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London: As foreign embassies in Kabul reduce their personnel, or even shut down, Pakistan is ideally placed to function as a ‘listening post’ for the policies implemented by the Taliban, far more than other neighbours like Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Pakistan is easily the best location to watch the daily developments in Kabul. The reasons for this are the long and porous Afghan border, the multiple contacts between the Taliban and Islamabad and the presence of more than three million Afghan refugees in and around Pakistani cities.
Collected information is pooled in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar which offers a unique, daily insight into how Afghanistan is being governed. Euphemistically described as a ‘melting pot’ of different ethnic groups, the city is actually a human exchange where Afghan warlords, journalists and Pakistani government agents, spies and aid workers all meet and trade information. Whisky masquerading as tea is available in copious quantities; so too are automatic weapons, grenades and rocket launchers.
Peshawar then and now remains a window for looking into the soul of the incoming Afghan government. Whether the new Taliban administration reverts immediately to brutal past policies – including suppressing women’s rights, amputations, public floggings and mass executions – remains to be seen. What is crucial from a foreign perspective is whether Afghanistan is ever again allowed to become a safe haven for the likes of international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS and ISIL.
Any such terrorist safe haven could be either the deliberate creation of Allah-fearing Taliban leaders or simply the by-product of an inevitable civil war that pits Sunnis against Shias and the majority Pushtun tribes against smaller minority groups like the Tajiks and Hazaras. These internal differences offer opportunities for other countries to interfere.
During the country’s previous civil war, Pakistan offered safety and comfort to Sunni Pushtuns; beleaguered Tajiks fled across the northern border to Tajikistan and the Hazaras were given shelter in Iran. All these political, religious and ethnic tensions remain unresolved and are likely to flare up at any time, following the precipitous US withdrawal.
They also underscore Afghanistan’s strategic significance and how future instability will, at the very least, affect nearby countries of the Gulf and South Asia.
Cost-conscious US President Joe Biden may have no choice when it comes to pulling back from Afghanistan. But that does not prevent him from beefing up US diplomatic representation in Pakistan and boosting intelligence surveillance operations from Peshawar, where acting consul general Jim Eisenhut, a former detective sergeant from Florida, will preside over a vastly expanded information gathering network.
Back in 1980, weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Peshawar quickly became the hub of a huge US military and intelligence operation to repel Soviet forces. Conspiracy theorists at the time reasoned that the effort was necessary to block Moscow from grabbing control of Pakistan’s strategic access to the Arabian Sea.
Peshawar also became the operational headquarters for some 84 anti-Soviet Afghan resistance groups, the mujahideen, supported by the US. They were supplied with generous dollops of cash and weapons, directly from Washington or via the good offices of the Pakistan army.
Until the God-given gift of the Soviet invasion, Pakistan was out of favour in western capitals. Islamabad’s obsessive search for nuclear weapons, the 1977 military coup and the subsequent execution of democratically-elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto all generated international backlash and isolated the country.
Even more significantly, the US deliberately turned a blind eye to Islamabad’s desperate efforts to build and test its own nuclear weapons. Obsessed with defeating the Soviet Union, Washington ignored evidence of the nuclear weapons infrastructure that Pakistan was assembling. When Pakistani scientists finally carried out a series of nuclear tests in May 1998, some of their success could be directly linked to the indifferent monitoring of successive US governments.
In early 1980, reporters hoping to cover the Soviet operation in Afghanistan had two choices: One was to travel by road to Peshawar, make contact with one of the many mujahideen groups and rely on their help and goodwill to get as close to Kabul as possible, with plenty of eyewitness coverage of how the resistance was operating.
The other was to fly into Kabul airport and somehow brazenly make their way past customs and immigration to a reliable hotel or other safe haven inside the city.
Both options were possible. Peshawar was an open book; a first-come, first-serve platform for being helped across the border. In Kabul, the newly formed pro-Soviet government was still in the process of stamping its authority on bureaucrats and the airport was an easy-going, free-for-all access point.
Visiting journalists were mostly welcomed by the myriad resistance groups, keen to show off their valour which would inevitably attract still more dollars and weapons. Every now and then there was a PR problem, like the time one foreign journalist was forced to witness a mass execution of unarmed Afghan civilians – men and women – innocently travelling from Kabul to Kandahar.
They were killed because each was in possession of a red identity card issued by the pro-Soviet government in Kabul and, in the eyes of the local resistance, owning any such identity card was sufficient to justify immediate elimination.
The leader of the group that ordered the execution of these bus passengers was a 38-year-old farmer loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder of the Hezb-e-Islami and current loyal supporter of the Taliban. Like so many of the rank-and-file of today’s Taliban, the ten men under his command back then were a mish-mash of Afghan peasantry, trained and armed by the CIA. Most were illiterate and only two had managed more than a few years of schooling. One of them spoke a few words of English.
Such US-backed supporters of Hikmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami were spread across the length and breadth of the country in 1980. They all venerated his status as a self-appointed Imam (religious leader) and cherished the story of how he threw acid at a woman’s face because she dared to walk unveiled across the campus of Kabul university.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was an early supporter of Hikmatyar until he split off to form his own group and assist one-eyed Mullah Omar in founding the Taliban. In recent years, he has headed the Taliban’s Doha office in Qatar from where he was put in touch with senior US officials, including President Donald Trump, before he lost the election.
US officials have not revealed the fine details of what Trump had negotiated with the Taliban beyond the broad outlines of a cease fire, the withdrawal of foreign troops, encouraging talks between rival Afghan factions and preventing terrorists (like Al Qaeda) operating from Afghanistan.
How the agreement will be enforced and monitored has still to be revealed. Early signs are not encouraging; door to door searches are underway for those Afghans who helped the Americans and revenge killings have been sanctioned.
For the triumphant Taliban, revelling in the defeat of first the Soviets and now the Americans, their unwavering religious faith is evidence of how it is only Allah who provides and only Allah who decides. As they watch the backs of the retreating Americans, they have every justification in believing that the future is not in the hands of simple human beings.
And another divine message awaits just across the corner! If all else fails and their country collapses once again into endless fighting, welcoming Pakistan and its lawless border areas is merely a whisper away. How long before the buzz returns to Greens Hotel on Saddar Road in Peshawar? How long before the city’s legendary hospitality is tested once again by ever-more desperate Afghan visitors, not to mention the legions of anxious NATO experts trying to make sense of the mess they left behind?
Shyam Bhatia is the former Diplomatic Editor of The Observer (London) and author of Bullets and Bylines: From the Frontlines of Kabul, Delhi, Damascus and Beyond, published by Speaking Tiger.