombay. Al Asif is one of the many.
This Pushtoon Diaspora is sensitive to the “misfortunes of our brothers” at the hands of the US and Pak military. Since all Taliban are Pushtoon this hurt for “our brothers” includes, in many instances, the trouble visited up on the Taliban.
It is therefore not surprising that the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdus Salaam Zaeef, on the terrace of his Kabul hideout, froths in the mouth at the mention of a Pakistani role in Afghanistan. Not only did the Pakistan army facilitate his deportation to Guantanamo, where he was prisoner for four year, “Pakistan has proved to be unreliable – it has no role in Afghanistan”.

And now that President Obama has indicated a dialogue with the Taliban without mentioning a role for Pakistan, the Pakistan Taliban and their handlers are flaring at the nostrils. They will snap the leash and rush into exactly the sort of demonstration, blazing flames and billowing smoke, that was on display at the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul. This is desperation, not some well thought out long term strategy.

As I said at the outset, the latest outrage in Kabul ties up with Baradar’s arrest in Karachi in February 2010 because that was the showdown with CIA who had started establishing direct contacts with the Taliban, circumventing their Pakistani handlers.
Author is a senior journalist and political commentator and can be mailed at saeednaqvi@hotmail.com