At the center of the simultaneous tumult faced by both Afghanistan and Pakistan stands the ultimate taboo: Pashtunistan. How does the dream of a common Pashtun land connect to the secession of Crimea from Ukraine? And what does China think about all this?
Let’s start with Pakistan. US counterinsurgency “experts” such as disgraced former Gen. David Petraeus’ guru, David Kilcullen, insist Pakistan is imploding. No wonder; hacks like himself get paid to predict chaos.
It’s much more nuanced, as usual. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is actually trying to prevent Pakistan from imploding. That's why he wants a deal with the TTP – the Pakistani Taliban.
Sharif’s party, the PML-N, is conservative in religious and neoliberal in economics terms. It's intimately connected to Pakistani religious parties. Sharif knows he has to be careful in the Punjab region because of the local popularity of anti-Shiite jihadists – the Sipah-e-Sahaba outfit.
A derivation of Sipah - the dreadful Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – also routinely kills a lot of Shiites in Sind and especially Balochistan. What Sharif has concluded is that he cannot allow an alliance between the TTP - the Pakistani Taliban, based in the tribal areas - with jihadi groups active in the Punjab.
Sharif is also a businessman. He knows the only way to get the Pakistani economy back on track (as if it ever was...) is to end this civil war. That’s the rationale behind the current ‘peace process’. It’s what he told the Chinese (key allies) last summer, when he visited Beijing.
For the moment the really nasty issues in the peace process have not been addressed. The TTP wants Sharia law all over Pakistan. No Pakistani government would ever accept that.
The contact groups on both sides are immensely interesting. On the government side we find a retired general, Muhammad Amir, an ex-honcho of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani CIA. But also ace journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, based in Peshawar, arguably the top authority anywhere on the Pak tribal areas.
On the TTP side we find none other than super-mullah Samiul Haq, the director of the ‘Taliban Harvard’ in Akhora Khattak near Peshawar, which formed generations of Taliban (disclosure; it was thanks to a letter signed by Haq that myself and my photographer were not thrown in jail by the Taliban in Ghazni in 2000, when we ‘invaded’ an abandoned military base.)
The Pakistani army does not like this ‘peace process’ one bit. Especially the ISI, as they keep their very cozy connections with a lot of jihadi groups to serve Islamabad’s strategic interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and/or India. It goes without saying that the Afghan Taliban, with Mullah Omar almost certainly still in Quetta (how come no Obama drone could ever find him?) as well as the Haqqani outfit, in North Waziristan, are still very close to the ISI.
And back to Punjab, another jihadi nest of nasties - Lashkar-e-Taiba, which perpetrated the Bombay bombing in 2008 - are sort of ‘protected’ by the Pakistani army.
But the TTP is something completely different. Unlike all these other jihadists, they attacked the Pakistani state and its army head on. That takes balls. No wonder the army sees them as an enemy of the state - on top of it manipulated by foreigners (guess who).
The TTP is an impenetrable maze. There are at least 30 different outfits, who all pledged allegiance to Baitullah Mehsud in 2007. Obama’s drones keep killing Mehsuds (Baitullah in 2009, Hakimullah in 2013), but the TTP never dies. And the Mehsud family stays in the lead.
I’d define the Mehsud family as a Pashtun guerrilla group based in the tribal areas very close to Afghanistan. The guerrilla is, yes, against the state, which they consider a bunch of traitors because they've been American collaborators since 9/11. Alternatively, one may see the US in Pakistan as essentially at war – for over a decade - with a Pashtun family.
Now things have changed a bit. The new TTP leader is Mullah Fazlullah. He’s from Swat, and his base is in the Mohmand tribal areas, and even Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan (very hardcore places, ultra-conservative). So the key base is not Waziristan anymore. One wonders whether the Nevada drone gang is fully aware of it.
There has been a lot of talk in Pakistan that mullah Omar himself has intervened, trying to unite the now disparate TTP factions to go on with the dialogue with Islamabad. Why? Because with NATO out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, what the Afghan Taliban want is to assemble all Pashtuns on both sides of the border, and then advance to take over Kabul, in a replay of 1996.
Washington, predictably, is quite fearful of an Islamabad-TTP peace process. This would allow that perennial bogeyman, ‘Al-Qaeda’, free rein in the tribal areas again. Yet there may be only a handful of remaining ‘Al-Qaeda’ there; everyone's gone to the Levant.
Still, Washington’s long game is to continue to generate endless conspiracy theories in Pakistan - betting on chaos in the country to sooner or later try to get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, as the ISI sees it. And yet, the current peace process has been more or less ‘approved’ by Washington. The drone war is more or less on hold. For now.
Now to the elections in Afghanistan next month. Wily President Hamid Karzai is busy pushing ‘his’ candidate for president, Zalmay Rassoul. He appointed former interior minister and speaker of the lower house of parliament Younus Qanooni as the vice-presidential candidate, replacing the recently deceased Mohammad Fahim.
Qanooni, like Fahim, comes from the Panjshir valley and was very close to the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir assassinated by Al-Qaeda two days before 9/11. Qanooni was against the US bombing in 2001 and never minced his words criticizing Karzai.
Karzai’s power play is brilliant because it reinforces his Tajik connection while undermining the rival candidacy of Abdullah Abdullah, Washington’s favorite. Rassoul now enjoys a cross-section Pashtun/Tajik appeal.
The Afghan presidential election will be decided in the second round of voting. Then we will really see who the top mujahideen commanders – from Ismail Khan in Herat to Gul Agha Sherzai in Kandahar – are really endorsing. And how Karzai maneuvered to once again get what he wants.
From Washington’s point of view Rassoul may be acceptable because he’s willing to sign the much controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that will allow ‘residual’ US troops in Afghanistan.
Or at least he said he will sign, after bribing all the warlords that matter. Rassoul knows if that happens the Taliban will go for his throat, even if he’s a Pashtun. More likely, if he’s a wily Pashtun, he’s saying one thing and thinking of doing another.
So there are two parallel peace processes going on, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. The key problem is that ‘peace’ being reached in Pakistan may eventually translate into chaos in Afghanistan, because then the Afghan Taliban would be reinforced by the ‘liberated’ Pakistani Taliban in an offensive against the new government in Kabul.
Some TTP fighters pursued by the Pakistani army are now safely parked across the border - especially in the aforementioned Kunar and Nuristan. And over there they would be protected by Afghan security services, as the Pakistanis complain.
Make no mistake; Pakistani-Afghan rivalry remains extremely fierce. It wouldn’t be any other way; Afghanistan never recognized the Durand line, which has deprived it of many of its own Pashtun lands. Blame the British Empire over 100 years ago. This remains the key to all this mess.
There’s no question Pashtuns on both sides of the border are paying immense attention to Crimea. A similar secession would result in their long-life dream – Pashtunistan. Their problem is that they would have to be fighting two central governments at the same time - Kabul and Islamabad. And in terms of representation, the Taliban, on both sides of the border, certainly do not answer for the majority of Pashtuns.
China’s position adds even more spice to this brew. Beijing is focusing like a laser on the US and NATO withdrawing for good from Afghanistan at the end of the year. That’s one less hub of the US Empire of Bases – too close for comfort to the Chinese border.
Beijing wants a profitable Afghanistan. It’s not happening in the foreseeable future. In 2008 Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Co bought a 30-year lease on Mes Aynak – the largest copper mine in the world - in Logar province, for a cool $3 billion.
Then the Taliban started attacking the mine. And Beijing started regarding Afghanistan more like a security headache than a source of profits – even contributing in security cooperation with the Karzai administration.
An extremely complicating factor is that Beijing has identified these Taliban attackers as originating from Pakistan. Add that to Uighurs doing a back and forth with Pakistan, where they receive training to ‘destabilize’ Xinjiang, and we have a major problem between staunch allies Beijing-Islamabad. Beijing is puzzled that Islamabad seems to be doing nothing to stop these infiltrations.
It gets even murkier when it is quite well known in the region that some Uighur activists have been infiltrated/manipulated by the CIA – for decades. So if you’re crossing from northern Pakistan to Xinjiang, parallel to the Karakoram highway, there’s a strong possibility you’re an American spy – as Beijing sees it.
Still that is not enough to provoke a serious split between Beijing and Islamabad. Both roughly agree on the US and NATO out of Afghanistan. Both roughly disagree on the Taliban having a say in the new Afghanistan (out of the question for China; depends on how pliable they would be, for Pakistan).
Most of all, both definitely agree on more trade ties – with Pakistan fully profiting from a trade corridor from the port of Gwadar to Xinjiang. And both definitely agree that if Crimea ends up boosting the Pashtunistan dream, that would be a whole new, immensely unpredictable, and ‘destabilizing’ ball game.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.