The Turmoil in Afghanistan

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By S. Mikail Murshed[*]



(The sordid history of Afghanistan is one of unbroken violence. It is a story of superpower stupidity, compounded by the hare-brained ‘strategic’ ambitions of neighbouring states and the insatiable lust for power of the local warlords. From another perspective, it has always been the quest for national unity in a heterogeneous population that has defined the Afghanistan problem. The urge for unity was absent from Afghan society because one group, the Pashtuns, imposed itself on the others. Thus uni-ethnic rule in a multi-ethnic society and its attendant backlash unleashed violence among a people, who had never wanted to be united into a single nation. Foreign invasion of the country added a new dimension to the bloodletting and ensured that durable peace would remain as illusive as a mirage in the desert. Author).

  I. The backdrop of the Afghan tragedy

The story of Afghanistan is one of superpower stupidity accompanied by the hare-brained ‘strategic’ ambitions of the neighbouring states – particularly Pakistan and Iran – and the insatiable lust for power of the local warlords. These three factors have, singly and collectively, defined Afghan ground realities. As a consequence, peace has eluded the country for almost four decades.

From another perspective, it has always been the quest for national unity in a heterogeneous population that has defined the Afghanistan problem. The difficulties are compounded because the disparate ethnic groups which include the Pashtuns (42 percent), the Tajiks (27 per cent), Hazaras (9 percent), Uzbeks (9 percent), Aimaks[i] (4 percent), Turkmen (3 per cent) and other small groups were brought together through the centuries, more by accident than any shared desire to live together.

The urge for unity was absent from Afghan society because one group, the Pashtuns, imposed itself on the others. The ethnic minorities were subjugated and treated as second-class citizens. The Pashtuns monopolised economic and political power with the encouragement of imperial Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus uni-ethnic rule in a multi-ethnic society and its attendant backlash unleashed violence among a people, who had never wanted to be united into a single nation.[ii] Foreign invasion of the country added a new dimension to the bloodletting and ensured that durable peace would remain as illusive as a mirage in the desert.

On 27 December 1979 the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with an initial 85,000 troops. This triggered a fierce freedom struggle that lasted almost a decade and culminated in the humiliating withdrawal of the occupation forces in accordance with the stipulations of the Geneva Accords of 14 April 1988. The fatal flaw in the proximity talks in Geneva between the Pakistan government and the Soviet-installed Kabul regime was that the Afghan resistance were not invited.

The agreements that eventually emerged from the protracted negotiations, with the United States and the Soviet Union serving as guarantors, consisted of multiple instruments. These included: (i) a bilateral compact between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the principles of mutual relations, in particular non-intervention and non-interference; (ii) a declaration on international guarantees, signed by the USSR and the USA; (iii) an accord between Islamabad and Kabul on the voluntary return of the Afghan refugees; (iv) an agreement on the interrelationships for the settlement of the situation relating to Afghanistan, signed by Pakistan and Afghanistan and witnessed by the Soviet Union and the United States; and, (v) a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops which commenced on 15 May 1988 and was completed on 15 February 1989.

The last Soviet soldier to leave was Lt Gen Boris Gromov, the commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan. Gromov always had and still has a flair for dramatics. He hopped off his armoured personnel carrier and strode calmly across the Friendship Bridge that spans the River Oxus (Amu Darya) into what was then Soviet Uzbekistan.

Despite the bravado, the phased withdrawal of the occupation forces had been anything but smooth. On one occasion, the Soviet ambassador in Islamabad stormed into the foreign office yelling: “Fighters belonging to Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s[iii] Hizb-e-Islami[iv] have invaded my country. Stop them before we retaliate.”

Hikmatyar was immediately summoned to the foreign office where he admitted sheepishly that his men had indeed entered Soviet territory. He explained that this was intended as warning to Moscow never again to set foot on Afghan soil and then added: “Tell those kafirs (infidels) not to dance, sing, and drink vodka as they leave Afghanistan or else we will make mince meat of them. They should go quietly with their heads bowed in shame for what they have done to my country.”

Several years later, Gromov entered politics and was re-elected governor of the Moscow region in 2003. Soon afterwards at a lunch, he introduced himself to Pakistan’s ambassador in Russia saying: “Welcome to my country, dushman (enemy). I am only joking, we know that you are an expert on Afghanistan and we would like to hear your views on how peace can be restored in that country.”

The Afghan resistance, or mujahideen, were neither a party to the negotiations nor to the Geneva accords and therefore refused the terms of the settlement. They had fought heroically and defeated a superpower. But they did not celebrate their triumph. There was no jubilation, and, the nationalist upsurge that accompanies a successful war of liberation was absent from Afghanistan. This is because the freedom struggle had been a decentralised conflict, fought in many theatres of war through the length and breadth of approximately 647,000 square kilometres of rugged Afghan territory. There was no central figure around whom the people could rally.[v]

Local commanders, who had fought against the Soviet occupation army, established themselves in their respective areas. Peace therefore did not return to the country. The conflict that followed transformed itself from a heroic war of liberation to an ugly contest for power. The rule of president Burhanuddin Rabbani[vi] from 1992 to 1996 was particularly disastrous. The government’s writ was confined to Kabul and a few cities. The rest of the country was at the mercy of local warlords. The chaos spurred the emergence of the Taliban.

II. The rise of the Taliban

In the last week of August 1994 when Mullah Omar[vii] set forth with 45 men from a madressah (seminary) in Maiwand, Kandahar, to punish a warlord who had molested a local family, he unwittingly set in motion the Taliban movement that propelled him to dazzling heights. Soon all of Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush came under the control of the fanatical clerics from Kandahar.

Local warlords had created fiefdoms owing nominal loyalty to one political leader or the other, but imposing in fact their own arbitrary fiat in the areas that they controlled. In Kandahar, the main road to Herat on the one hand and to Chamman in Pakistan on the other, had toll posts and barriers at virtually every kilometre, where local commanders exacted ‘fees’ and whatever other extortions they decided upon on any passing traffic. The lives and honour of ordinary citizens were at their mercy.

What is not widely known is that initially even Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed in a suicide bomb attack at his home in Kabul on his 71st birthday on 20 September 2011, sought to use the Taliban to eliminate his opponents and to quell the unrest that had been generated by his failure to abide by the Islamabad Accord[viii] of 7 March 1993 under which he came to power. He offered them assistance and there is sufficient evidence to show that his emissaries frequently contacted the Taliban to offer financial and other support.

In the May 1995 issue of the Afghan News, published by Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami[ix] he is quoted as saying: “The Taliban, and some mujahideen from Kandahar asked us to help them to open roads and improve law and order in their province. We supported them.” This was an outrageously ridiculous claim because the Taliban movement had, by that time grown from strength to strength and posed a formidable threat to the Kabul regime itself.

Furthermore, the Taliban did not need such assistance. The local commanders who surrendered brought with them substantial quantities of weapons and ammunition.  With each success the ranks of the Taliban swelled with veterans who had fought against the Soviets. By late October 1994, the Taliban movement gained victories one after another in the fight against the warlords and, within a short time, captured the whole province of Kandahar, from where they spread their influence to other parts of the country.

In April 1996 alone the Taliban fired 866 rockets on Kabul killing 180 civilians and injuring an estimated 550. Their onslaught resulted in the fall of Jalalabad with less than 20 casualties. In Sarobi, where Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood[x] had sent their own commander to strengthen its defence and mine the approaches, the local Ahmadzai tribe joined the Taliban, and the commanders around Sarobi either surrendered immediately or fled to Kabul.

It was claimed that Kabul could sustain a siege for at least a year, but it fell to the Taliban virtually overnight on 27 September 1996, with only 200 casualties. Immediately after entering the Afghan capital, the triumphant clerics went straight to the UN office where the former president, Muhammad Najibullah,[xi] had taken refuge. He was mercilessly killed and his body was hung for several days at the city centre.

This was the curtain raiser to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

With the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, the Rabbani regime retreated north of the Hindu Kush. The immediate outcome of this was the formation of the Shura-e-Aali-e-Difa-e-Afghanistan – the Supreme Council for the Defence of Afghanistan – more commonly known as the Northern Alliance. This was a coalition of unlikely bedfellows consisting of minority ethnic groups who, despite their hatred of each other, were united by their fear of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Afghan society thus became dangerously polarised along ethnic fault-lines.

On 4 December 1996, a parallel government was set up in Mazar-e-Sharif by the Northern Alliance. Though it consisted of many parties, the alliance was dominated by three elements which, in descending order of importance at the time, included the powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s[xii] Jumbish-e-Milli, the Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Shia Hizb-e-Wahdat[xiii] headed by Karim Khalili.

Mullah Omar’s meteoric rise and the stunning success of the Taliban were neither inspired by ideology nor by religious fervour. It was the prevailing anarchy and chaos   that made the demoralised populace welcome any force that could liberate them from the stranglehold of brigands and extortionist warlords. They longed for security and an honest administration, no matter how harsh its system of justice.

The rule of the Taliban did bring security but it was the security of a prison. It was claimed that the sharia (Islamic law) had been imposed, but many of the laws that were ruthlessly enforced were remote from Islamic tenets. The administration, however, was relatively honest inasmuch as the Taliban were a volunteer movement and none of its members – down from Mullah Omar to provincial governors, ministers and its fighters – received any pay.

The initial reaction of ordinary Afghans was one of relief. Crime had disappeared from the streets. There was no longer any theft, murder or molestation of women and young boys. The most conspicuous, perhaps the only achievement of the Taliban, was the deweaponisation of the 75 per cent of Afghan territory controlled by them.

Like all megalomaniacs, particularly those who believe that their mission is God-inspired, Mullah Omar took pride in never changing his mind. The decisions of the amir-ul-momineen (the commander of the faithful), the fanciful title that was conferred in 1996 on Mullah Omar by the Afghan Taliban, were not to be questioned and were as immutable as the mountains and blood-drenched plains of Afghanistan.

This not only had disastrous consequences for the country but also foreshadowed the dramatic events of 9/11. Since then terrorism has emerged as the single biggest threat to global peace and stability.

Unknown to the rest of the world, it was in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that the 9/11 attacks on the US were meticulously planned. This is detailed in an open letter to Osama bin Laden ten months before he was killed by US special forces in Abbottabad from his former associate and friend, Abu Muhammad Al-Libbi Noman Benotman.  Bin Laden was bluntly reminded: “Separately, when Mullah Omar asked you on several occasions to stop provoking and inviting American attacks on his country, you ignored him. How can you claim to fight for an ‘Islamic state’ and then so flagrantly disobey the ruler you helped put in place?”

It is uncertain whether Mullah Omar was aware of the Al-Qaeda chief’s intentions. If he had been taken into confidence even partially, then the logical assumption is that it was with his tacit approval that the blueprint for the coordinated terrorist attacks on the US was being rapidly finalised. The Al-Libbi letter does not provide a clear answer. It merely states that there were elements within Al-Qaeda’s inner circle that were against the 9/11 attacks being carried out without Mullah Omar’s consent: “The question asked by many, even among the closed group, was by what right did Al-Qaeda bypass and ignore Mullah Omar? And, of course, even if Mullah Omar had given his permission this would not change the fact that such attacks were completely unjustifiable.”

Despite Bin Laden’s treachery, Mullah Omar refused till the very end to revoke the asylum that had been granted to the Al-Qaeda leader. Under no circumstances was he willing to extradite the arch terrorist to a place where he could be brought to justice. A dramatic illustration of this came in the autumn of 1998 when Prince Turki Al Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief from 1979 till 2001, visited Kandahar accompanied by Pakistan’s special envoy to Afghanistan.

Prince Turki congratulated Mullah Omar on the ground successes of the Taliban in their military operations against the Northern Alliance as they had captured Mazar-e-Sharif on 8 August that year. After these preliminaries, he said that he had come to take Osama bin Laden back with him as per Mullah Omar’s commitment three months earlier. The Taliban leader replied that he had made no such promise to which the Saudi prince responded that he had.

Prince Turki insisted that Mullah Omar should redeem his pledge on which the latter went into the courtyard and poured a bucket of cold water over his head and then returned for the talks. This absurdly dramatic behaviour had no impact on Turki who kept insisting that the cleric had promised that he would hand over Bin Laden within three months. Mullah Omar repeated with growing irritation that he had given no such undertaking and there could have been mistake by the interpreters. To this the Saudi prince arrogantly told the one-eyed leader of the Taliban that he should learn Arabic to avoid such misunderstandings.

Mullah Omar’s patience was wearing thin and he responded:  “I know Arabic. You should learn Pashto. I am not a liar. If I had told you that I would give Osama bin Laden to you I would have fulfilled my promise. You are putting pressure on me at a time when the Iranians have massed thousands of troops along our borders. Let me tell you we will not be pressured. If Iran makes the mistake of attacking us, we will fight back and shortly thereafter the white flag of the Taliban will be flying in Tehran. Are you in league with Iran?”

“We are not,” replied Prince Turki. “Now hand over Bin Laden.” The supreme leader of the Taliban could no longer contain his anger and screamed: “You are a hypocrite, your king is a hypocrite and so are your ulema. God has given you everything but yet you cannot defend yourselves against puny Iraq and therefore you invited the Americans into your country to protect you and to fight your battles. Learn from us how to fight. If you are scared of Iraq then let us defend you.”

This was too much for Prince Turki. He stormed out of the meeting along with the Pakistani envoy and headed for the Kandahar airport to fly back to Islamabad. Shortly afterwards, Saudi Arabia withdrew its diplomats from Kabul and relations between the Taliban and Riyadh remained strained.

Mullah Omar’s stubborn refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden to a place where he could be brought to justice led to the fateful events of 11 September 2001. Within weeks the horrific rule of the Taliban came to an abrupt end. Afghan experts are probably not even aware that on 6 September 1999 – two years before 9/11 – Mullah Omar wrote to President Bill Clinton.

The letter is reproduced verbatim because its contents reflect the mind-set of the Taliban and is of particular relevance for the hitherto futile quest for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan:


Please accept our greetings and well wishes.

I want to express my view regarding your attitude towards the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. I would like to say that whatever you do and whosever enemy you become, please do not become an enemy of Islam. When you say that the Taliban are fundamentalists or they are strict Muslims and that is why you are against them, it means you are against Islam, although you may say you that you do not have any animosity towards Islam. If you look at the history of thousands of years, anyone who became an enemy of Islam has gained nothing instead of harming himself. Whatever we are – even if we are as you say fundamentalists – we are far away from you and we do not intend to harm you and cannot harm you either.

 “Ours and your Almighty God has obligated us to serve our religion. We are not mad and nor are we in love with power. We are in the service of God and that is why we are strict in our position. If you have any objection to anything we do, you should look at our deeds in the light of Islam (whether they are according to Islamic principles) and if they are in accordance with Islam – you should know that is why we have to follow this path, how could we change it? Please be a little fair.

“Much is going on in the world. And it is possible that your strict position regarding us might be flawed. So let me bring another point to your attention and it is this: if we were overthrown, there would be major chaos and confusion in the country and everyone including every single oppressed individual would blame you for it.

“Furthermore, if we are overthrown, Afghanistan would be used by Iran.  And Iran is such a harmful terrorist nation that there is no nation like it in the world. As it is, despite what you think, even now we have posed no problem for you as has Iran. So, if despite these clarifications, you still say that we are to be blamed and you consider that you are right, what can we say except that God alone knows who is really to be blamed and may God punish the guilty with storms and earthquakes.”

This was the only letter ever written by Mullah Omar to a foreign head of state. It demonstrates that the increasing US pressure on the Taliban over their links with   international terrorism, and, in particular the asylum given to Osama bin Laden was making the leadership in Kandahar nervous.  But even then this had no impact on the determination of Mullah Omar never to extradite the Al-Qaeda chief. Similarly, his hatred of Iran remained till the very end.

All statements and the few letters written by the Taliban were spontaneous and often ill-thought-out reactions to events. An example of this was Mullah Omar’s hysterical outburst at his meeting with the Saudi intelligence chief and the statement that the Taliban flag would be hoisted in Tehran should Iranian troops cross into Afghanistan.

On another occasion, the Taliban minister of culture and information Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi gave an unbelievably stupid assurance to the Uzbek foreign minister, Abdul Aziz Kamilov after the Tashkent Six Plus Two meeting on 20-21 July 1999 that he would try to persuade Turkmenistan to sign the conference declaration which in fact was weighted heavily against the Taliban.

Muttaqi and his delegation were received by the dictatorial president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who thus became the first head of state, other than that of Pakistan, to invite the Taliban to his country and then have an exclusive meeting with them. He was told by Muttaqi that the Taliban government wanted to establish the best of relations with all its neighbours so that the entire region could prosper. This was appreciated by Karimov who also gave the assurance that his country would resume power supplies to northern Afghanistan and also broaden cooperation between the two countries.

Pakistan’s special envoy for Afghanistan also met the Karimov. Foreign minister Kamilov was present on the occasion and kept nodding his head to every sentence uttered by his president when unexpectedly Karimov told the Pakistani envoy: “Mr Ambassador, my foreign minister knows nothing about diplomacy why don’t you give him a few lessons on the intricacies of interstate relations.” The unfortunate Kamilov, who had turned red in the face dutifully nodded again. The embarrassed envoy replied: “Mr President I’ve met foreign minister Kamilov on several occasions and I have always admired his acumen and diplomatic skills.”

The Six Plus Two mechanism was the brainchild of Pakistan’s special envoy on Afghanistan and was proposed during a meeting in Moscow with the Russian deputy foreign minister on 2-5 April 1997. It was built around the concept of peace talks between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in which the six countries with contiguous borders with Afghanistan – China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and  Tajikistan – plus the US and Russia would participate as  observers. Should an agreement emerge among the Afghan parties it would be guaranteed by the Six Plus Two group.

The idea was hijacked by the UN secretary general’s special representative on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi who then proceeded to make a glorious mess of things. Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, organised scores of meetings among the ambassadors of the Six Plus Two group in far away New York. The Afghans were never invited to these useless confabulations. It was as ridiculous as an enactment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but without the prince of Denmark.

The Tashkent meeting of the group was the only one to which the Afghan parties were invited. But even this meant nothing because there was no intra-Afghan dialogue on the occasion. The leaders of the delegations merely delivered tedious speeches that were politely heard and then forgotten.  As already noted the declaration adopted at Tashkent was slanted in favour of the Northern Alliance, but this made no difference to the Taliban delegation. Either they did not understand the importance of the document or it was their way of showing utter contempt for such resolutions. For them all that mattered was the ground situation in Afghanistan. After the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif to them the previous year most of the country came under their control.

The resistance to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan was mostly confined to the Panjsher valley which was controlled  by Ahmed Shah Masood, the head of the military wing of the Jamiat-e-Islami. This continued till 9 September 2001 when suicide bombers posing as journalists killed Masood. Two days later the world reeled under the shock of the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US.

III. Post-Taliban turmoil

Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the US began intensive aerial bombing of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance forces were able to enter Kabul by the end of 2001. Thus ended the era of the Taliban. During their barbaric rule, Pakistan and the international community preached incessantly to them on the need for a broad-based government but what initially emerged from the Bonn Agreement (the clumsy formal title was, Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions) of 5 December 2001 was a dispensation dominated by the Tajiks and, among the Tajiks, the Panjsheri elements.

President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, was virtually parachuted into Kabul from allied bombers but the strongman in his regime was his Panjsheri deputy, General Mohammad Qasim Fahim[xiv] who was conferred the honorary title of ‘Marshal’ by Karzai in 2004. Fahim continued to wield influence till his death in March 2014.

The Panjsheris who, at the best of times, controlled no more than 10 percent of Afghan territory, called the shots during the Karzai regime. The government in Kabul was as narrow-based as any dispensation could be. The majority Pashtuns, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras had little or no say in the affairs of state. Warlord zones reappeared and Afghanistan was again at the mercy of ambitious, avaricious men eager to establish their own fiefdoms.

The Taliban had deweaponized Afghan society but weapons, after their rule, were no longer in short supply. Several ministers and high government functionaries were assassinated and even Karzai’s bodyguards in the early years of his rule consisted of non-Afghans because he could not trust his own nationals, having narrowly survived two attempts on his life in 2002 and again in 2004.

The international community had rightly condemned the Taliban for the violation of human rights and particularly gender discrimination. The reaction of the US to the Taliban soon after they had taken Kabul was one of cautious support. The first formal American pronouncement on them came on 18 November 1996 during a UN conference in New York of countries with interest in Afghanistan. Three elements in the statement of the US delegate, former assistant secretary Robin Raphel (the first wife of ambassador Arnie Raphel, who died in the Bahawalpur air crash with president Ziaul Haq on 17 August 1988), were particularly interesting. She observed that the Taliban were purely an indigenous movement, that their success had little to do with military prowess (implying that they were preferred by the Afghan people to the chaos that had been prevailing), and that some of the policies pursued by the Taliban were extreme but this could be moderated by engaging with them.

This brief period of support for the Taliban changed radically by the time Madeleine Albright became US secretary of state. During her confirmation hearing in January 1997, senator Christopher Dodd said that he intended to table a resolution on the Taliban in the near future because of their “reprehensible and disgusting” treatment of women. Albright’s response was: “We are deeply troubled by what we have heard the Taliban are doing. The whole situation in Afghanistan is one that is deeply troubling. There are factions that for years have been unable to get together. What we would like to see is a unity government of some kind.” By the time Albright visited Pakistan in November 1997 she expressed her dislike of the Taliban without mincing words and described them as “despicable” while addressing Afghan women at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Peshawar.

The atrocities against the Afghan people by their leaders through the previous decades and centuries no longer seemed relevant to the post-Cold War world which sincerely believed in the triumph of political liberalism and the free market system. The policies of the Taliban contrasted starkly with this wave of freedom.

The Taliban were also severely criticised for narcotics production and trafficking although the problem predated their rule. In 1997, the Taliban signed an agreement with the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) through which they undertook to reduce poppy cultivation if funds were provided for crop substitution. According to the UNDCP, narcotics production in Afghanistan more than doubled in 1998 to 4,600 tons compared with 2,100 tons in 1997. In this period there was a 43 percent increase in the area under poppy cultivation with 97 percent located in places under Taliban control. In their report the UNDCP ignored the ground reality that in 1998, almost the entire country came under the sway of the Taliban.

Under international pressure, Mullah Omar eventually issued an edict banning poppy cultivation and, according to experts, the production of the crop ended though there was no significant reduction in trafficking because of abundant poppy stockpiles. Unfortunately the international community failed to grasp the opportunity that had suddenly presented itself. Economic assistance for crop substitution was urgently needed but was never provided.

But what is no less disconcerting is that in 2004 Hamid Karzai turned down a US proposal that involved aerial spraying of herbicides to end poppy cultivation because he dared not alienate powerful warlords on whose support he depended. By 2005 Afghanistan became the world’s major source of narcotics production and trafficking for which the international community is also culpable.

Under Taliban rule most of Afghanistan was secure and stable. But there was no freedom and people lived in fear. The Bonn-generated interim government of Hamid Karzai brought relative freedom but also resulted in initial instability. Disappearances, killings and factional fighting occurred with alarming frequency. Although there is no evidence that these were state sponsored, many believed that General Fahim was responsible for some of the violence. The main cause was weak governance which is inherent in minority dominance of society.

This was further compounded because the majority Pashtun community, unlike the other ethnic groups, did not have a recognised leader. The flamboyant and erratic Hamid Karzai, though a Pashtun, was not respected in his own ethnic group and never had a mass following. This was largely because his track record had been anything but stellar, and, even worse he has always come across as political chameleon – an opportunist.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Karzai became a minister in the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, and then, in the early stages of the Taliban ascendency he threw in his lot with the Taliban. On 8 December 1996 when a delegation from Pakistan met Mullah Omar for the first time, they were told that Karzai had been appointed the Taliban representative to the UN in New York. But later, he distanced himself from the movement because he suspected that they had links with Pakistan.

Karzai’s hatred of Pakistan did not, however, deter him from living in Quetta along with his family where he received and gratefully accepted a stipend from Islamabad. In this period he actively strove for the return of ex-king Zahir Shah to Afghanistan. After the assassination of his father on 14 July 1999, that Karzai believed had been carried out by the Taliban, he vowed to avenge the murder by striving to oust them.  He thus became an important element in the nebulous concept known as the ‘second Pashtun option’ that was being enthusiastically promoted in the West.

However despite the obvious shortcomings of the Bonn Agreement, it seemed to offer the best hope for the establishment of lasting peace in Afghanistan. On 22 December 2001 Karzai became the chairman of a 29-member interim administration. On 13 June 2002, a loya jirga (grand assembly) appointed him the interim president of the transitional administration, and, after the presidential election on 9 October 2004, Karzai emerged as a more credible leader. Despite allegations of widespread rigging, by winning in 21 Afghan provinces and defeating 22 of his opponents he became, in effect, the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan.

Initially the Karzai government took measures to provide employment and education opportunities to women but the dreadful hold of obscurantist tradition was the impediment.  Most Afghan women still preferred to wear the burqa and only a few ventured outside the security of their homes. But it was corruption and atrocious governance that defined Karzai’s 13-year rule from December 2001 to 29 September 2014.

The writ of his government did not extend to massive swathes of territory under Taliban control. The UN-authorised US-led invasion and occupation of the country from 2001 to 2014 merely resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime but ignited a conflict unparalleled in its barbarity even by Afghan standards. In the first six months of 2015 an estimated 5,000 civilians were killed. The violence continues unabated.

It was only during the rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 that a strong central authority controlled most of Afghanistan. The stabilisation of the country could have been achieved then had the international community heeded the US statement at the UN meeting on 18 November 1996 and engaged with and not isolated the Taliban. The Afghans have always needed strong leadership and this was provided by the Taliban. This was what imperial Britain and Russia understood only too well as they played out their ‘great game,’ revolving around the empowerment of the Pashtun, in the nineteenth century.

Pakistan with the support of the major powers, particularly the US, could have played an important role in stabilising Afghanistan. Positive pressure on the Taliban was required. A strong leadership was already in place. Ethnic minorities, but not the leaders of the factions, had been included in the administration. The Taliban had appointed 11 non-Pashtun governors, some of them in Pashtun provinces, and included five members of the minority ethnic groups in the cabinet. Economic assistance would have provided job opportunities and resulted in the stabilisation of Afghan society.

If this had been done, gender discrimination could have been substantially reduced. The narcotics problem and the spectre of terrorism could have been squarely addressed. The 9/11 tragedy might not have happened and other acts of terrorist violence emanating from Afghanistan could have been averted. The opportunity was squandered.

 IV. The government of national unity

Seventeen years after the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, told the US Senate during her confirmation hearing that Washington wanted to see “a unity government of some kind” in Kabul, such a dispensation is in place in Afghanistan. As in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was the outcome of external coercion rather than the will of Afghan leaders to work in unison for the betterment of their country.

In the 5 April 2014 presidential election none of the candidates received more than 50 percent of the vote thereby necessitating, under the Afghan electoral rules, a second round between the two frontrunners.  Though Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, emerged as the clear winner in the runoff ballot held on 14 June, his rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who represents the Tajiks, refused to accept the outcome and alleged electoral fraud. Tensions mounted and the possibility of violence even civil war along the country’s ethnic fault lines loomed large.

US secretary of state John Kerry flew to Kabul on 7 August 2014 and was able to broker a deal that resulted in the establishment of a government of national unity. Under this arrangement, Ghani became president and Dr Abdullah the chief executive. This was an innovation because there is no provision for such a post in the Afghan constitution. As expected the so-called national unity government is riven with tension and disunity in the face of the Taliban insurgency.

Just how fickle loyalties in Afghanistan are, again came into focus in the 2014 election when Ashraf Ghani selected the Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, as his running mate. After the 2009 presidential race in which Ghani received less than 3 percent of the vote, he described Dostum as a “killer” in an article for the London Times on 20 August 2009. When questioned by Agence France Presse on his choice of Dostum as a vice presidential candidate, Ghani replied without the least embarrassment: “Politics is not a love marriage, politics is a product of historic necessities.”

Despite the tensions within the national unity government, Ashraf Ghani has emerged as a visionary leader. He has not hesitated in taking bold and imaginative initiatives. The most important of these was his decision to go the extra mile in putting the Pakistan-Afghan equation back on track. He visited Islamabad in mid-November 2014 and violated all norms of protocol by calling on the chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, even before meeting the political leadership of Pakistan.

It was not lost on Ghani, that a day after the runoff ballot in the 2014 Afghan presidential race it was the Pakistan army and not the political government that first announced the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on 15 June 2014 in North Waziristan. He had no doubt in his mind that it was the military that calls the shots in Pakistan and that if the Afghan Taliban were to be brought to the negotiating table it was the army, and, in particular the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) that could bring this about.

After the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on 16 December 2014 in which 132 school children and nine of their teachers including their principal were ruthlessly massacred by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), it was not the prime minister but the army chief General Raheel Sharif along with the director general of the ISI, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar who flew to Kabul and met President Ashraf Ghani, the commander of the Resolute Support Mission and US forces in Afghanistan General John F Campbell and their Afghan counterparts. An understanding was reached on close coordination between the armed forces of the two countries and a hammer-and-anvil strategy seemed to have been put in place.

Shortly afterwards Afghan security forces launched military operations in the Dangan district of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan where the TTP leader, Mullah Fazlullah, who planned the attack on the Peshawar school was hiding. Within days the Afghan army chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi and General Campbell were in Islamabad where they briefed their Pakistani counterpart.

Things seemed to be moving in the right direction in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, which had been put on a trajectory of unprecedented cooperation. Ashraf Ghani had taken a great risk in reaching out to Islamabad and there was need to shore him up as he was walking on extremely thin ice. There was a realisation at the GHQ in Rawalpindi that Pakistan needed to move fast to persuade the Afghan Taliban to sort out their differences with the government in Kabul at the negotiating table.

This resulted in a meeting between them in Murree on 7 July and it was decided that the talks would be resumed after Eid-ul-Fitr. As always, the sensation-hungry media went completely berserk and claimed that this was unprecedented – never before, it was said, had the Taliban agreed to take part in an intra-Afghan dialogue. This was incorrect because similar negotiations were held in Islamabad from 26 April to 3 May 1998 between the Taliban who were then in power in Kabul and the Northern Alliance. At that time the talks got off to a promising start but were derailed by Iran through its protégé the Hizb-e-Wahdat.

On the conclusion of the preliminary negotiations in Murree, hopes for the restoration of durable peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan soared sky-high. A week later, on 15 July the Taliban released an Eid message that they claimed was from Mullah Omar. From its contents and textual formulation it should have been obvious to Afghan experts that these could not have been the words of the founder of the Taliban movement. Mullah Omar was always uncompromising, rigid in his views and had a pathological hatred of Iran as was demonstrated during his meeting with Prince Turki and in his letter to President Clinton.

Although the message did not specifically mention the 7 July meeting, it endorsed the Murree peace process by asserting, “concurrent with the armed jihad, political endeavours and peaceful ways for achieving these sacred goals are a legitimate Islamic principle…” On Iran and the region, the firebrand cleric from Kandahar, who prided himself for never changing his mind, had suddenly metamorphosed into a   fervent pacifist: “Some circles accuse the mujahideen of being agents of Pakistan and Iran. This is an utterly unjust verdict because neither our past nor the prevailing circumstances attest to these false accusations. We seek cordial relations not only with Pakistan and Iran but also with all neighbouring countries. We have been the well-wishers of all the masses in all neighbouring, regional and world countries and are determined to pursue this policy.”

It therefore came as a bolt from the blue when the authorities in Kabul announced on 29 July that, “Mullah Omar had died nearly two years ago in Karachi.” The knee-jerk reaction of the Taliban was one of denial, but better sense prevailed later and a statement was released saying: “The leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the family of Mullah Omar Mujahid announce that the founder and leader of the Islamic Emirate, as a result of an illness, passed away from this temporary world towards the everlasting one.”

The formulation of the initial Taliban statement was vague. It did not say when or where their leader had died neither was there any indication about the nature of his “illness.” However, Mansoor Dadullah, the half-brother of the famous Mullah Dadullah Akhund who was killed by British and American Special Forces in Helmand on 12 May 2007, claimed that Mullah Omar did not die a natural death but had been murdered by his rivals. Mansoor Dadullah replaced his slain brother as the Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan but was removed from this post on 29 December 2007 by Mullah Omar because of insubordination. His statement on Mullah Omar’s death is, therefore, unreliable and has been firmly rejected by the Taliban.

On the day that Mullah Omar’s death was disclosed by the Kabul regime, eight members of the Taliban shura had reached Islamabad for the second round of talks that were slated to commence on 31 July in Murree. These were postponed indefinitely and it is uncertain whether they can be revived. The timing of the announcement from Kabul was deliberate and the purpose was undoubtedly sinister. The immediate fallout was that the peace process, on which President Ashraf Ghani and the Pakistan government had invested so much time and effort, was administered a crippling blow.

The unwarranted presumption, based as it was on hearsay, that Mullah Omar died in Karachi was aimed at maligning Pakistan. The lie was exposed when the Taliban disclosed that their leader had spent his final days in his village, Chah-e-Himmat, in Kandahar. Since this was sourced to Mullah Omar’s family, there was no need for further comment from Islamabad. However, for reasons best known to himself, defence minister Khawaja Asif thought it prudent to declare from the floor of the National Assembly on 7 August, “I confirm that Mullah Omar neither died nor was buried in Pakistan…Whether he died now or two years ago is another controversy we do not wish to be a part of.”

Matthew Rosenberg’s report in the New York Times on 1-2 August, pointedly mentions a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Fedai-e-Mahaz, a breakaway Taliban faction, asserting unambiguously, “the whereabouts of Mullah Omar is known to everyone, and his grave is in Zabul, may his soul rest in peace.” Subsequently, the spokesman of the same splinter group, Qari Hamza, proclaimed with the self-assurance which typifies semi-educated clerics: “We are confident that after the fall of the Islamic Emirate, Mullah Omar never left Afghanistan.”

Rosenberg claims that “in the winter of 2013 an Afghan with links to top Taliban leaders” tipped off the country’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) that Mullah Omar had passed away in a hospital in Karachi. If the New York Times report is accurate, it implies that Afghan intelligence kept this under the hat for the past 18 months, and, it is doubtful whether even President Ashraf Ghani or his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, were taken into confidence.

This is not surprising because the NDS is currently dominated by anti-Pashtun elements. In his opinion column in the Daily Times of Pakistan on 23 December 2014, an Afghan intellectual and author alluded to a report in Christian Science Monitor which said: “In a nation that is a patchwork of ethnic groups, many with their own languages, about 70 percent of the National Directorate of Security hail from Panjshir or have ties with the Northern Alliance.” He then disclosed that several influential Afghan politicians had accused the NDS and the Khidmate Ettelat-e-Dawlati (KHAD) of being in league with various Taliban splinter groups and of misappropriating secret funds.

The decision of the NDS to release the information about Mullah Omar’s death on the eve of the second round of talks between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani government was not taken on the spur of the moment but was carefully thought through. It sought to: (i) fragment the Taliban as the regime in Kabul faces what is cynically known in the Afghan lexicon as ‘the fighting season’ for the first time on its own; (ii) derail the peace process; (iii) torpedo President Ashraf Ghani’s visionary ‘new-thinking,’ undermine his authority and project him as a spineless pro-Pakistan Pashtun. The three objectives may have been partially achieved but the irony is that the main loser is Afghanistan itself.

The sudden announcement of Mullah Omar’s death has impacted on Taliban unity, and, it is uncertain whether his successor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, will be able to garner unanimous support. His appointment was rejected by some of the important commanders, who alleged that he had been elected by an incomplete shura and accordingly threw their weight behind Mullah Omar’s eldest son, Muhammad Yaqoob. The extent of bitterness was evident from unconfirmed reports that surfaced on 4 August that Yaqoob had either been killed or put under house arrest on the orders of the new Taliban chief. This turned out to be incorrect and in mid-September Mullah Omar’s family finally agreed to support Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.

But despite this, the tempo and intensity of Taliban attacks increased alarmingly. On 8 August a suicide bomber killed 50 people and injured hundreds in central Kabul, this was replicated the next day in the northern province of Kunduz killing 25 soldiers and 4 civilians, on 10 August a check post near the Kabul airport was suicide-bombed resulting in 5 fatalities, and, the hideous carnage continues.

With these attacks President Ashraf Ghani came under pressure to abandon his policy of reaching out to Pakistan. He was therefore constrained to publicly state: “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistan territory, this fact puts into display a clear hostility against a neighbouring country. Our relation with   Pakistan is based on our national interest on top of which comes security and safety of our people. If our people continue to be killed, relations lose meaning and I hope that will not happen.”

Despite being surrounded by hardliners Ghani still held out the hope that Pakistan-Afghan relations will not “lose meaning.” He also did not completely foreclose the possibility of reviving the dialogue with the Taliban, “We will make peace only with those who believe in the meaning of being a human, Muslim and Afghan and who do not destroy their own country on orders from foreign masters.”

Afghan intelligence has gone out on a limb with its venomous propaganda against Pakistan. It has accused the ISI of deception because it did not inform Kabul about Mullah Omar’s demise. This could be true even though there is no proof other than the unsubstantiated claim that Mullah Omar had died in Karachi. This was categorically rejected not only by the Pakistan government but also by the Taliban leadership.

But what is obvious from the New York Times report, which has not been denied by Kabul, is that the NDS was aware of the Taliban chief’s death several month back but had deliberately kept President Ashraf Ghani in the dark. Nothing was done to stop him from sending a delegation for the first round of talks with the Taliban in Murree and the disclosure was made only when the second round was about to begin. The objective was clearly to embarrass the Afghan president and derail his overtures to Islamabad.

V. Chaos and the fallout on Pakistan-Afghan relations

Afghan public opinion has become increasingly hostile towards Pakistan. The former chief secretary of the North West Frontier Province (renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Khalid Aziz, visited Kabul in September, and, during his interaction with young Afghans he asked them to summarise in a phrase their opinion about Pakistan. A student from Afghanistan University responded, “We hate you in the same manner as the Palestinians hate the Israelis!”

After the terrorists attacks perpetrated by the Taliban in Kabul and Kunduz on 8, 9, and 10 August a member of the Afghan ulema council, Ahmed Gul, told hundreds of protestors that jihad (holy war) against the ISI and “Punjabi military” was legitimate. Around that time Abdul Jabbar Qaharman, a parliamentarian from Kandahar, said during a television talk show, “A lesson should be taught to the Pakistan ambassador as his country was promoting terrorism in Afghanistan.”

The threat cannot be brushed under the rug. It is serious and this is borne out from previous incidents. On 6 September 1995, the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was set ablaze by a 3000-strong mob that had been instigated by the Burhanuddin Rabbani junta. A Pakistan-based sanitary worker, who the attackers mistook for the ambassador, was killed. The defence attaché was stabbed several times and left bleeding on the floor in the mistaken belief that he had died. The ambassador and the other members of the mission were seriously injured. The previous year the embassy was ransacked by hundreds of demonstrators who had been goaded on by Afghan intelligence.

In an article on his visit to Kabul, which was carried by Karachi-based newspaper Dawn on 10 September, Khalid Aziz wrote that the possibility of violence had compelled the Pakistan ambassador to relocate his staff to the chancery. He then observed, “I also found that while the rest of the diplomatic missions attended formal gatherings, Pakistani representation was usually absent. This clearly showed that the improvement in Pak-Afghan relations that had begun with so much hope now lies shattered.”

The Afghan government has succumbed to the habit of blaming Pakistan for its own inability to ward off terrorist attacks.  After Ashraf Ghani assumed office on 29 September 2014, two major incidents of terrorism in Pakistan were perpetrated by the TTP – the Army Public School carnage in Peshawar on 16 December 2014 and the attack on the air force base in Badaber on 18 September 2015 that resulted in 29 fatalities. The immediate reaction of the US State Department spokesman, Mark Tonerc was, “No country has suffered more at the hands of terrorists and extremists than Pakistan.”

Although both attacks were planned and coordinated from Afghanistan, Islamabad did not accuse the Kabul regime of involvement in the hideous outrages. Neither was there any frenzied public outburst by political leaders, ordinary citizens and the media. This is because Pakistan realises that there can be no winners in this futile blame game. Terrorism poses an existential threat to both countries, and can only be conclusively defeated through close cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is nevertheless true that, in the past, Pakistan had been interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The Haqqani network and factions of the Afghan Taliban were ensconced in safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which became a springboard for terrorist attacks on Afghanistan.

But this is only a half-truth because Kabul is equally culpable. It has been hand-in-glove with the TTP and has encouraged the outfit to carry out its murderous agenda against carefully selected targets in Pakistan. It therefore did not come as a surprise when US forces intercepted and arrested Latifullah Mehsud, a top TTP commander, from an Afghan intelligence convoy in Logar province in October 2013. This was undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg as contacts between the TTP and Afghan intelligence became increasingly frequent prior to the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb in June last year.

There has been a realisation in Pakistan that hidebound policies are entirely counterproductive and have to be discarded. The central element in this new thinking is that all terrorist groups have to be eliminated and its architect is General Raheel Sharif. The political parties have fallen into line. Across the Durand Line,[xv] President Ashraf Ghani emerged as one of the most outstanding leaders of the region. He held out the olive branch to Pakistan and it was immediately grasped. The short-lived close cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan yielded the first round of talks between the Taliban and Kabul regime. The situation changed radically after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the controversial election of his successor.

It was with Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s help that the Murree peace process had been initiated.  But in a complete volte-face he is now beating the war drums, and has declared, “Our enemies say that peace can be restored through deals and dialogue, but they are completely wrong.”

Some analysts believe that he is playing to the gallery in order to muster support from influential commanders. Be this as it may, he will never acquire the stature of his predecessor because he has been downright deceitful. For instance, Tayyeb Agha, the head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, resigned on 4 August saying, “The death of Mullah Omar was kept secret for two years. I consider this a historical mistake.”

The leadership of the Taliban have at last officially admitted in a biography of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor that was released on 31 August, that Mullah Omar died on 23 April 2013. The implication is that they have been lying through their teeth for more than two years. Even though the Taliban unfailingly claim to be the custodians of Islamic values, they justified the deceit as a tactical need. There is merit, after all, in the saying that the devil writes his own scripture.

The relevant part of the biography reads: “Several key members of the supreme leading council of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] and authentic religious scholars together decided on concealing the tragic news of the passing away of [Mullah Omar]… and keep this secret limited to the very few colleagues who were already informed of this incorrigible loss. One of the main reasons behind this decision was… that 2013 was considered the final year of power testing between the mujahideen and foreign invaders who… had announced that at the end of 2014, all military operations by foreign troops would be concluded.”

What emerges is that because of his downright dishonesty, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has not only lost the moral high ground that his predecessor occupied but has also generated a crisis of credibility for himself by issuing at least four concocted statements, edicts and references from Mullah Omar after the latter’s death. These include: (i) the August 2013 Eid message in which Mullah Omar pledged that “an inclusive government based on Islamic principles” would be established when foreign forces pull out; (ii) in October 2014 an order was issued expelling the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid and five other senior figures for questioning Mullah Omar’s leadership; (iii) in April 2015 a biography of Mullah Omar was published to mark his 19th year as the supreme leader of the Taliban. It said, “Mullah Omar remains in touch with day-to-day Afghan and world events;” and (iv) the Eid message of 15 July 2015, in which the former supreme commander of the Taliban is said to have endorsed “political endeavours” for establishing durable peace in Afghanistan.

On 22 September for the first time ever, an Eid message was issued by Mullah Mansoor, who, in spite of telling the most abject lies for more than two years, did not have any hesitation in projecting himself as the “amir-ul-momineen and servant of Islam.” The 2985-word message, like the previous ones in the name of Mullah Omar, reads like a papal encyclical. It makes clear that intra-Afghan talks can be resumed but only after all foreign troops are withdrawn, and, also drives home the point that external pressure to revive the dialogue with the Kabul regime will be counterproductive: “The Islamic Emirate believes if the country is not under occupation, the problem of the Afghans can be resolved through intra-Afghan understanding. Any foreign pressure under the pretext of resolving the Afghan problem, is not going to resolve the problem but will rather create other problems. If the Kabul Administration wants to end the war and establish peace in the country, it is possible through ending the occupation and revoking all military and security treaties with the invader.”

What is unprecedented is that another message was issued by Akhtar Mansoor’s opponents because they do not accept him as their leader. The Taliban are therefore split, perhaps irrevocably. This makes the resumption of the peace process that much more difficult. The problem is further compounded because the national unity government in Kabul is anything but united. According to Khalid Aziz, the joke doing the rounds in Kabul is that Afghanistan has seven presidents – Ashraf Ghani, Dr Abdullah, Ghani’s two deputies, Dr Abdullah’s two deputies and the ubiquitous former president Hamid Karzai.

The writing on the wall is that the country is hurtling towards chaos because of the intensification of the insurgency accompanied by the dismal state of the economy. Afghanistan generates a paltry $874 million in revenues while it needs $4.3 billion only to maintain its security forces.  In 2014 the trade deficit stood at 96 percent, the economic growth rate declined from 9.2 percent in 2010 to 1.9 percent, unemployment rose to 50 percent and poverty to 36 percent (38 percent in the rural areas). The statistics for 2015 are yet to be compiled but they are certain to be even worse.

Pakistan has no option but to use whatever influence it still has with the Taliban to persuade them to sort out their differences with the Kabul regime at the negotiating table. It is true that the Taliban are divided but the faction led by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is by far the most powerful. His position is likely to become stronger now that the family of Mullah Omar have decided to support him.

If the talks get underway then the Six Plus Two mechanism should be revived. The countries in this group will participate as observers and guarantee any accord that the Afghans may agree upon among themselves. If durable peace is to be restored, then the future dispensation has to emerge through Afghan consensus free from external intervention or interference. Only a ‘made in Afghanistan government’ can survive. But this is easier said than done.

On the eve of the completion of his first year in office on 28 September, President Ashraf Ghani told the BBC that his country’s relations with Pakistan were certainly not fraternal. There was nothing special about the Kabul-Islamabad equation, and, to drive home this point he added that Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan was no different from the bilateral ties between any two countries.

That day the Taliban overran the northern town of Kunduz, capital of the province by the same name. This was the first major city to fall to the Taliban in 14 years. It was a disaster waiting to happen because the Afghan forces were completely unprepared even though the Taliban had attempted to take the city in September 2014 and again in April this year. Barely seven weeks earlier, a suicide bomber killed 29 people in Kunduz. Government troops were able to retake the town after three days but only with the help of American Special Forces and bombardment of Taliban positions by US warplanes.

This could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the reason that it has exposed the weakness of the Afghan National Security Forces and demonstrated that the Taliban presence in Kunduz and other northern provinces has become progressively more menacing. For once the sensible voice through all this turmoil has been that of Pakistan. The official reaction to the fall of Kunduz was, “Afghanistan is being run by a democratically elected and legitimate government and occupation of its territory by any group is unacceptable.”

Kabul’s knee-jerk reaction for its inability to ward off Taliban attacks has always been to blame Islamabad. However the Kunduz province abuts Tajikistan and is far away from the Pak-Afghan border and the attack on its capital could not have been launched from the tribal regions of Pakistan. It is time for the blame game to stop. Islamabad and Kabul have to be hand-in-glove if terrorism is to be defeated. Unless a mechanism for close coordination is put in place urgently, both countries will be consumed by the scorching fire of terrorist outrages, and, this becomes all the more likely with the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in the region.


The writer is a rapper and assistant editor of Criterion quarterly. Email:


[*] The author is a rapper and assistant editor of this journal.


[i] The Aimaks are a Persian-speaking ethnic group found mostly in Ghor, central Afghanistan.

[ii] Tate G.P., The Kingdom of Afghanistan: A Historical Sketch, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 2001, p.111.

[iii] Hikmatyar was born in 1946 in Kunduz (northern Afghanistan). Dropout from faculty of engineering at Kabul University. Founded the Muslim Students Organization. Jailed in 1972 for murder of Maoist student. Fled to Pakistan after his release in 1974. Founded the Hizb-e-Islami which became one of the main parties resisting the Soviet occupation. Named prime minister after the Islamabad Accord of 1993. Associated off and on with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

[iv] The Hizb-e-Islami (Hikmatyar) is a Pashtun-dominated fundamentalist party led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar. It was anti-Taliban. However the fighters of the Hizb-e-Islami (Khalis), a splinter group from Hikmatyar’s party led by Yunis Khalis later joined the Taliban.

[v] Murshed, Iftikhar S, Afghanistan: The Taliban Years, Bennett & Bloom, London, p.1

[vi] Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik born in Badakshan in 1940. Masters in Islamic Philosophy from Al Azhar University, Cairo. Escaped arrest for Islamic activities in Kabul and fled to Pakistan. Became president under the Peshawar Accord  and kept on having his term extended until his government was ousted by the Taliban in September 1996. He was killed in a suicide bomb attack in 2011.

[vii] Mullah Omar was reportedly born in 1962 in Uruzgan province. Fought the Soviets as a commander of Nabi Muhammadi’s Harakat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami. Spear headed the Taliban movement from Kandahar in 1994. Declared the supreme leader of the Taliban with the title amirul momineen in 1996. Ousted as a result of US-led military action against the Taliban after 9/11. Died in April 2013.

[viii] The Islamabad Accord of 7 March 1993 was a power sharing agreement under which Rabbani remained as president and Hikmatyar became prime minister. The new arrangement was to last until July 1994 and in this period the regime was to draft a constitution, hold presidential elections, create an army and a police force. However differences broke out on the formation of the cabinet and the distribution of ministries. Rabbani refused to step down and, under one pretext or the other continued in office till his ouster by the Taliban in 1996.

[ix] Jamiat-e-Islami is an ethnic Tajik party formed in 1970. Anti-Pashtun and led by Burhanuddin Rabbani until his death in 2011. It became a key element in the Northern Alliance.

[x] Ahmed Shah Masood was Persian-speaking commander of the Panjsher Valley. Head of the military wing of the Jamiat-e-Islami. After the Soviet invasion he led the resistance in Panjsher Valley but negotiated peace with the Soviets in 1983. Became the most important person in the Northern Alliance from August 1998 until his assassination on 9 September 2001.

[xi]Muhammad Najibullah was Pashtun born in Kabul. Joined the PDPA (Parcham). Exiled by Taraki in 1978. Director General KHAD (intelligence agency) 1980-85. General Secretary PDPA and president of Watan Party 1986-92. President of Afghanisan 1987-92. Refuge in Kabul UN office until he was killed by the Taliban in 1996.

[xii] Dostum  is a powerful Uzbek warlord from Jowazjan. Began career as a worker in a gas field near Shibberghan. Joined communist party and then entered the army where he was trained by the Soviets. Organized his own militia in northern Afghanistan. Became Najibullah’s most important militia commander. Later abandoned Najibullah. Head of the Jumbish-e-Milli faction (Uzbek) of the Northern Alliance. Currently First Vice President of Afghanistan.

[xiii] The Hizb-e-Wahdat is a Shia party of the Northern Alliance. Its agenda includes maximum autonomy for provinces, inclusion of Jafferia school of thought as one of Afghanistan’s  religious doctrines, and one-third Shia representation in all branches of government. Led by Karim Khalili.

[xiv] General Fahim was Ahmed Shah Masood’s deputy. After Masood’s assassination in November 1991 became the most powerful element in the Northern Alliance and also in the earlier part of the Karzai administration. Died in 2014.

[xv] Durrand Line is the 2,450 km (1,519 mile) border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was established in 1893 and is named after Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the British-India government.




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