From Napoleon to Najibullah – Jostling for Control in & around Afghanistan

BamyanFrench Emperor Napoleon and Russian Emperor Alexander II approached the Peace of Tilsit on July 7, 1807 to settle, mostly, the questions of war and peace. The agenda included the fate of French possessions in Europe and the future of Prussia, yet Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not made public at that time. The undisclosed Franco-Russian understanding was about Napoleon’s wish to aim at Britain’s eastern source of opulence. India needed to be relieved from its British burden. That is how William Dalrymple touches upon the story of the genesis of the great game in Hindukash/Khurasan/Afghanistan in his Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan.

Dalrymple informs that the seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon and of several previous French strategists. Few years earlier, in 1798, French Emperor had based his troops in Egypt. “‘Through Egypt we shall invade India,’ he wrote. ‘We shall re-establish the old route through Suez.'” To the military assistance plea of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the Emperor’s response was, “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies.”

But Admiral Nelson, then, intercepted Napoleon’s plans in the Nile. Relentless in vacating India from Britain, the Emperor now turned his attention towards the land routes through Persia and Afghanistan. Persian Emperor was asked to grant passage to the French army. Dalrymple tells, “At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grand Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan.”

British Governor General in India, Lord Minto had soon been made privy to the secret clauses of Tilsit Peace by his effective British intelligence. To this, Minto sent four separate diplomatic expeditions to ‘warn and win over’ the in-between authorities. British Indian emissaries went to Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar in Tehran, to Ranjit Singh in Lahore, to the rulers of Sindh states and to Shah Shuja in Kabul. According to Dalrymple Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. “A French invasion of India through Persia was not ‘beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France’, he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the ‘very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.'”

Henceforth, William Dalrymple goes deeper into the story of Shah Shuja and of his handling by the British Indian administration.

On the other hand, Napoleon’s military expedition to India through Persia never took shape as the French Emperor got embroiled in subsequent European politics. His accord with the Russians had collapsed. In the east, Persia was passing through its own post-Safavid turbulence. Yet, Britain was consolidating its presence in northern India. As the 19th century advanced, British merchants were broaching the Central Asian markets; its intelligence agents were surveying the geopolitical dimensions of the region. The Russians were not pleased.

It was in such a setting that Governor of Orenburg, General Perovski, had argued to his Russian superiors that if the British succeeded in establishing themselves in Kabul ‘it would be only a step for the British to reach Bukhara; Central Asia would be subjected to their influence, our Asian trade would be ruined, they might arm…our Asian neighbours against us, and supply them with powder, weapons and money.’ This argument is borrowed from Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, written by retired British diplomat Rodric Braithwaite, who, in a pithy style, introduces the elementary moments in the genesis of the great game, especially from the Russian perspective: “One confidential analysis after another argued that the British were aiming at establishing control over Central Asia and driving out the Russian trade; and that it was essential for the Russians to pre-empt them. Whether the British ever had any such intention is not so important. The belief affected and distorted policymaking in St Petersburg and Orenburg, just as policy-making in London and Delhi was effected and distorted by the belief that the Russians intended to come through Afghanistan into India. Paranoia affected judgement in all four cities.”

As the 19th century approached its end, German ascendancy in Europe impelled a hesitant Anglo-Russian arrangement over Afghanistan. Amu Darya was agreed as a frontier between Afghanistan and Russia. The British insisted that the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman assume sovereignty over the Wakhan Corridor, in the north east corner, so that British India and Russian Empire could remain noncontagious.

Still, most derisive for the local inhabitants – with grave and lasting international and strategic consequences – was the sketching of the Durand Line among the tribal lands of Pushtun. On one hand, the line delineated British India from Afghanistan, but on the other hand, it had split the Pushtuns who were the principal regional ethnicity. Peshawar went under the Hindustani Durbar. Successive Afghan regimes never acquiesced to the loss of territories. Kabul voted against Karachi when the Pakistani inclusion was sought to the United Nations in 1947. Daud Khan, Afghan Prime Minister and later President, backed the cause of ‘Pushtunistan’ which called for the recovery of the Pushtun lands on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. Islamabad, in its discontent in the nineteen seventies, was beginning to experiment with retaliation and control tactics on its smaller eastern neighbor.

Yet, how the local Pushtuns responded to the imposed borders? Braithwaite has an interesting account, “The local people took no notice of the Durand Line except when they were compelled: they feuded, smuggled, traded, and fought indifferently on both sides of the border. The British attempted to control the border in the 1920s and the and the 1930s by a policy of ‘butcher and bolt’, with punitive raids against errant tribesmen, including the destruction their villages from the air. Soviet attempts to seal the border during the war of 1979-89 were almost a total failure.” The US intelligence was made aware of this situation during ‘the Mujahideen’ resistance against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Washington would also, militarily, try its luck in and around the steppes, gorges, defiles and cliffs of Hindukash by the turn of the twenty-first century.

For the Soviet administration, US threat had replaced the waning British presence in Afghanistan after 1945. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had shown attention to the landlocked country by visiting Kabul in 1974 and 1976. Before in 1955, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Party Secretary of the Soviet Union had visited Kabul. Khrushchev’s thinking was that Washington was enticing Kabul into the American camp, because it intended to set up military bases in Afghanistan (Khrushchev Remembers, London, 1971, cited in Braithwaite’s Afgantsy) Such concerns played a part in the Soviet decision to militarily intervene in Afghanistan in 1979.

Soviet Union had to respond to many questions. First, how should they react to Kabul’s increasingly desperate pleas for Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency? then, What could the Russians do about the deviousness, brutality and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul? finally and after being ensnared, What was the real Soviet interest in Afghanistan? Historians and strategic experts would continue to grapple with such puzzling enquires, however Soviet government’s official justification for intervention was provided by its Defense Minister Dmitriy Feodorovich Ustinov as follows: “In view of the political and military situation in the Middle East the latest appeal by the government of Afghanistan has been considered positively. It has been decided to introduce a few contingents of Soviet forces, deployed in the southern regions of the country, on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in order to provide international help to the friendly Afghan people, and also to create favourable conditions for the prevention of possible anti-Afghan actions on the part of neighbouring states…”   

That Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan was a Soviet thrust for the sake of Great Game was a canard. No one in New Delhi felt threatened. India was, on the contrary, the only South Asian country which recognized the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government and the presence of Soviet military personnel. General Zia of Pakistan was made aware of the limited scope of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by his able Foreign Minister Agha Shahi. But, Pakistani General, nevertheless, went on to paint the Soviet intervention with the semantics of the Great Game. He was part of fostering a belief among the people of region that the Russians were aiming for warm Indian ocean. In this endeavor, General Zia was assisted by the US administration, and was especially prompted by the Congressman Charlie Wilson to do more than just keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan. The water did boil over in the region and General Zia did fatally burned from its spill. Some twenty years later, and just before his death, Senator Charlie Wilson, with a nonchalant demeanor, would share that he had always considered the Soviet intervention as Afghanistan specific sans any Russian desire to cross the Durand Line.

The cold war ideological construct is more suitable to ponder over the events related to the Russians in Afghanistan. The last days of Soviet intervention substantiate. When the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze forwarded to Moscow a proposal from the Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah to help protect the southern city of Kandahar from Mujahideen blockade in the late 1988, Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev, leading foreign policy adviser during the final days of the Soviet Union, was livid in his response, “Has he gone off his head? Doesn’t he see Najibullah is laying a trap to ensure we don’t leave, and to embroil us with the Americans and the whole of the rest of the world? Or hasn’t he got the guts to produce the counter-arguments?” An argument ensued:

Shevardnadze: You’ve not been there. You’ve no idea all the things we have done there in the past ten years.

Chernyaev: But why should we compound our crimes! What’s the logic in that? We’re not going to be able to save Najibullah anyway…

Shevardnadze: But he says that if he can hold out for a year after we leave, he will be able to survive indefinitely…

Chernyaev: And you believe that? And for that you’re ready to sacrifice our boys and break the engagement we gave in Geneva?

The cold war dynamics were in full swing. Dr Mohammad Najibullah’s fate was sealed. Later, he would naively expect to remain unaffected thinking of the Pashtun makeup of Taliban. Najibullah himself belonged to the Ahmadzai sub-tribe of the Ghilzai Pashtun tribe.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukash. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.


Elections in Pakistan – A Trajectory for Gen Kayani

There is one central question, having international consequences, in the month of May: Who will govern Pakistan after the May elections? The question is important as it also leads us to explore the keen internal tussle that lies ahead between the politicians and military leadership in Islamabad.

Pakistanis are casting their vote at a time when the regional geopolitics is extremely fluid. Iran would elect its new president in June this year. Present Pakistani and Iranian presidents have agreed to construct a gas pipeline between the two states, which would be partly financed by the Chinese. The Saudis are not hiding their displeasure with the emerging arrangements, and in this context it is less striking how a leading Saudi press organ has permitted its space for using adjectives like cunning, sly and selfish to describe the present Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari.

Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 severed the Indian link with Central Asia and rarefied its geographical connectivity with the Middle East. Though, Indian elite opinion still remains mute about approaching the Middle East (read Iran) through Pakistan, India would like to reach to the Central Asian markets using the strategic geography of Pakistan. Indian media is casting Nawaz Sharif in favorable terms, and there’s the rub – how do you get to Central Asia through a possible Nawaz Sharif government when his political party is conniving in the elections with militants having links with the Taliban?

With this, and in an anti-clock wise manner, one comes to the Land of Afghans and its impact upon the present Pakistani politics. As the Pakistanis currently think of going to the polls, the Islamabad-Kabul equation is in disarray. For Pakistan, legitimization of its western frontier with Afghanistan is of foremost strategic priority. Primarily for this reason, it has been trying to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan over the last four decades.

But, how to deal when Afghan president Hamid Karzai could resist Islamabad’s attempts to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan. Given Karzai’s hailing from the pivotal Afghan tribes of the south, he does have the dangerous capacity to entice the Pashtun political sphere away from Taliban in Afghanistan. It appears that Karzai has a political plan for himself for the next year, and perhaps beyond, which is seemingly not matching with the policymakers in Islamabad. His latest volleys aimed at Islamabad over issues of the Durand Line and Taliban could be interpreted in this complex context. Incidentally  Afghans are also supposed to elect a new President in 2014.

Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistani armed forces, presumably has a daunting task ahead. Other than regional geopolitical intricacies, he also needs to concentrate on charting a future course for the US-Pakistan interaction. US has not disclosed its intentions for post-2014 Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, is aiming for a tough bargain with Washington. In this situation, Gen Kayani needs an experienced personality for Islamabad who has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, and simultaneously who is also adept in navigating the local military & political dimensions.

As Pakistanis go to the polls, a few points of immediate relevance would help: (i) No one political system of governance is natural or ideal. (ii) Political systems are nurtured and shaped to suit local conditions & requirements to achieve and safeguard national interests. (iii) The leading Pakistani political parties, except Imran Khan’s Justice Party, are clan based with stiff hereditary control. (iv) Voters, even with literacy, are susceptible to tribal, feudal, clannish and sectarian influences and considerations. (v) Leading political parties, irrespective of their program or manifesto, look for electable candidates in constituencies, and tend to overlook financial corruption, tax evasion and loan default. (vi) There is not a single political leader of national stature in today’s Pakistan.

In this matrix, it is imperative to understand Gen Kayani’s internal constraints. At this critical juncture, there could be grave risks in entrusting total authority to those who have already been tested and who have questionable democratic credentials. The Pakistani military is combating internal militants, and a consensus is slowly emerging that Imran Khan, the cricket legend, could do the tricky negotiations part with the militants for their peaceful reintegration into their own regions. The cricketer turned politician has stirred the imagination of many, especially the sizable youth segment that is to vote for the first time.

Imran Khan’s injuries that he has sustained from a fall during a rally are expected to generate additional sympathy vote for him. To quote a local journalist from the Guardian’s report about the electoral salience of the incident, “This really resonates because people like the image of a fighter, of a warrior,” and “He took this terrible fall and he’s recovering quickly – that is a powerful image.”

For Pakistan’s internal front, Imran is a reasonable administrative choice. But, Obama administration has recently named a new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. James F. Dobbins has a tough assignment ahead in Kabul and in Islamabad. Yet, who will be the Pakistani special representative to confront a fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, as well as an uncertain American military presence in Afghanistan?

The need for an experienced Pakistani personality for Islamabad that has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, as well as an ability to navigate the local military & political dimensions could lead Gen Kayani towards the splendid military farm at the outskirts of Rawalpindi where his ex-boss General Pervez Musharraf is presently incarcerated. The May 2013 elections in Pakistan are a multiple-cast political thriller.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for all his latest analysis on international questions.