A Pashtun-dominated, internationally-ostracised regime in Afghanistan, suits Pakistan, because it would be unable to resurrect Pashtun nationalism.
Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan's military strategists and ISI justified their efforts to install a radical Islamic Government in Kabul, saying it would provide “strategic depth” against India — Pakistan's armed forces would have additional territory available to them in the event of an Indian attack.
However, the reality turned out to be different once the ISI, with the acquiescence of the Clinton Administration, installed its protégé, “Ghilzai” Pashtun leader, Mullah Omar, in Kandahar, with a so-called Taliban “President”, Mullah Rabbani, in Kabul.
Afghanistan soon became the hub of global terrorism, once Mullah Omar was installed in Kandahar. Osama bin Laden was welcomed as an honoured guest by the Taliban.
Given that the Taliban was made up exclusively of Pashtuns, who constitute just around 40 per cent of Afghanistan's population, the ISI had to provide massive military support for the Taliban to control the entire north of the country where non-Pashtuns reside.
When the Americans moved into Afghanistan in October 2001, it was the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance supported by India, Russia and Iran which routed the Taliban. The Taliban cadres across the Durand Line into Pakistan, and were welcomed there by the ISI. Even though the new Government in Kabul was headed by a blue-blooded Durrani Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, Pakistan calculated that its best bet was to act as the champion of Pashtun rights in Afghanistan.
A sustained effort has been made by Pakistan to persuade the Pashtuns in Afghanistan that Pakistan alone is their well-wisher. Dislike bordering on animosity towards Pakistan, is, however, a widespread feature of thinking of Afghans across the political spectrum, transcending ethnic considerations.
But a significant, though diminishing section of the Taliban realises that they are regarded as international outcasts, and have no choice but to seek power through the barrel of a gun, with Pakistani support.
Pakistan's professions of being the genuine supporters of Pashtun rights are, however, not altruistic. A Pashtun-dominated, but internationally-ostracised regime in Afghanistan, suits Pakistan, because such a regime would be so weak politically and economically that it would be in no position to resurrect sentiments of Pashtun nationalism. . Using religious extremism as a tool to subsume Pashtun nationalism is the centrepiece of Pakistan's strategies in Afghanistan.
In her book Taliban and Anti-Taliban, the Oslo-based Pakistani writer, Farhat Taj, details how the Pakistan army used the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as a tool to influence events in Afghanistan.
She also outlines the heroic resistance of tribal Pashtun leaders to defend their traditional, consensual tribal structures against Taliban depredations. This was a struggle in which hundreds of Pashtun tribals in FATA laid down their lives, resisting ISI machinations to promote the alien culture of the Taliban.
In her recent writings, Farhat Taj notes: “The Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are mere proxies of the Pakistan State, to wipe out forces of ethno-nationalism among the Pashtun cultural identity, on both sides of the Durand Line, in the pursuit of foreign and domestic goals set and controlled by the military establishment of Pakistan”.
Recalling how efforts were made by Mughal Emperors like Babar and Aurangzeb to crush Pashtun nationalism, she alludes to a statement of a Pashtun leader who suffered Aurangzeb's depredations: “Aurangzeb derives pleasure from the massacre of Pashtuns. Such is Aurangzeb's Islam”.
As the Americans commence their drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, they are tying themselves in knots on their negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is demanding a high price for restoring transit facilities for American supplies to Afghanistan.
These include an end to nuclear sanctions, a public apology for the action in which 26 Pakistani soldiers were killed, and an end to drone strikes. In the meantime, the Taliban are showing no inclination to meet American conditions for talks.
Both the Pakistan military and their Taliban allies now appear to believe that with the Americans set to end combat operations by mid-2013, they would be able to seize control of southern Afghanistan soon. Relief has come for the Americans from an unexpected source. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, agreed to make the Ulyanovsk airbase available for American logistical supplies.
Pakistan could well be miscalculating on its perceived opportunities in Afghanistan, as the drawdown in American forces commences. But the international community and President Karzai will have to devise political strategies to expose Pakistan's pro-Pashtun pretensions.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)