By Brian M Downing
Hopes for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan are beginning once more, but the problematic Byzantine geopolitics are not readily apparent. It is not the bipolar confrontation between Britain and Russia that it was in the 19th century. Nor is it simply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) against the Taliban. The war in Afghanistan involves Pakistan against India, China against India, the Pashtun Afghans against the northern peoples, Saudi Arabia against Iran, and Russia against China. So arcaneand intricate are these conflicts that the US is allied with enemies and at odds with allies.
Pakistan against India
Afghanistan has long been a theater in the long conflict between Pakistan and India. The two states have been rivals since their inception and thus far India has been the political, economic, and military winner – a disturbing imbalance which decisively shapes the outlooks of the Pakistani army and parts of the population.
Following Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war in which it lost East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) it embarked on infusing religion with nationalism, and the aspirations and animosities of the army became part of education in the country’s madrassas (seminaries). In the absence of a significant national school system, this meant that army ideology became pervasive.
Afghanistan took on immense strategic value. The foreboding mountainous regions along the Af-Pak line offered a solid redoubt from which the army could continue the fight should India’s demonstrably superior conventional forces conquer the Punjab, Sindh, and other low-lying areas. Behind the mountains dwell the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan – fellow Muslims and close cousins of the Pashtun in Northwest Pakistan.
The army spread its nationalist-Islam across the Af-Pak line via indigenous mullahs and students who came from Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan. It was hoped to solidify the potential Afghan redoubt and to counter Indian influence with non-Pashtun people in northern Afghanistan, but it soon became part of a more global contest.