Thursday, December 17, 2009

TALIBAN: PAN-ISLAMISTS OR PASHTUN NATIONALISTS

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    Are the Taliban an Afghan/Pashtun nationalist movement, which notwithstanding the extremely reactionary, even barbaric, sort of an Islamist ideology to which it subscribes, is fighting a war of national liberation against foreign occupation forces? Or, are the Taliban an Afghan/Pashtun manifestation of a radical pan-Islamic movement that seeks to spread its virulence to all corners of the globe? The answer to this fundamental question will be critical in deciding the future course of the 'war on terror'. If the international community can reach a determination that the Taliban have no agenda of either exporting or imposing their brand of Islam to other parts of the world and are merely resisting foreign occupation, they would be tempted to pack their bags and abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. On the other hand, if the international community is convinced that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will become the headquarters of Jihad International, from where radical Islamists will spread their venom all over the world, then the only option left will be to comprehensively defeat the Taliban.

    Normally, the answer to the above question should be a no-brainer: puritanical IsIamists like the Taliban abhor the concept of ethnic or national identity and subsume such identities under an over-arching Islamic identity. And yet in recent months, the Taliban, and their supporters and spokesmen in Pakistan, have been trying to peddle the line that they only fighting to liberate their country from the clutches of foreign forces and pose no danger to any other country of the world. In a statement issued in September, Mullah Omar said: "Our goal is to gain independence of the country and establish a just Islamic system...The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants that the true sons of this land should have participation in the government and in government-making...We assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not cause it hands to cause jeopardy as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us...They [enemy media] accuse us of our being a threat to the countries of the world. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants to clear all these doubts provided a conducive atmosphere is available"(http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/FeaturedDocs/nefa_mullahomar0909.pdf).

In another statement on 25th November 2009, Mullah Omar said "pushing away this aggression and defending our country is our legitimate and national right and we will use our rights to defend with all the methods and sacrifices..."(http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefa_mullahomar1109.pdf). After US president, Barack Obama, announced an additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan, the Taliban issued another statement in which they said: "The aim of the Mujahideen is to have a free and independent country and Islamic government which represents the aspirations of the Afghan people...the so-called advocates of democracy and human rights are not ready to give these natural rights to the Afghans and to the Mujahideen...The Mujahideen, as a part of their policy will ensure that the next government of Mujahideen will not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, including the neighbours, if foreign troops pull out of Afghanistan." (http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefaTaliObamaBush1209.pdf).

    So, how seriously should these statements be taken? Are these eyewash meant to deceive the international community or have the Taliban really changed their world-view? Do these statements really signal a break between the Taliban and al Qaeda and the transformation of the Taliban from an Islamist militia to a nationalist force which adheres to an Islamist ideology? Or is all this part of a psychological warfare to hoodwink their adversaries into believing that they their only aim is to oust the foreign forces from their soil. Clearly, if Mullah Omar and company are only interested in Afghanistan and are fighting a national war of liberation then it implies that Pashtun nationalism and not pan-Islamism is the driving force behind the Taliban. But despite the signals that the Taliban are trying to send through these statements, there is little or no evidence on the ground that would suggest that the Taliban have severed their linkages with al Qaeda or that the Islamists fighting in Afghanistan have no global agenda. Given the deep linkages between the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda – for instance, the Haqqani network is at the forefront of the Afghan Taliban militancy and is also one of the main backers of the al Qaeda leadership - to imagine that these links will be severed in exchange for a  complete US withdrawal is nothing but delusion.

Interestingly enough, a line similar to the one being peddled by the Taliban is also being floated by official and unofficial spokespersons of the Pakistani military establishment. This begs the question whether the tail is wagging the dog, or whether the dog is wagging the tail (of course, which is the dog and which is the tail is a matter of interpretation). But more importantly, are the Pakistanis fooling themselves or the world when they make a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda or between the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban. It is entirely possible that the Pakistani intelligence agencies feel that their assets embedded with Taliban groups like the Haqqani network have given it all the inputs that suggest that the Afghan Taliban are not on the same page as the Pakistani Taliban as far as launching attacks on Pakistan is concerned. But it is equally possible that misleading information is being deliberately fed to the Pakistani intelligence agencies by its agents who have thrown in their lot with the Islamists. Perhaps reverse indoctrination of the ISI assets, coupled with a tendency for downright denial of the threat that the Taliban pose to Pakistan is making the Pakistanis indulge in wishful thinking that their enemy are the local Taliban and not the Afghan Taliban. In a way, the Pakistanis are probably suffering from a malaise that is so common in south Asia – the touching belief that if you don't mess with the local goon or warlord and instead cooperate with him then he will not trouble you.

In their obsession with gaining 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan and preventing India from gaining a foothold in that country, the Pakistanis either don't seem to or don't want to understand that as far as the future security and stability of Pakistan is concerned it makes little difference whether the Taliban are Afghan nationalists or Pan-Islamists. In either case, Pakistan will suffer if the Taliban gain ascendance in Afghanistan. If Taliban are the local chapter of the radical pan-Islamist network and philosophy, then Pakistan will face the heat because the Taliban will almost certainly seek to spread out into Pakistan and try to capture it for ideological reasons. On the other hand if the Taliban are Pashtun/Afghan nationalists then again it should be a cause of great worry for the Pakistanis because it raises the spectre of a resurgent Pashtun nationalism – this time led by Mullahs steeped in local culture and not by intellectuals spouting Marxism – which in turn will holds horrendous implications for the Pakistani state.

For the moment, however, the wavering resolve of the Western countries to stay the course and drain the swamp of radical Islam in Afghanistan has convinced the Pakistanis that since the Americans are going to quit sooner rather than later it makes sense for Pakistan to not initiate any major military operation against the Afghan Taliban. After all if the Taliban are going to be the next rulers in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis wouldn't want to rub them the wrong way at this juncture. The Pakistanis are today in the mode of 'strategic defiance' of the Americans. The way they see it, the Americans are in such a precarious condition that they can't afford to dictate terms to Pakistan anymore and have no choice but to play by the rules that the Pakistanis set for them. And while the Pakistanis depend critically on American financial and military assistance, they feel that they are in a position where they can defy the Americans and yet partake their money. But this is a myopia of the worst sort because it doesn't take into account of what will happen after the American's leave and the aid tap dries up even as the 'independent' Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seeks its own economic viability in a bankrupt Pakistan.

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    <1375 Words>                    18th December, 2009

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