Why Pakistan interferes in Afghanistan

A strong, independent Afghanistan is perceived as an existential threat to Pakistan

Just why is Pakistan interested in installing a friendly regime in Afghanistan? If you read books and articles written over the last couple of decades, you will come across arguments such as the need for “strategic depth” to counter India, to prevent a pro-India regime in Kabul that will result in the Indian encircling of Pakistan and, even more grandly, to create an Islamic centre of power that stretches from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the Caucasus mountains. Going by the statements of members of the Pakistani establishment and some of its commentators, these are indeed the reasons why Pakistan wants to dominate Afghanistan.

Yet, to a large extent, the ambition and the paranoia that motivates these goals are in the realm of fantasy. Important people might believe in these fantasies, which means they must be taken seriously, because those important people do act on the basis of their delusions. However, there is also an argument to be made that these fantasies, paranoias and strategic sophistries are used to mask the real motive.

Pakistan’s real motive in seeking to dominate Afghanistan is the fear of its own dismemberment. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad’s main agenda was to prevent Kabul-supported Pashtun and Baloch nationalism from escalating into full-blown movements for independence. The strength of Pashtun nationalism and Kabul’s rejection of the Durand Line (which continues to this day) create deep insecurities in Islamabad, causing it both to bolster Islamism as an ideological counter, sponsor political instability in Afghanistan and attempt to install a friendly regime there.

It is a matter of historical fact that Pakistan—under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—began training Islamist militants in 1973, long before the Soviet invasion. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud received training in Pakistani camps so that Bhutto could counter Kabul ‘forward policy’ towards Pakistan. Kabul’s policies over the Durand Line had caused Pakistan to close its borders with Afghanistan in 1961. When the Baloch insurgency erupted in the early 1970s, Kabul (under the Daoud regime) supported it. Bhutto’s response was to nurture proxies in the form of Islamist militants—an old trick for the Pakistani establishment—under the leadership of the then Brigadier Naseerullah Babar, who as Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps, set up training camps in North and South Waziristan. More than 5000 militants were thus trained between 1973-1977. Again, it must be stressed, before the Soviets invaded. The narrative that most people accept—that Pakistan’s sponsorship of the mujahideen was a response to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—is factually incorrect. [Rizwan Hussain’s Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan has a good account of this]

The Pakistani establishment fears that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. People in the tribal regions of Pakistan have only a tenuous association with the Pakistani state, and even for people in the so-called ‘settled areas’ of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, age-old Pashtun solidarity is often stronger than allegiance to a geopolitical entity called Pakistan. Afghanistan can well decide to support the insurgency in Balochistan to weaken Pakistan enough. Therefore, Pakistani strategists can see an existential threat in a strong, independent Afghanistan.

They can’t, however, state this as the official reason, because to do so would be admit the hollowness of the idea of Pakistan. That’s why fantastic notions of strategic depth, pre-empting strategic encirclement or building a Central Asian caliphate come in useful. “Strategic depth” is a plausible justification to convince patriotic Pakistanis of why their military is interfering in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s case appears a lot more ‘understandable’ to international opinion if it cites the fear of Indian encirclement rather than fear of Pashtun and Baloch self-determination as the reasons for its actions. Domestic and foreign Islamists will be enthused by the idea of flying the green flag of Islam all the way to the borders of Russia.

Theoretically, Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex might be persuaded to stop destabilising Afghanistan if it were convinced that Kabul will not lay claim to Pashtun lands east of the Durand Line. In practice that would be nearly impossible, not least because Afghan nationalism will not accept it. Even Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime didn’t.

Some matters will be decided by the force of arms. If at all.

The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

Recognising Kosovo is a bad idea

Kosovo’s independence is a product of the lazy belief that multi-ethnic secular states won’t work

The manner in which Serbia treated its province of Kosovo, the argument goes, leaves it with little legitimacy to retain control over it. Ergo, independence.

Forget that such concern for wronged populations is highly selective and exceptional. Underlying the West’s support for Kosovo’s independence is the lazy surrender to the belief that secular, multi-ethnic, liberal states cannot be realised. The objective issue around Kosovo’s declaration of independence—with the West’s connivance—is whether it helps reconcile age-old Balkan enmities. Leaving Serbia with a sense of grievance is unlikely to help in its transition to a liberal state.

Now, Kosovar Albanians suffered immensely under the repressive rule of the Communist Yugoslavia, and under Slobodan Milosovic’s post-Yugoslav regime. But today’s Serbia is different. Kosovo’s separation will set liberal Serb politics back by strengthening the most chauvinistic elements.

Realists will find nothing surprising about selective application of laws and principles. But it is difficult to see what Kosovo’s promoters will gain from backing its independence. The US will have the gratitude of 1.84 million ethnic-Albanian Muslim citizens of Kosovo, and perhaps some more of their counterparts in neighbouring Albania. But is that worth escalating the confrontation with Russia? Even some EU states and American allies won’t condone an independent Kosovo—Spain, Greece and Turkey are against the idea. China is against it. In other words, Kosovo isn’t going to receive international recognition any time soon.

What of Kosovo itself? How likely is it that it will treat its own Serb minorities well? Its leaders have tried to reach out to the minorities. The new Kosovo flag is supposed to enshrine equal treatment of all its citizens. Yet, in a story that has been replayed over centuries, Kosovo’s Serb minority is declining in number. Popular sentiment is a very different thing:

But in a sign of how hard it will be to forge the kind of multiethnic, secular identity that foreign powers have urged, the distinctive two-headed eagle of the red and black Albanian flag, reviled by Serbs, was everywhere Sunday, held by revelers, draped on horses, flapping out of car windows and hanging outside homes and storefronts across the territory. [NYT]

Not all foreign countries though, will see the “multi-ethnic, secular” identity. Pakistan’s Daily Times heralds the announcement of its independence declaring “A Muslim Kosovo is born”. “Being a Muslim state”, it says, “— not yet Islamic — we hope that it survives”. It warns that the pan-Albanian movement could set off a regional scare, and “when Middle Eastern princes and kingdoms start knocking at the door with pots of money…may seduce the new state and cause its Muslim population to choose the wrong path”.

India must not recognise an independent Kosovo. In a narrow interpretation of its interests, good relations with Russia outweigh any gains from backing the breakway state. In the broadest sense, it is in India’s interests to see the emergence of secular, liberal, multi-ethnic democracies. India must not feed the defeatist logic of ethnic-religious nation states.

Update: In an op-ed in Mint, Bharat Karnad argues that “New Delhi should not only firmly decline to (recognise Kosovo), but it should wage a sustained diplomatic campaign to deny Kosovo international recognition and seating in the United Nations. The principle on which Kosovo is founded is antithetical to the concept of an inclusive democracy and India.”