Pakistan Boxed into a Corner

KARACHI, Pakistan -- With the Taliban's sudden withdrawal from key areas in Afghanistan to concentrate in the eastern provinces for a prolonged guerrilla war, and with the likelihood of an anti-Pakistan government running Afghanistan, Islamabad could be forced into lending covert support to the Taliban, whom it ditched two months ago in favor of the United States in its war on terrorism.

The quick retreats of the Taliban from Mazar-e-Sharif and the dramatic withdrawals from the capital Kabul and Jalalabad have exploded like a bombshell among Pakistani military decision makers at general headquarters in Rawalpindi and at the Foreign Office in Islamabad.

The developments are in stark contrast to what the Pakistani intelligence services had reported to President General Pervez Musharraf -- that the war would drag on much longer and that Pakistan would maintain a strong bargaining position with the U.S. and its allies over the composition of a new Afghan government.

All this has changed with the U.S.'s inability -- or reluctance -- to stop the Northern Alliance from taking over Kabul, where it is already reported that on Wednesday former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani will return to pronounce himself the head of the territories now under the control of the anti-Taliban opposition. Deposed by the Taliban in 1996, the ethnic Tajik Rabbani is the political leader of the Northern Alliance and is still recognized as Afghanistan's president by the United Nations and most countries.

Although the United Nations is trying its best to install a broad-based government in Afghanistan, Rabbani has already made a move to set up an interim administration. It is said that General Mohammad Fahim will act as minister of defense, Abdullah Abdullah as minister of foreign affairs and Yunus Qanooni as minister of the interior. Warlords such as Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan are expected to be left in control of the areas they have captured, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat respectively.

This pretty much leaves Pakistan out in the cold as this power configuration is made up mainly of three different ethnic groups: Tajiks, who comprise some 25 percent of the population; Hazaras, about 19 percent; and Uzbeks, with about 6 percent. Pashtuns, with 40 percent of the population, dominate central and southern Afghanistan, the home base to the leadership of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the network of Osama bin Laden.

Rabbani has said that he would welcome former monarch Zahir Shah, but as a "private citizen." Yet Rabbani was the founding father of the Afghan resistance movement, which began in the days of Zahir Shah. Rabbani is well documented as saying that Zahir Shah would be hanged for war crimes if he ever returned to Afghanistan, and he has never softened this stance.

In this perspective, it appears that Afghanistan will continue with its centuries-old traditions under which there will be no participation in government on the basis of anything but "might is right" and that the only way in which Pakistan can have any sway in balancing unfriendly forces across its border is to lend support to the Taliban to help keep a guerrilla war going.

Sources say that on the news of the fall of Kabul an emergency meeting was convened in Rawalpindi, headed by General Yusuf, the vice chief of army staff -- Musharraf is currently on a visit to the U.S. At the meeting it was emphasized that a new strategic policy for Afghanistan is needed.

Well-placed sources suggest that in the new scheme of things the Pakistani tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, home of 10 million mostly Pashtun people, will play an important role: the Taliban will continue to fight their guerrilla war, with backup and supplies being ferried from Pakistan through the tribal areas to them.

Meanwhile, Asia Times Online has canvassed the views of some prominent Pakistanis across a wide spectrum of interests, and they all believe that Pakistan has lost ground in the region.

Former ambassador Hussain Haqqani said that Pakistan's single-track Afghan policy was now in tatters. He said Pakistan had not even contemplating what might happen should Kabul fall into the hands of a group other than the one it favored. Now all of the options that Pakistan would want to see happen, including the Zahir Shah (former king) one, are at the mercy of the Northern Alliance and its backers in Washington and London.

Now Pakistan, says Hussain Haqqani, will have to play a passive role as even though some of the former warlords will be blessed with Western intelligence and will have a role in the future setup of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance will not be willing to accommodate them. This will lead to a situation in which the prospects of civil war cannot be ruled out.

The former director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, retired lieutenant-general Hamid Gul, said that the U.S. had deceived Pakistan and it had facilitated the Northern Alliance entry into Kabul despite Pakistan's strong opposition.

"Professor Rabbani has had very strong support from Russia and he will retain government at all costs. It should be kept in mind that Rabbani has always been against Zahir Shah, he will not allow him into any broad-based government. Neither will he allow the Taliban to be a part of any government. This situation will lead to anarchy and civil war in Afghanistan."

He termed the Taliban retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul as strategic moves, and called losing Jalalabad a "gambit." "Now pro-Indian and pro-Russian Northern Alliance forces will enter into the Pashtun stronghold of Jalalabad, which borders Pakistan. Pakistan will be forced to play a role in extending support to a group, and in the present circumstances the Taliban would be the only choice."

He said that Pakistan would again be made a scapegoat for U.S. designs, and it would be asked to send its ground troops into the country under the umbrella of U.N. forces. "This would be a peacemaking operation rather than peacekeeping operation because otherwise there would be complete civil war in Afghanistan," he said. Pakistan should refuse to send its troops into Afghanistan, he added.

He believed that the Taliban would make the eastern provinces their stronghold and continue to struggle against the U.S.-sponsored war against terrorism in the region.

Liaquat Baloch, the deputy leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the premier fundamentalist party in Pakistan, said that the present situation was the result of Pakistan's misguided policies that had allowed a pro-Indian government to be installed on Pakistan's western borders [Kabul] at a time when Pakistan's armed forces were already engaged with its arch-rival on the eastern borders. He maintained that it was Pakistan's support for the U.S. position that had enabled anti-Taliban forces to capture Kabul. He added that the U..S exploited Musharraf for its own designs in the region, and had dragged Afghanistan into a prolonged civil war.

A former senator and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Taj Haider, said that the possible victimization of the Taliban by Northern Alliance forces was the main cause for concern. "Though they [Taliban] consider me an infidel, [Taj Haider comes from a hardcore Marxist school of thought and hails from a Shia family] my heart is crying for them. What they have done may be wrong, but once they surrendered the world community should raise its voice for them for better treatment."

He maintained that Pakistan had closed all doors to Northern Alliance forces, and even when their former army leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, was assassinated in September, Pakistan did not offer its condolences.

This article was originally published by Asia Times Online and was made available through Globalvision News Network, a network of independent news organizations in 85 countries on seven continents.

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