In the summer of 1999, a young United States diplomat found himself inside a safe-house in the garrison-city of Rawalpindi, face-to-face with the patriarch of Afghanistan’s Islamic jihad.
The Taliban’s minister for borders, Sirajuddin Haqqani, turned out to have a well-developed sense of irony: it was, he said, “good to meet someone from the country which had destroyed my base, my madrassa, and killed 25 of my mujahideen”.
“Haqqani’s assistants glared sullenly,” a diplomatic cable records.
Less than a year earlier, the al-Qaida had bombed the United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200. The United States responded by firing cruise missiles at jihadist camps in eastern Afghanistan. The diplomat warned that more strikes could follow unless the Taliban expelled al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin Laden.
Even though the Taliban would not expel Bin Laden, Haqqani responded, they had him under control. William Milam, the United States ambassador in Islamabad, exulted: his country’s threats of violence and moves to isolate the regime were “indeed pinching the Taliban”.
Lethal as missiles are, self-delusion is even more dangerous. In the months before that meeting took place, we now know, Bin Laden had summoned the head of al-Qaeda’s military committee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to Kandahar, and green-lighted the 9/11 plot.
Ahead of his visit to India, President Donald Trump signed off on a Reduction in Violence agreement with the Taliban — the first in a series of steps meant to prepare the way for the withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan. For India, the deal is exceedingly bad news. The Taliban’s second sunrise will energise jihadist movements in Kashmir, and across the region, just as the Afghan mujahideen’s defeat of the Soviet Union did in 1989.
There’s little New Delhi can do but prepare for the rising storm. India has neither the military capacities nor the diplomatic heft needed to influence the course events will take in Kabul. History, though, leaves no room for illusions about what lies ahead.
In 1992, almost a decade before 9/11, Pakistani Islamist politician Fazlur Rahman laid out a road map for the global jihadist magazine. “The Afghan jihad,” he told the Pashto language Manba al-Jihad magazine, “which was spearheaded by Maulana Haqqani and other truthful leaders, defeated the Soviet empire. But now there is another enemy to this jihad. That is America and its conspiratorial policies that are intended to bring Afghanistan, the centre of jihad, under American attack.”
Fazlur Rahman concluded: “We are sure that people like Haqqani will fuel the flames of jihad worldwide.”
Kashmir was one of the new theatres. “A small nation with a small population, with limited resources and weapons rose in revolt against the Soviet onslaught,” the jihadist-turned-politician Altaf Khan, also known as ‘Azam Inquilabi’, recalled “to the extent that the Soviet Union ultimately disintegrated into fragments”.
“So we got inspired,” he proceeded, “if they could offer tough resistance to a super power in the east, we too could fight India.”
Faced with these threats, though, the United States sought accommodation. In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s administration began working to facilitate energy giant Unocal’s plans to build an ambitious pipeline linking Central Asia’s vast energy fields with the Indian Ocean.
Muhammad Ghaus, the Taliban’s foreign minister, led an expenses-paid delegation to Unocal’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas, at the end of 1997. The clerics, housed at a five-star hotel, were taken to see the NASA museum, several supermarkets and the local zoo.
In April 1996, Robin Raphel — then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and later Barack Obama’s ambassador for non-military aid to Pakistan — visited Kabul to lobby for the project. Later that year, she was again in Kabul, this time calling on the international community to “engage the Taliban”.
“The Taliban does not seek to export Islam, only to liberate Afghanistan,” she said.
Even as the State Department report described Bin Laden as one of the “most significant sponsors of terrorism today”, the regime which sheltered him was never declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
“The truth,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright later wrote, “was that those [attacks before 9/11] were happening overseas and while there were Americans who died, they were not thousands and it did not happen on US soil”.
For Prime Minister Imran Khan, and General Qamar Bajwa, the army chief who underpins his authority, President Trump’s Afghan deal will prove a gift — just as 9/11 was for General Pervez Musharraf and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate will have to guarantee sure the Taliban does not attempt to seize Afghan cities like Kunduz before the United States presidential elections are complete — and for that, there will be a price.
New Delhi can, thus, expect greater United States pressure to negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir — and to temper its reactions to acts of terrorism. Already, Jaish-e-Muhammad training camps, shut down after last year’s Balakote air-strike, have reopened.
From the Doha Accord — the roadmap for the Afghan peace talks signed last year — it’s clear that Afghanistan is headed towards a dismantling of its fledgling, post-9/11 republican order. The parties agreed to “institutionalise [an] Islamic system in the country for the implementation of comprehensive peace”; clearly, the Afghan constitution itself is an inadequate framework for the Taliban.
Last year, Taliban delegates at a dialogue in Moscow described the current Afghan constitution as “un-Islamic”, and labelled women’s rights “immoral”. And Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada vowed in an Eid message to continue fighting until “ending the occupation and establishment of an Islamic system”.
From President Trump’s optic, the case for withdrawal is simple: the payoff from the expensive, murderous war of attrition in Afghanistan, just doesn’t justify its costs. Even if jihadists seize power in Afghanistan, the argument goes, the United States’ massive counter-terrorism capacities give it a formidable shield — and Pakistan can be paid to play policeman.
Plenty of President Trump aides, well-aware of how the road to 9/11 was paved disagreed with this line of argument — among them, former secretary of defence Jim Mattis and national security advisors HR McMaster and John Bolton. They found their boss was determined to fulfil his election promise to pull out of foreign wars.
Back in 1989, as the Kashmir jihad rose, New Delhi was caught unawares: the state’s political system was in disarray, the consequence of elections rigged by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; its administrative structure in ruins; its economy incapable of accommodating the aspirations of young people. Islamists were able to fill these voids — with devastating consequences.
Ever since 1999, Indian policies in Kashmir have been predicated on the assumption that New Delhi and Washington’s regional interests converge: reining-in Pakistan’s jihadist proxies, it seemed, was a common interest. President Trump’s Afghan deal makes that not necessarily true.
Time no longer on its side, New Delhi needs to act now to reestablish not just its authority, but India’s legitimacy, in Kashmir.
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