Former Taliban FM Economizes on Truth to Stay Politically Correct

A lady candidate in Afghan elections, something not possible in Taliban regime

By S. Mudassir Ali Shah

KABUL, September 12(2005): Taliban’s former Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil has obviously tried to be more “politically correct” in his book about Afghan relations with Pakistan than any honest intellectual, but he admits that it was Pakistan which gave birth and muscle to Taliban, the Madrassa students movement.

Treading too cautiously to give any detailed account of significant Taliban-era developments in his book Afghanistan and Taliban, Mutawakil insists Pakistan never meddled in his country’s internal affairs, something which would be hard to believe for anyone with even the minimum knowledge of the relations between the two countries.

Obviously for political reasons, he prefers to stay implicit in discussing Pakistan-Taliban relations, which continue to raise perturbing questions to date.

Despite his bid to eschew touching a raw nerve, Mutawakil has quoted a number of instances that imply Islamabad enjoyed a lot more influence on Taliban’s Afghanistan than Mutawakil would admit.

A passing reference on Page-63 to an implacable Pakistan-Iran rivalry in Afghanistan suggests how the neighbors Iran and Pakistan jockeyed for clout in his country struggling with a host of challenges, including a debilitating civil strife and terrorism.

“When Afghanistan started sliding into chaos, the face-off between Islamabad and Tehran became all too visible, because Iran viewed the Pakistan-Taliban partnership as a potential threat to its strategic interests,” writes the former minister. Apprehensive of Pakistan’s proximity to the United States, Iran considered an anathema American foothold in the region, much less in Afghanistan.

“When our movement gained momentum, Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, while Naseerullah Babar, an ethnic Pashtun, was Interior Minister in her cabinet. Its ideological differences with Taliban notwithstanding, Bhutto’s secular PPP desired a pro-Pakistan administration in Kabul that could bring stability to Afghanistan while living in peaceful co-existence with neighbors.”

Following the Soviet disintegration, Mutawakil points out, Pakistan eyed an unhindered access to the vast Central Asian market – an objective whose realization was impossible without rock-solid support from regional Afghan commanders. Islamabad particularly dreamed up a weird idea to capture Ashgabat’s precious natural resources, but the plan went awry, he says.

Pakistan wanted to dispatch a convoy of relief supplies to the nascent Central Asian states via Kandahar and Herat, in a move to win over the newborn nations. Regional Afghan commanders, who had assured the Pakistani Consulate in Kandahar of a safe passage to the convoy through Afghanistan, later backed out of their commitment owing to internecine bickering.

Around the same time, the Taliban appeared on the scene in Kandahar – a phenomenon that hogged the headlines in newspapers across the world, reinforcing a widespread impression that the primary objective behind the birth of the movement was to hasten the achievement of Pakistan’s geo-strategic designs in Central Asia.

Though the former minister takes great pains to establish Islamabad had played no proactive role either in creating or propping up Taliban, he concedes that Sunni Pakistan rushed to set up a consulate in Kandahar, headed by Maj. Gul, a Pashtun familiar with key players involved in the jihad against the Soviets, to checkmate the Shiite Iran.

Importantly, Mutawakil’s denials are diluted in some measure by his own admission that Madrassa students from Pakistan streamed into Afghanistan to swell Taliban ranks. His statement that many Pakistan-based jihadi groups and religious forces were supportive of the student militia and the wounded mujahideen were treated in Pakistani hospitals equally weakens his assertion.

Islamabad’s botched initiative to bring about a patch-up between the then Afghan rulers and the Jumbish-i-Islami of northern warlord Rashid Dostum was essentially driven by its robust relationship with Taliban. The understanding was short-lived, though Taliban freed a large number of Jumbish loyalists captured in fighting west of Kabul.

Again, it was Pakistan which brokered a compromise of sorts between Taliban and Gen. Abdul Malik. Their shared animus towards Dostum was another crucial factor in bringing the two sides closer, so much so that Gen. Malik caught Ismail Khan, ex-governor of Herat and sitting minister for water and power, and handed him over to Taliban. The Tajik strongman, clapped into a Kandahar prison, somehow managed to escape in a jailbreak to reach Iran, which stoutly supported him.

At times, the author touches on events and incidents that reflect Pakistan ‘s soft corner for what was then called a rag-tag student militia whose seven-year rule had indisputably brought a measure of peace to the impoverished country.

But there is no denying the reality that Taliban also incurred international ire and crippling sanctions against Afghanistan as a result of their isolationist policies.

He admits Pakistan, one of the three countries which had accorded recognition to a government globally reviled for its radical political credo, was the only nation to have a full-fledged embassy in Kabul. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had tasked their embassies in Islamabad with maintaining diplomatic relations with Afghanistan under Taliban.

Finding a fleeting mention in the gripping book is the jihad-infused faith fostered in the crucible of Afghanistan and Kashmir. With the Pakistan-Taliban links growing, the minister recalls, some jihadi outfits active in Kashmir (like Al-Badr) came to Afghanistan to run training camps in the southeastern Khost province and elsewhere.

Much to the chagrin of the world at large, ‘mujahideen’ from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Arab countries had also established similar camps in different parts of Afghanistan, where the Khost province came under a deadly Tomahawk missile attack from the US forces stationed in the Persian Gulf on August 20, 1998.

The use of Pakistan’s airspace for the attack on the militant base, which was reportedly frequented by Osama bin Laden, sparked a wave of anger among religious groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a desperate attempt to retain its sway, Iran also cultivated ties with Taliban on the one hand and simultaneously wooed their foes on the other. Clinging to its finely nuanced policy of carrots and sticks, Tehran would occasionally dispatch delegations to Kabul to keep Taliban engaged and warn the enigmatic Afghan rulers in no uncertain terms against harming its interests, Mutawakil says.

Mutawakil reveals that Tehran came close to a war with Taliban when we seized Iranian truckers soon after wresting control of Mazar-i-Sharif from Dostum. Iran’s threats coupled with its military drills near the border with Afghanistan prompted Taliban to deploy soldiers in force to Herat and Farah, but the UN intervened to defuse the tension.

At the end of the book, the man from Maiwand narrates the tale of his sneaking into Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban Government in 2001 in the wake of sustained air strikes by the US military and a ground offensive by the Northern Alliance.

But he gives no details of his escape from Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban. He remained in Pakistan for quite some time before surrendering in Kandahar to Afghan authorities, who handed him over to the US military on February 8, 2002.

During detention at Kandahar Airport and the Bagram Airbase, Mutawakil writes, he was grilled hard and fast but never tortured.

However, his story, far from complete, does not add up. Unfortunately for students of history and international relations, his description of momentous events is at best sketchy, a wee bit partial, incomplete to some extent and somewhat hazy. A man in his position, who is not politically callow at all, can be genuinely expected to tell the whole truth about events and developments in a seminal discourse like Afghanistan and Taliban.

%d bloggers like this: