By Naeem Wardag, Indus Asia Online Journal, December 3, 2008

Since the Afghan War, important power quarters in Pakistan have been propagating a particular interpretation of the security situation in Afghanistan through a variety of means ranging from the vociferous propaganda of the religious right to the more subtle works and ways of the allied experts strategically deployed here and there. Joined the campaign lately have also some ideologues of the liberal left-in particular from Punjab – whose paradigm of the class-struggle fully converge with the “cosmic struggle metaphysics” of the extreme religious right at this point of time as far as their analysis of the problem is concerned.

Thus, it is not a wonder that the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan as the prime cause of the problem happens to be the common strand in the analysis of these two sides. Taliban as the legitimate resistance movement against US imperialism is another “opinion” shared by the two groups. In short, the views of the two factions match in outline as well as substance.

Mr. Tariq Ali, a leftist writer, based in UK and hailing from the powerful province of Punjab in Pakistan, has for a time emerged one of the loudest voices on the issue disseminating his views on different forums. Like strategic and Islamic hardliners in Rawalpindi-Islamabad, who resent the presence of international forces in Afghanistan as the curtailment of their influence in the region, Mr. Tariq Ali is also hypercritical of the presence of US, Canadian, and other NATO forces in that country calling it an occupation of Afghanistan and imperialism by the US.

His recent commentary on Afghanistan came in his talk to the South Asian Forum at University of Toronto on November 14, 2008. This time Mr. Tariq Ali was more emphatic in pointing to US-imperialism as the fundamental cause of the problem and went a step farther to call Taliban a legitimate resistance movement against US occupation and an expression of Pashtun nationalist sentiments.

Mr. Tariq Ali has been propagating this unilateral view of the issue with such persistency and vigour that it may create further misperceptions if not countered with alternate viewpoints. The fact is, the problems of that region are complex and caused by a variety factors – regional, extra-regional, ideological, political, and ethno-cultural to count a few. The causes are also rooted deep in the political history of the region especially of the past 200 years. This is especially true if viewed from the standpoint of Pashtuns who have been the victims of the regional-global power-politics since 19th Century.

Nevertheless, Mr. Tariq Ali lumps everything under imperialism and anti-imperialism and finds a link between anti-imperialism, Pashtun nationalism, and Taliban movement. This highly reductionist approach may be based on his understanding of the issue or, more likely, catering to the needs of his own nationality but this also unfortunately conceals more fundamental causes of the problem. Mr. Imtiaz Baloch of Baloch Human Rights Council of Canada in his article published on different websites alludes to one, and probably the most important, of these fundamental causes by mentioning the term, “the dominant nationality” – a term commonly understood in domestic discourse in power and politics in Pakistan but less known outside.

This fundamental cause is the imperialistic nature of relationship between various nationalities in Pakistan itself and its implications for the wider region. A doctrinal acceptance of this fact can be found in an excerpt from the geopolitics course taught in Staff College Quetta – Pakistan quoted by Stephen P. Cohen in his book “The Pakistan Army”, which says that Punjab is the core of Pakistan and rest of the provinces are just invasion routes. An emphasis on the fact is also placed through such phrases like Punjab as “the sword arm of Pakistan” and “the bastion of Pakistan ideology”.

A further indication of this fact can be found in numerous punitive expeditions sent by the dominant/core nationality in Pakistan into the rest of the three provinces to suppress the demand of peripheral nationalities for due rights. In this regard, one can cite the three military operations carried out in East Pakistan against the Bangali majority beginning with “Operation Jute” in early fifties and ending at “Operation Searchlight” in 1971, which resulted in the killing of hundred of thousands of Bangalis and dismemberment of the country itself. Five military operations have been conducted so far in Baluchistan not to mention a state structure in place since 1947 that marginalizes other provinces.

If this domination were limited to Pakistan, probably, there wouldn’t have been much problem. But when projects were launched to turn it into regional domination thanks the growth in the power of the core nationality due to an absolute control over state structures and resources, collaboration with big powers during ‘Cold War’, rise of a prosperous middle class, the desire to consolidate Muslim identity vis-à-vis Hindu identity, and newly acquired nuclear pride, tremors were sent across the region.

That is how one good day in May 1988, General Zia Ul Haq, the military strongman from Punjab, declared to Selig Harrison that Pakistan has earned itself the right to have a pro-Pakistan Islamic government in Kabul that would pull Central Asia back into the fold of Islam — and that Pakistan intends to establish its influence in the region stretching as far as Turkey and Iran. Two prominent military generals from Punjab, Gen Hamid Gul and Gen Akhthar Abdur Rahman Khan are said to lay out a meticulous plan to realize Zia’s dream. The alleged plan materialized in Taliban creation and Kashmir insurgency.

So much religious importance was attached to General Zia’s vision that when Nawaz Sharif and Lt. General Javed Nasir, the powerful Punjabi politician and the rather more powerful Punjabi chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), visited Kabul after the fall of Dr. Najib’s government, they raised slogans of “Allah-o-Akbar” i.e. “Allah is great” and prostrated immediately after emerging from their plane on Kabul airport as if they have landed on a newly conquered infidel land. This open demonstration of hegemony offended Afghan officials even in the friendly Mujadidi government.

How strong the resolve to implement Zia’s vision was, can be gauged from the fact that at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a little known but an all-influential ISI officer from a small town in Punjab, Colonal Imam was acting as an advisor to Mullah Ummar. In reality, his status was that of a viceroy. During the same period, some stranded fighters in Afghanistan had to be extricated through a special operation known as “The Airlift of Evil”. There are numerous other examples of the deep involvement.

The fact is, it is fundamentally the imperial overgrowth of the power of the dominant nationality and its regional ambitions not Pashtun nationalism that is driving the so-called anti-imperialist struggle. It is the fear of further loss of power and influence should a balance in relations between nationalities and states in the region emerge that is fanning the instability.

Alas, when Mr. Tariq Ali writes, he writes only about US imperialism and the status of Prsedient Karzai government in Kabul despite the fact that presence of US, Canadian, and NATO troops has been mandated by UN and Karzai has been elected by Afghan people through a democratic process and his govt is internationally recognized contrary to Taliban who had been imposed on Afghans and were recognized only by their three ideological and political mentors.

Mr. Tariq Ali never mentions imperialism in the regional setting and its adverse impacts on the people and communities there. That is why his recipe for the problem is the same as popular with religious and strategic hardliners in Islamabad-Rawalpindi, which implies virtual reversal to pre-2001 like situation. The purpose is the re-instatement of the local/regional imperialism of the dominant nationality and its control over Afghan/Pashtun population through religious fanatics and their medieval ways. If such dreams materialized, it will set the whole of South Asia, Central Asia, and Middle East on fire.

Contrary to what Mr, Tariq Ali propagates, Taliban do not represent Pashtun nationalism. They do not draw their inspiration from Pashtun culture, identity, or history. Their ideology has been imported for them from the real basis of pan and political Islam across the Indus. This ideology has more to do with the regional ambitions of the elite of the dominant nationality as envisioned by General Zia than with Pashtun aspirations.

It is also a wrong to say that Taliban are an ethnically homogeneous group. They are an amalgam of Jehadists from different ethnicities and nations. Prominent among them are the more ideological Punjab-based groups like Jaish-i-Mohammad, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar-i-Toiba, etc., whose creation pre-date Taliban, although, this fact is seldom highlighted by non-Pashtun Pakistani writers. What they highlight is the Pashtun connection of Taliban.

When Mr. Tariq Ali equates Taliban movement to Pashtun nationalism, he greatly offends Pashtuns who have immensely suffered at their hands. One can mention thousands of innocent girls in Swat and FATA who have been deprived of education through intimidation and destruction of their schools not to mention thousands of Pashtuns that have perished in suicide bomb blasts and hundreds of thousands of them that have been displaced. He neither discusses the thousands of Pashtuns that have risen against Taliban nor their recent electorate choice.

Pashtun nationalism survives in the movements of Bacha Khan (ANP), Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai (PMAP), other political parties, and the aspirations of general Pashtun masses for peace and progress despite a century of marginalization. It is maintaining its power-base, standing its ground, and holding onto its liberal traditions. It will never allow its society to be permanently hijacked by forces of obscurantism.

Naeem Wardag is a Pashtun and living in of St. Catherin, Ontario. Mr. Wardag can be reached at nkwardag@gmail.com