An eminent historian looks to the present and future of Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws from the longest war in its history. He sees the danger of an escalating conflict between Pakistan and India—two nuclear powers that could threaten world peace.Published 06/25/2013
At six o'clock in the morning of February 26, 2010, Major Mitali Madhumita was awakened by the ringing of her mobile phone. Mitali, a 35-year-old Indian army officer from Orissa, had been in Kabul less than a year. Fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, she was there to teach English to the first women officer cadets to be recruited to the Afghan National Army.
It was a sensitive posting, not so much because of gender issues as political ones: India's regional rival, Pakistan, was extremely touchy about India providing military assistance to the government in Afghanistan and had made it very clear that it regarded the presence of any Indian troops or military trainers there as an unacceptable provocation. For this reason everyone on the small Indian army English Language Training Team, including Mitali, and all the Indian army doctors and nurses staffing the new Indira Gandhi Kabul Children's Hospital, had been sent to Afghanistan unarmed, and in civilian dress. They were being put up not in an army barracks, or at the Indian Embassy, but in a series of small, discreet guest houses dotted around the city's diplomatic quarter.
The phone call was from a girlfriend of Mitali's who worked for Air India at Kabul airport. Breathless, she said she had just heard that two of the Indian guest houses, the Park and the Hamid, were under attack by militants. As the only woman on her team, Mitali had been staying in separate lodgings about two miles away from the rest of her colleagues, who were all in the Hamid. Within seconds, Mitali was pulling on her clothes, along with the hijab she was required to wear, and running, alone and unarmed, through the empty morning streets of Kabul toward the Hamid.
"I just thought they might need my help," she told me recently in New Delhi.
As she dashed past the Indian Embassy, Mitali was recognized by one of the guards from diplomatic security who shouted to her to stop. The area around the guest houses was mayhem, he told her. She should not go on alone. She must return immediately to her lodgings and stay there.
"I don't require your permission to rescue my colleagues," Mitali shouted back, and kept on running. When she passed the presidential compound, she was stopped again, this time at gunpoint, by an Afghan army security check post. Five minutes later she had charmed one of the guards into giving her a lift in his jeep. Soon they could hear bursts of automatic weapons, single shots from rifles and loud grenade blasts.
"As we neared the area under attack I jumped out of the jeep and ran straight into the ruins of what had been the Hamid guesthouse. It was first light, but because of all the dust and smoke, visibility was very low and it was difficult to see anything. The front portion of the guesthouse was completely destroyed—there was just a huge crater. Everything had been reduced to rubble. A car bomb had rammed the front gate and leveled the front of the compound. Three militants then appeared and began firing at anyone still alive. I just said, 'Oh my God,' and ran inside.
"I found my way in the smoke to the area at the back where my colleagues had been staying. Here the walls were standing but it was open to the sky—the blast had completely removed the roof, which was lying in chunks all over the floor. There was cross-firing going on all around me, and the militants were throwing Chinese incendiary grenades. Afghan troops had taken up positions at the top of the Park Residence across the road and were firing back. I couldn't see the militants, but they were hiding somewhere around me.
"As quietly as I could, I called for my colleagues and went to where their rooms had been, but I couldn't find them anywhere. I searched through the debris and before long started pulling out bodies. A man loomed out of the gloom and I shouted to him to identify himself. But he wasn't a terrorist—he was the information officer from our embassy and he began helping me. Together we managed to get several injured people out of the rubble and into safety.
"Then we heard a terrible blast. We later learned that Major Jyotin Singh had tackled a suicide bomber, and by holding him from behind had prevented him entering the Park Residence. The bomber was forced to blow himself up outside. Jyotin had saved the lives of all the medical team inside.
"But the only one of my colleagues who hadn't been killed on the spot, Major Nitesh Roy, died of his 40% burns in hospital three days later. I was the only one of my team who came back alive."
In all 18 people were killed in the attack that morning, nine of them Indians, and 36 were wounded. Among the dead found beneath the debris was the assistant consul general from the new Indian consulate in Kandahar. This consulate was a particular bugbear of the Pakistanis, who accused it of being a base for RAW—the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency. The Pakistanis believed RAW was funding, arming and encouraging the insurgency in Baluchistan, the province that has been waging a separatist struggle ever since it was incorporated into the new nation of Pakistan in 1947.
It was not difficult to figure out the motive for the attack. The operation was soon traced by both Afghan and U.S. intelligence to a joint mission by the Pakistani-controlled Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated insurgent group under the leadership of Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the Pakistan-based anti-Indian militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), which carried out the November 2008 assault on the Taj Hotel and other targets in Mumbai. Both the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba are believed to take orders from the ISI—Inter-Services Intelligence, which is closely linked to the military.
Pakistan made no public comment on the attack, other than to refuse permission for the planes carrying the dead bodies back to India to cross its airspace.
The February 2010 attack on the Indian guest houses was a rare overt act of hostility in the long covert struggle India and Pakistan have been waging on and off for more than sixty years over their competing influence in Afghanistan. But it was not the only such act. In fact it was the third in less than three years.
Fifteen months before, on October 8, 2009, a massive car bomb had been set off outside the Indian embassy in Kabul killing 17 people and wounding 63. Most of the dead were ordinary Afghans caught walking near the target. A few Indian security personnel were wounded, but blast walls built following a much deadlier bombing the previous year which killed 40 and wounded more than 100—also thought to have been sponsored by Pakistan—deflected the force of the explosion, so that physical damage to the embassy was limited to some of the doors and windows being blown out. In the case of the 2009 attack, American officials went public with details from phone intercepts which they said revealed the involvement of the ISI.
The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.
Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai's regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.
Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, many of his fellow tribesmen view his presence as mere window-dressing for a U.S.-devised realignment of long-established power relations in the country, dating back to 2001 when the U.S. toppled the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban.
The Pashtuns had held sway in Afghan politics ever since the state assumed its current boundaries in the 1860s. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s—and that had roots going back much further than that. To this day, because the Pashtuns feel dominated by their ancestral enemies, many support or at least feel some residual sympathies for the Taliban.
There is also an age-old Pashtun-on-Pashtun element to the conflict. It pits Taliban from the Ishaqzai tribe, parts of the Nurzais, Achakzais, and most of the Ghilzais, especially the Hotak and Tokhi Ghilzais, against the more "establishment" Durrani Pashtun tribes: the Barakzais, Popalzais and Alikozais.
Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and ISAF are playing little more than a bit part—and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.
Since the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars—the most recent in 1971—and they seemed on the verge of going nuclear against each other during a crisis in 1999, when Pakistani troops crossed a ceasefire line and occupied 500 square miles of Indian Kashmir, including a Himalayan border post near the town of Kargil. As tensions rose, the Pakistanis took ominous steps with their nuclear arsenal. President Bill Clinton mediated a solution. In intense negotiations at Blair House in Washington over the Fourth of July weekend, Clinton persuaded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to order a pullback of his country's forces to the Pakistani side of the line. That concession cost Nawaz his job and, very nearly, his life. The army commander, Pervez Musharraf, mounted a coup and sentenced Nawaz to death. Clinton intervened and Nawaz was exiled to Saudi Arabia.
It is easy to understand why Pakistan might feel insecure. India's population (1.2 billion) and its economy (GDP of $1.4 trillion) are about eight times the size of Pakistan's (180 million Pakistanis generating an annual GDP of only $210 billion). During the period of India's greatest growth, which lasted from 2006 to 2010, there were four years during which the annual increase in the Indian economy was almost equal to the entire Pakistani economy.
In the eyes of the world, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark as it is now: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower, famous for its software geniuses, its Bollywood babes, its fast-growing economy and super-rich magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and the only ally of the U.S. whose airspace Washington has been ready to violate and whose villages it regularly bombs. However unfair this stereotyping may be, it's not surprising that many Pakistanis see their massive neighbor as threatening the very existence of their state.
To defend themselves, Pakistani planners long ago developed a doctrine of "strategic depth." The idea had its origins in the debacle of 1971, when, in less than two weeks, India crushingly defeated Pakistan in their third war. That conflict ended with East Pakistan, which had risen up against West Pakistan, becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. According to the Pakistanis' narrative, the dismemberment of their country—which they blame on India—made it all the more important to develop and maintain friendly relations with Afghanistan, in large measure in order to have a secure refuge in the case of a future war with India. The porous border offers a route by which Pakistani leaders, troops and other assets, including its nuclear weapons, could retreat to the northwest in the case of an Indian invasion.
For the idea to work, it is essential that the Afghan government be a close ally of Pakistan, and willing to help fight India. When the Taliban were in power, they were seen as the perfect partner for the Pakistani military. Although widely viewed in the West as medieval if not barbaric, the Taliban regime was valued in Pakistan as fiercely anti-India and therefore deserving Pakistani arms and assistance.
After the Taliban were ousted by the U.S. after 9/11, a major strategic shift occurred: the government of Afghanistan became an ally of India's, thus fulfilling the Pakistanis' worst fear. The president of post-Taliban Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, hated Pakistan with a passion, in part because he believed that the ISI had helped assassinate his father in 1999. At the same time he felt a strong emotional bond with India, where he had gone to university in the Himalayan city of Simla, once the summer capital of British India. When I interviewed Karzai in Kabul in early March, he spoke warmly of his days in Simla, calling them some of the happiest of his life, and he was moved almost to tears as he recalled the sound of monsoon rain hitting the tin roof of his student lodgings and the sight of the beautiful cloud formations drifting before his windows. He also expressed his love of Indian food and even admitted to liking Bollywood films. Karzai views India as democratic, stable and relatively rich, the perfect partner for Afghanistan, a "best friend" as he frequently calls it.
With Karzai in office, India seized the opportunity to increase its political and economic influence in Afghanistan, re-opening its embassy in Kabul, opening four regional consulates, and providing substantial reconstruction assistance totaling around $1.5 billion, with an additional $500 million promised within the next few years.
That said, India's presence is still, even now, quite modest. According to Indian diplomatic sources, there are actually fewer than 3,600 Indians in Afghanistan, almost all of them businessmen and contract workers in the agriculture, telecommunications, manufacturing and mining sectors. There are only 10 Indian diplomatic officers, compared to nearly 140 in the UK embassy and 1,200 in the U.S. embassy. But the Pakistani military, which effectively controls Pakistan's foreign policy, remains paranoid about even this small an Indian presence in what they regard as their strategic Afghan backyard—much as the British used to be about Russians in Afghanistan during the days of the Great Game.
For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals. The fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker is so great that it has led the ISI to take steps that put Pakistan's own internal security at risk, as well as Pakistan's relationship with its main strategic ally, the U.S. For much of the last decade the ISI has sought to restore the Taliban to power so that it can oust Karzai and his Indian friends.
To achieve this goal, the Pakistani military has relied on "asymmetric warfare"— using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calculates that there are currently more than 40 such extremist groups operating in Pakistan, most of whom have strong links with the ISI as well as the local Islamic political parties.
Pakistani generals have long viewed the jihadis as a cost-effective and easily-deniable means of controlling events in Afghanistan—something they briefly achieved with the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996. By the same means, the Pakistanis have kept much of the Indian army bogged down in Kashmir ever since the separatist insurgency broke out in 1990. The generals like using jihadis because they help foster a sense of nationalism based on the twin prongs of hatred for India and the bonding power of Islamic identity.
It is unclear how many Pakistanis still endorse this strategy and how many are having second thoughts. There are clearly those in the army who are now alarmed at the amount of sectarian and political violence the jihadis have brought to Pakistan. But that view is contested by some in both the army and the ISI who continue to believe that the jihadis are a more practical defense against Indian hegemony than even nuclear weapons. For them, support for carefully chosen jihadis in Afghanistan is a vital survival strategy well worth the risk. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, was once in this camp. As he put it in a speech in 2001, "Strategically, we cannot have an Afghan army on our western border which has an Indian mindset and capabilities to take on Pakistan." How far he has now changed his position remains a matter of debate.
Pakistan-watchers are unanimous that, while Kayani is mindful of the Taliban threat in his own country, his burning obsession is still India's presence in Afghanistan. As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, "At the moment, Afghanistan is all [Kayani] thinks about and all he wants to talk about. It's all he gets briefed about and it's his primary focus of attention. There is an Indo-Pak proxy war, and it's going on right now."
The origins of the Indian-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan date back to Partition in 1947.
As the British walked away from their Indian Empire in the aftermath of the Second World War, they divided up their former colony between Hindu-majority India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. It was in that context that Kashmir became a thorn in the side of both countries. The fate of what had been, under the Raj, the princely state of Kashmir, became an anomaly of Partition. With its large Muslim majority, Kashmir was an obvious candidate to join Pakistan. But the pro-Indian sympathies of both its Hindu maharajah and its pre-eminent Muslim politician, Sheikh Abdullah, as well as the Kashmiri origins of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, led to the state's remaining part of India, which Pakistan has always regarded as unacceptable.
It was in Kashmir in 1947 that Pakistan first used irregular tribal fighters to try to get its way, sending Pashtun tribesmen over the border to march toward Srinagar, Kashmir's capital city. Along the way they looted and killed and, among other atrocities, raped and murdered several European nuns they found in a hospital and a convent. With covert British assistance in the form of an airlift involving British transport planes, Indian troops eventually drove back the Pashtun tribesmen. By the terms of a ceasefire signed on January 1, 1949, Kashmir was effectively divided between India and Pakistan. The two countries would go on to fight another war over Kashmir in 1965, and it has remained a cause of conflict ever since.
It was not just India that got off to a bad start with the new nation of Pakistan. Afghanistan also had an uneasy relationship with the Land of the Pure ("Pak" means "pure"). Afghanistan alone opposed Pakistani membership in the UN in 1947. As with India, borders and territory were in dispute. Afghan leaders had never accepted the Durand line that the British drew in 1893 and, after Partition, Afghanistan was not about to recognize that line as its border with Pakistan. The Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was especially keen to regain Peshawar, in a valley at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, which had once been the summer capital of the Afghan empire. It had been in British hands since 1845, and was now to become part of Pakistan. To this day most Afghans look on Peshawar as a lost Afghan city.
Mutual antipathy to Pakistan quickly brought India and Afghanistan together as natural allies and in 1950 the two signed a friendship treaty. In the years that followed, India and Afghanistan both attempted to destabilize Pakistan, giving aid and shelter to discontented Pashtun and Baluchi nationalists. In 1961 Pakistan and Afghanistan went so far as to close their borders and break off diplomatic relations with each other.
It was only the pressure of growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan in the 1970s that forced the Afghan government to improve its relations with Pakistan. President Daoud Khan reached out to Pakistan in 1977 as a counter-balance to the Soviets, and began talks with Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with a view to settling their border disputes. In April 1978, however, Daoud was overthrown in a Soviet-backed leftist coup, after which India was able to regain its pre-eminent place in Kabul. Throughout the 1980s India expanded its influence in Afghanistan, contributing to an ambitious series of development projects—building manufacturing plants and hydroelectric facilities, as well as supervising numerous irrigation initiatives.
Pakistan meanwhile began to arm the mujahedin, the Islamic radicals—some, like Osama bin Laden, from outside the country—who fought the Soviet occupation. Their recruitment was always controlled by the ISI, but was originally also funded by the Saudis and the CIA.
Pakistan also began sending the jihadis into Indian Kashmir during the 1980s. As Hamid Gul—the ultra-hardline former director of the ISI during that period—once explained to me: "If they [the ISI] encourage the Kashmiris, it's understandable. The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?" Next to him in his Islamabad living room as he spoke lay a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him "by the people of Berlin" for "delivering the first blow" to the Soviet Empire through his use of jihadis in the '80s.
In an attempt to limit Pakistan's influence after the fall of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime in 1989, India began its support of the Northern Alliance under the command of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik leader who also had assistance from Iran and Russia. India continued to supply Massoud with high-altitude warfare equipment, defense advisors, and helicopter parts and technicians after the rise of the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban.
The period of Taliban rule, from 1994-2001, was the high point of Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan. India, which did not recognize the regime, was forced to close its embassy and all its consulates and, with ISI encouragement, Afghanistan quickly became the base for a whole spectrum of anti-Indian groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, in 2008, would execute the deadly assault on Mumbai.
As the Taliban, supported by regular Pakistan troops, pushed the Northern Alliance into ever smaller corners of Afghanistan toward the end of the '90s, India as well as Iran continued to send supplies to the increasingly beleaguered Massoud forces. In 2001 India built a hospital at their airbase in Tajikistan so that there would be a place to which they could ferry wounded Tajik soldiers for treatment.
Lt. General R.K. Sawhney, the Indian commander who oversaw this program of assistance to the Northern Alliance, recalled to me vividly and with sadness the day the hospital received its first casualty. It was Ahmad Shah Massoud himself, assassinated by two suicide bombers posing as cameramen.
The date was September 9, 2001.
In Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf, the army commander who had overthrown and replaced Nawaz in the military coup of 1999, was quickly pressured by American threats into allying himself unambiguously with the U.S. "We were on the verge of being declared a terrorist state," he later wrote in his memoirs. "In that situation," he added—revealing his overarching strategic priority—"what would have happened to the Kashmir cause?"
Musharraf's support for the U.S. reversed a decade of Pakistani foreign policy. He embraced President George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror," publicly broke relations with the Taliban, and called for the arrest of members of al-Qaida. By 2007, according to his own estimate, 672 of them had been rounded up in Pakistan, 369 of whom were then handed over to the U.S. This saved Pakistan from being bombed "back to the stone age" by America—a threat Musharraf attributes to Richard Armitage, Bush's deputy secretary of state (Armitage denies using those words).
The reversal of policy came at a great price to Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. And it happened when India's influence was at an all-time high, thanks largely to Hamid Karzai's ascension to power shortly after 9/11.
In the years afterward, India made wise use of its opportunity to forge a close partnership with Afghanistan. The aid and reconstruction program it set in motion during the 1980s was so generous that it quickly established India as the single largest donor in the country. It was also carefully thought out, praised as one of the best planned and targeted aid efforts by any country.
India has built roads linking Afghanistan with Iran so that Afghanistan's trade can reach the Persian Gulf at the port of Chabahar, thus freeing it of the need to rely on the Pakistani port of Karachi. India has donated or helped to build electrical power plants, health facilities for children and amputees, 400 buses and 200 minibuses, and a fleet of aircraft for Ariana Afghan Airlines. India has also been involved in constructing power lines, digging wells, running sanitation projects and using solar energy to light up villages, while Indian telecommunications personnel have built digitized telecommunications networks in 11 provinces. One thousand Afghan students a year have been offered scholarships to Indian universities. India has also played a key role in the construction of a new Afghan parliament in Kabul at a cost of $25 million.
All this led to India becoming enormously popular in Afghanistan: an ABC/BBC poll in 2009 showed 74% of Afghans viewing India favorably, while only 8% had a positive view of Pakistan.
Although pressure from the U.S. dissuaded India from sending troops into Afghanistan or providing military supplies, Pakistanis are still deeply disturbed by signs of India's growing influence in the region, especially because many have come to believe India is using its Afghan consulates to foment insurgency in Baluchistan. A former Indian consul general in Kandahar privately admitted to me that he had met with Baluchi leaders at his consulate there, but he claims his ambassador gave him strict instructions not to aid them in any way against Pakistan. Still, he hinted to me that RAW personnel were present among the staff at the Kandahar and Jalalabad consulates.
It is hardly surprising that India keeps intelligence personnel in these sensitive postings, but there is no hard evidence that RAW or any other Indian agency is taking reciprocal action against the Pakistanis in response to their covert war against Indian interests in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies have followed up all the leads provided by the Pakistanis on this matter and have not found any evidence that India is actively aiding Baluchi separatists in the way Pakistan alleges.
Nevertheless, as a result of the lingering suspicions among his colleagues in the Pakistani military and ISI, President Musharraf's post-9/11 about-face with respect to the Taliban was short-lived. Despite his public promises to the contrary, from 2002 on, the ISI actively supported the Taliban. Furthermore, the speed with which the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan after its successful invasion in 2001 convinced the Pakistani army that the U.S. was not serious about a long-term commitment to Karzai's regime. This gave the Pakistanis hope that once American attention turned elsewhere, the Taliban could, once again, be used to reinstall a pro-Pakistani regime in Afghanistan.
So it was that, only months after 9/11, the ISI was providing refuge to the entire Taliban leadership after it fled from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was kept in an ISI safe house in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, while his militia was lodged in Pashtunabad, a sprawling Quetta suburb. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the jihadist and Pakistan-backed Islamic Party, or Hezb-e-Islami, was lured back from exile in Iran and allowed to operate freely outside Peshawar, while Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most violent of the Taliban commanders, was allowed sanctuary by the ISI in North Waziristan. When he fell ill, he is said to have received treatment in Pakistani hospitals.
In order to keep contact with such groups beyond the radar of Western intelligence, the ISI created a new clandestine organization, staffed by former ISI trainers and retired Pashtun officers from the army, who armed, trained and supported the Taliban in camps around Quetta. By 2004, Pakistani army trucks were seen delivering Taliban fighters to the Afghan border and retrieving them a few days later; wireless monitoring at the U.S. base at Bagram picked up Taliban commanders arranging with Pakistani army officers at the border for safe passage as they came in and out of Afghanistan. By 2005 the Taliban, with covert Pakistani support, were launching a full-scale assault on NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Since then the Taliban have proved remarkably successful in southern Afghanistan, their stronghold. By 2006 the Taliban had come to have a presence in over 70% of Pashtun areas, and in many districts of the rural south were able to resume collecting taxes, enforcing Sharia law and dispensing their usual rough justice. Every month their sphere of influence has increased. According to a 2009 Pentagon report, Karzai's government had control of only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts across Afghanistan. In 2011, there were 12,244 Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, a fivefold increase since 2006.
Yet if Pakistan's proxies proved unexpectedly successful on the battlefield, it could also be said that by his skillful manipulation of his neighbors, Karzai has enjoyed some surprising successes on the political front. In June, 2010, much to the alarm of India—and the U.S.—Karzai decided to attempt negotiations with the Taliban. In preparation for this, Karzai removed his strongly pro-Indian and deeply anti-Pakistani security chief, Amrulla Saleh, a tough, bright Tajik who had risen to prominence as a protégé of Massoud and was viewed by the Taliban and their backers in the ISI as their fiercest enemy. As Bruce Riedel, then President Barack Obama's AfPak adviser (and now a senior fellow at Brookings), said when the news broke: "Karzai's decision to sack Saleh has worried me more than any other development, because it means that Karzai is already planning for a post-American Afghanistan."
For a while it looked as if the rapprochement with Pakistan might bear fruit. The head of the ISI, Lt. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, and General Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army, shuttled between Kabul and the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, presumably to encourage some sort of accommodation between Karzai and the ISI-sponsored jihadi network of the Haqqanis that would leave Karzai in power in Kabul in return for a more pro-Pakistani dispensation in the south. There was even talk of Pakistan agreeing to help train the troops of the Afghan national army.
In the end, however, the reconciliation lasted less than a year. Kayani and Karzai soon fell out again, and in 2011 the pendulum swung the other way when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul, where he signed a strategic partnership deal promising closer cooperation on national security, this time with an agreement to provide light weapons as well as training in counterinsurgency and high-altitude warfare.
By June 2012 the U.S. had gone on the offensive against what it now openly declared to be a treacherous ally. Reacting to further evidence of Pakistan's connivance in attacks on U.S. interests in Afghanistan and its hosting of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil—intentionally or not—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the U.S. "was reaching the limits of its patience" with Pakistan. More significantly, for the first time he endorsed Indian training of the Afghan army. This brought Pakistan's fear and mistrust of India to a new high—and its relations with the U.S. to a new low, especially in the face of mounting Pakistani fury over its territory becoming a kill zone for U.S. drones.
Twelve years after the international community went into Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida and oust the Taliban, Western troops are about to withdraw, with neither objective achieved. The Taliban now control most of rural southern Afghanistan. That share is likely to increase next year when the British and the Americans withdraw 100,000 of their troops. Al-Qaida, which has moved to the Pakistani borderlands, and elsewhere, has been severely damaged but is far from finished.
Hamid Karzai's own future is equally uncertain. He must step down from office next year, according to the constitution. And on a recent trip to Islamabad, I heard from everyone from senior officials in the foreign ministry on down that there were severe problems with Karzai's mental health.
Yet Karzai is no fool, and he retains strong views about Pakistan's links with his Taliban enemies. "I warn them!" he told me in March in Kabul, waving his finger in the air. "Every day Afghan security forces are getting stronger! No government of Afghanistan can have good relations with [Pakistani President] Zardari, Nawaz Sharif [who has since been elected Prime Minister] or any of the others. Because we all know who is pulling the strings—the mullahs and the ISI…. The Pakistani ulema [scholars] council [has recently] said it is right to advocate suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It is very clear what is going on. Some of our so-called allies—the British in particular—tell me the Pakistanis have changed. Do I believe this?" Karzai laughed a deep, throaty laugh: "Nothing doing!"
For all his failures and all the forces arrayed against him, Karzai has managed to remain in power in Kabul for 12 years and successfully survived setbacks that would have broken a lesser man. Playing India, Pakistan, Iran and China off against each other, and skillfully manipulating the U.S. and the 49 other countries that contribute troops to ISAF, he has successfully advanced Afghanistan's geopolitical and economic objectives. And occasional outbursts notwithstanding, he knows how to induce his neighbors to compete for good relations with Afghanistan. One day after signing the strategic partnership with India he reassured Pakistan that the deal "was not aimed at any one country."
Moreover, despite the gross corruption of his regime, Afghanistan under Karzai's rule has changed beyond all recognition, and for the good. The cities have grown, those who live in rural areas now travel much more widely beyond their ancestral valleys, and people everywhere have become more prosperous and better educated. Television, the Internet and an energetic press have also helped to open many minds. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few observers, inside the country or outside, believe they are strong enough to roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force with few supporters north of Kabul. After the American withdrawal, Karzai's successor is likely to be able to maintain himself in fortress Kabul and continue to manipulate Afghanistan's neighbors.
Pakistan's future is at least as uncertain as Afghanistan's. Fourteen years after the military coup that ousted him, Nawaz Sharif staged a stunning political comeback and is, once again, Pakistan's prime minister, while the man who staged the coup, Pervez Musharraf, languishes in house arrest and faces the same threat of being hanged that he subjected Nawaz to in 2000.
All Pakistani interest groups are pondering—and doing their best to manipulate—how these reversals of fortune will affect the country's politics and policies. Hina Rabbani Khar, the foreign minister under President Zardari, who is said to be close to General Kayani, stressed repeatedly to me that Pakistan is currently fighting a major internal war with the Pakistani Taliban, and claimed that a return of the Afghan faction of the Taliban to Kabul is the last thing her country wants or needs. Most Afghan and Indian observers would scoff at her, arguing that she was trying to pull the wool over their eyes, just as Karzai did with me in his insistence that the Pakistani motives have not changed.
But there are certainly many good reasons why the Pakistanis might be worried about the jihadi protégés they have so lovingly funded and trained for three decades. For while many in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed agendas that put them at odds with their sponsors, sending suicide bombers out against not just Pakistan's religious minorities, especially the Shia, and its political leaders, but even the ISI headquarters at Camp Hamza itself. As Cameron Munter—the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan—succinctly put it: "If you grow vipers in your back yard, you're going to get bitten."
The danger posed by the jihadis—not just to India, but to Pakistan as well—is increasingly clear to all. In the late spring, when I tried to have breakfast with a Pakistani friend who lives near the military's main primary school in Lahore, I was unable to get to him because all the roads through the Lahore Cantonment area were blocked by checkpoints. According to the soldiers manning the roadblocks, so fearful have the generals become of the Pakistani Taliban that they lock down much of Lahore every day in order to insure that their kids can get safely to school and back. They have also abandoned the use of military number plates on their cars, aware that these might attract the attention of Taliban suicide bombers.
British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that because the Pakistani army now fears jihadi-generated instability more than it fears India it really has changed its attitude toward the jihadis. As General Kayani himself stated in a major speech in April on the eve of the elections: "The menace of terrorism and extremism has claimed thousands of lives, including those of the Army, Rangers, FC, Police, Frontier Constabulary… and the innocent people of Pakistan… [A] small faction wants to enforce its distorted ideology over the entire nation by taking up arms and for this purpose defies the Constitution of Pakistan and the democratic process," he said. He went on to call on militants to lay down their arms and accept the country's constitution unconditionally.
This has led many Pakistan-watchers to speculate that the generals may have had a change of heart about the dangers of their longtime strategy in Afghanistan. General Kayani recently told a senior American military officer that if Afghanistan deteriorated into chaotic civil war after the Americans leave, it would be bad for Afghanistan but a disaster for Pakistan. The army now fears the possibility that the return of Taliban rule would create a reverse sanctuary for Pakistani Taliban and other malcontents.
The continuation of clashes between India and Pakistan in—and over—Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal is dangerous for all countries in the region and for the world, especially given Pakistan's reported fondness for developing tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield, such as the recently tested Hatf IX missile, with a range of under 40 miles. Pakistan is apparently also testing other small, low-yielding nuclear devices such as landmines, presumably designed to destroy large Indian tank formations moving into Pakistani territory.
The priority that Pakistan has given to such weapons and the scenarios they're meant to deal with constitute the latest and most alarming manifestation of the government's fixation on India as the main threat to Pakistan's existence. In fact, however, the threat to Pakistan's territorial integrity and sovereignty is clearly no longer from India at all, and arguably never has been. For years, largely and perversely because of Pakistan's own policies, that threat has come from within Pakistan itself. Likewise, as far as India is concerned, the real threat to its dominance of the region is not Pakistan so much as the dragon rising on the other side of the Himalayas: China, which now has very considerable mineral assets in Afghanistan.
In 2008, a Chinese mining consortium—Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Co.—bought a 30-year lease on the Afghan copper deposits at Mes Aynak for $3 billion; they estimated that the valley contained potentially $100 billion worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world, and potentially worth around five times the estimated value of Afghanistan's entire economy.
China is also training a first batch of 300 Afghan policemen. China is arguably the only country to which the Pakistani security establishment defers. If China continues to invest in Afghan mineral resources, and the roads and railways with which it can extract them, it will expect Pakistan to protect its interests and not allow the Taliban to disrupt these operations in Afghanistan. This could be a boon for future peace in Afghanistan. The Indians, of course, view these developments with some foreboding. But there have been recent secret talks in Beijing between Chinese and Indian officials to discuss their interests in post-American Afghanistan.
Much will depend on what India decides to do. It is unclear whether its government will choose to play an enhanced role in Afghanistan after the departure of American troops. Some Indian hawks, in the army and the Ministry of External Affairs, argue that by taking on a more robust and possibly even a military role in Afghanistan, India could fill the security vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, advance its regional interests, compete with their Chinese rivals for influence in Afghanistan, and thwart their Pakistani enemies at the same time. Others in New Delhi argue that by willfully fueling Pakistani paranoia, India would panic Islamabad into going on the offensive and providing ever greater support for the Taliban, which, in turn, would be dangerous for both India and Pakistan.
The efforts Nawaz Sharif has made to reach out to India may strengthen the hand of the moderates in New Delhi. But whether he has the clarity of vision, the fortitude, the political will and the room to maneuver in that direction is an open question. What is certain, though, is that the future will be brighter for all three countries caught in a deadly triangle of mutual mistrust and competition if Pakistan and India can come to see the instability of Afghanistan as a common challenge to be jointly managed rather than as a battlefield on which to continue or, worse, escalate their long and bitter feud.
William Dalrymple is the author of nine books about India and the Islamic world, including award-winning titles such as City of Djinns; White Mughals; The Last Mughal; and Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. He recently curated a major show of Mughal art for the Asia Society in New York. His new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42 was published to acclaim by Knopf in February. He writes regularly for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the Guardian, and is one of the founders and a co-director of the Jaipur Literary Festival. He has honorary doctorates of letters from the universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen, Bradford and Lucknow, and in September took up a visiting fellowship at Princeton. Learn more about Dalrymple and his work at http://www.williamdalrymple.uk.com/
Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum
Stephen P. Cohen
Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back
Bruce Riedel (Brookings, 2013)
Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan
Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings, 2012)
Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad
Bruce Riedel (Brookings, 2012, revised edition)
The Future of Pakistan
Stephen P. Cohen, ed. (Brookings, 2011)
Michael E. O'Hanlon, (Brookings, 2013)
Published 06/25/2013 - © 2013 The Brookings Institution