U.S. military strikes end marriage of convenience

As Taliban regime falls, Pakistan forges new relationships

War On Terrorism : The World

November 16, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

Some marriages of convenience end in disappointment, but few fail as spectacularly as the one forged seven years ago between Pakistan and the Taliban in the southern Afghan desert.

What began with the Taliban's rescue of a hijacked Pakistani truck convoy turned into a symbiotic relationship that propelled the Taliban to power just two years later. The Taliban, in turn, provided Pakistan with a friendly regime on its western border and secure trade routes to Central Asia.

In the end - as the world now knows - nothing turned out as either Pakistan or the Taliban had hoped.

The Taliban, pounded by U.S. bombs for protecting Osama bin Laden, are in retreat and disarray. Pakistan's enemy, the rebel Northern Alliance, controls most of Afghanistan. And Pakistan is left to nurse a battered reputation.

"The diplomatic costs have been horrendous, in terms of the image of Pakistan," said Rifaat Hussain, a defense analyst in Islamabad, referring to Pakistan's pro-Taliban policy. "And the domestic costs were enormous. We're still paying."

To understand how the alliance between Islamabad and the Taliban evolved and later failed, start at the beginning:

The year was 1994, and Afghanistan was ruled by warlords. The collapse of the Soviet Union had opened up the potential for rich trade with the now independent Central Asian republics. Pakistan was searching for a secure trucking route across Afghanistan to those new markets.

Standing in the way, though, were Afghan warlords who had set up tolls around the country and charged exorbitant fees. In years past, Pakistan had backed different factions in the Afghan civil war without success, and now it was desperate to find a force to tame them. That is, it was looking for a new partner.

An opportunity emerged that fall. In mid-October, Pakistan allowed a little-known group of Islamic warriors called the Taliban, which means "the students," to seize a cache of weapons near the border. Several weeks later, a band of warlords near the southern city of Kandahar hijacked a convoy of Pakistani trucks loaded with medicine bound for Turkmenistan.

At the request of Pakistani officials, the Taliban rescued the convoy. To set an example, they hung the corpse of one of the warlords from a tank barrel.

Suitably impressed, Pakistan increased its grants of arms and money to the Taliban, as they won control of 90 percent of the country.

For Islamabad, the benefits of the alliance appeared considerable. Trade flourished across the countries' 1,500-mile border.

After years of bad relations, Pakistan had a friendly, stable neighbor to the west.

So, Pakistan overlooked some of the Taliban's unsavory aspects, such as their radical interpretation of Islamic law.

The partnership seemed to be the fulfillment of a Pakistani military concept called "strategic depth." Since the late 1980s, army officials had called for developing a close relationship with Afghanistan to help Pakistan in case of war with its arch-rival, India.

Pakistan was partitioned as a Muslim state from British India in 1947 and has fought three wars with its Hindu neighbor to the east. In the 1965 war, Pakistan sent its fleet of commercial aircraft to Iran for protection. Pakistani generals thought the mountains of Afghanistan could provide the same kind of protection to tanks and military supplies in the event of another war.

Some critics in Pakistan thought the idea was silly. Indian bombers could reach targets in Afghanistan almost as easily as they could reach Pakistan.

And in 1998, when Pakistan and India detonated nuclear bombs, the concept of "strategic depth" became even less relevant.

But Pakistan's greatest error was its reliance on one group among Afghanistan's many warring parties.

At the time, though, ties between Pakistan and the Taliban seemed a good fit, in part, because of a shared Pashtun culture and language. The population of Afghanistan is 38 percent Pashtun; Pakistan's, 15 percent.

Most of Pakistan's Pashtuns live near the Afghan border, and the lines between the two countries blur. The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan created opportunities for Pashtun officials on the Pakistani side to profit heavily from smuggling.

A shared belief in Islamic fundamentalism fueled the relationship as well. Pakistan's ultra-conservative Islamic schools, known as madrassas, trained some of the Taliban's leaders. Madrassa students crossed the border to fight with the Taliban, beginning in the mid-1990s.

As the Taliban became more assertive, though, it was harder to tell which side was having a greater influence on the other. Through the presence of 2 million Afghan refugees, thousands of madrassas and some fundamentalist parties, the Taliban helped polarize politics in Pakistan, an otherwise moderate Islamic state.

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