Richard North, 28/08/2021  

In its own way, the fall of Afghanistan is probably every bit as important as Brexit, with the repercussions just as serious and long-lasting, in ways that haven't had the recognition they deserve.

Not least of the effects is the increase in tension between India and Pakistan, an important issue in its own right when two nuclear powers are at odds, but all the more so given the expanding south Asia populations in the UK and their impact of British domestic politics.

One would barely get a glimmer of this from the British legacy media, with its tedious claustrophobia when it comes to foreign affairs, and its obsessive concern for "human interest" stories to the exclusion of analytical pieces which might appeal to an adult audience.

However, at least the Economist had a bash last week, with an article headed, "What the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan means for India and Pakistan", offering the sub-heading: "a humiliation for India is a victory for Pakistan, but a costly one".

The magazine sort of gets the point, noting that, for India, "the house-of-cards collapse of the 20-year-old Afghan democracy represents a strategic setback and a stinging humiliation".

I'm not so sure about the "democracy" bit, but the magazine goes on to tell us that, since 2001 India has spent a non-trivial $3 billion or so to bolster the American-installed regime.

It has built roads, dams, power lines, clinics and schools across the country. It has trained Afghan officers, including women, in its military academies, it gave scholarships to thousands and even presented a fancy new parliament, complete with fountains and a giant bronze dome. Narendra Modi, himself inaugurated it in 2015.

Thus, says the Economist, besides losing all its investment in a secular, democratic Afghanistan, India has also lost strategic leverage. There were never Indian troops in Afghanistan, but its aid projects and four consulates certainly spooked the generals running the show in Pakistan.

India's close ties with the Afghan government, it ways, gave its own security establishment a whiff of "over-the-horizon" influence that felt appropriate to an emerging superpower.

And, to give an indication of the complexity of the scenario we're dealing with, it points out that, when Pakistan-backed Islamists mounted terrorist attacks on India and stirred violence in its restive region of Kashmir, India could threaten to use its Afghan assets to stir trouble in Pakistan’s restive region of Baluchistan.

At least here we have faint recognition of the volatile situation in the Pakistani-occupied territory of Baluchistan – which hardly ever gets a mention in the British legacy media, and an inkling of the geopolitical linkages in the region.

To get a real taste of the venom, though, one needs to look in on the Indian and Pakistani media. In the latter corner, we have the Pakistan Observer report on a press conference by Pak Army Major General Babar Iftikhar.

He said yesterday that India "played a negative role in Afghanistan as it made an investment there with the sole intention of harming Pakistan", accusing Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security of helping the Indian spy agency, R&AW, to harm Pakistan. The NDS-R&AW nexus, he claims, has been behind terrorist incidents in Dasu, Lahore and Gwadar.

Such accusations are by no means new, and in one episode in 2009 when the Indian Embassy in Kabul was attacked, I reported on the ongoing war of words, where Indian intelligence agencies had been accused of running "terrorist camps" in Afghanistan to train Baluchi youths to "create disturbances" over the border in Pakistan.

The Indian media, on the other hand, in the form of the Times of India is happily retailing claims by "US experts" that Pakistan engineered the Taliban's return to Kabul.

This paper's source in a long article in The New York Times, which poses the teaser, "The Real Winner of the Afghan War? It’s Not Who You Think", then going on to say that Pakistan, "nominally a US partner in the war, was the Afghan Taliban's main patron, and sees the Taliban's victory as its own".

Lifting from this source, we thus have the Times of India gleefully quoting Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, who says that the Afghan Taliban would not be where they are without the assistance of the Pakistanis – part of a "lengthy critique" of Pakistan's "subversive and role in Afghanistan and duplicitous dealing with Washington".

This brings us to a piece in the Telegraph from Owen Bennett-Jones, a former BBC correspondent in Islamabad. He asserts that Pakistan's manipulation of the situation in Afghanistan over the past two decades has been a remarkable piece of statecraft.

But, he says, Pakistani liberals are worried that, despite claims that the Afghan Taliban are well-disposed towards Pakistan, it is obvious that they will now support the Pakistan Taliban – the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Emboldened by such support, he says, the TTP will once again deploy its suicide bombers in Pakistan's cities.

That's about as close as we get to any recent recognition that the Taleban on both sides of the Durand Line which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan will support a united Pashtunistan, and thus pose an existential threat to Pakistan.

For all that Pakistan is said to be supporting the Taliban, therefore, this might explain why fencing on the Pak-Afghan border has been proceeding apace and, according to Major General Iftikhar, is now 90 percent complete.

What has rather been lost in the mists of time is that Pakistani troops started erecting a border fence in 2007, whence Afghan troops were sent to tear it down, apparently on the instructions of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who argued that a fence would divide Pashtun tribes spread out along both sides of the Durand Line.

Islamabad said the fence was being erected on the border to prevent Taliban from crossing back and forth between the two countries, after accusations by the Afghan and US governments that Taliban insurgents regularly crossed the border to attack Afghan and international forces.

Then, a year later, in June 2008, there was another clash after Pakistani tribesmen and soldiers reportedly tried to stop security forces from Afghanistan setting up a mountaintop post in a disputed border region. This time, at least 10 Pakistani troops died after a US air strike was called in by Afghan forces, after the Pakistanis were mistaken for insurgents.

Essentially, nothing in this region is ever simple, and there are multiple traps for the unwary analyst. It probably helps, therefore, to recall that the centuries-old unrest across the Pak-Afghan border is largely of a tribal nature, driven by the ancient Pashtunwali code, which long predates Islam.

It is this primitive code which is responsible for the relentless conflict which dominates Pashtun society, relegating religion, the Taliban movement and even the ISIS caliphate to the status of mere overlays, complementing rather than driving the warlike dispositions.

Religion, though, is a particular force when it comes to the long-running and often murderous disputes between Moslem and Hindu, which adds an extra dimension to the enmity between India and Pakistan.

So ingrained is the rivalry now that, rather than "cowboys and Indians" films, Indian cinema now produces war movies (such as Shershaah) where the heroes chase Pakistani soldiers out of Indian-administered Kashmir.

Combine the different elements, add great power interests, with manoeuvring from the Russians, Chinese and, of course, the United States, with input from Iran and Saudi money, and the results are anything but predictable. And, when the disputes spill over into British politics, and the streets of British cities, we have a whole new ball game.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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