The Americans are leaving behind an Afghan National Army (ANA) which is more than 250,000-strong, and historically the largest in a country ravaged by state failure. Its officers’ corps is filled by a majority of non-Pashtuns: Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras. The rank and file is plurally dominant Pashtun, apparently undivided but subject to intimidation by the Taliban.
Chances are that the ANA will fall apart after the Americans leave. But one must remember that even in a state of internal division, all of them hate the Taliban. The Afghan Pashtuns who have been polled also show that they overwhelmingly hate the Taliban. The ANA will be somewhat buttressed by the US which has pledged to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan till 2014 in a strategic agreement with Kabul to be signed in Chicago next month.
Dilip Hiro’s latest book Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia (Yale University Press 2012) talks about the past muster of the Afghan Army after the Soviets left: “The civil war erupted about three years after the pullout by the Soviet Union. On the eve of their departure, Afghan president Najibullah declared a state of emergency and appointed a new 22-member Supreme Council for the Soviet military academies, and raised 45,000 Special Guards to replace the departed Soviet troops…In March 1989, his soldiers frustrated a bid by Afghan Mujahedin’s interim government to capture Jalalabad”.
Najibullah, in January 1990, gave autonomy to Hazaras and Uzbeks, which won him the backing of the ten thousand-strong Uzbek militia led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who defected from the Mujahedin camp. Yet, his rival Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud boasted the best army in Afghanistan, numbering 30,000. Will the Tajik faction inside the ANA now fight the Taliban after the American exit?
Will someone additionally help by binding the Uzbek-Tajik rift in the Northern Alliance? Hiro tells us that in the past, when Pak-Saudi backing sent the Taliban into Afghanistan, Iran and the Central Asian states panicked and approached Russia for help: “Central Asia and Russia remain resolutely opposed to the Taliban while Iran tries to juggle its position between the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, stiffly opposing the US, and maintaining clandestine contacts with the Taliban”.
The Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) has six members: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It assumed anti-terrorism functions in 1998, held military exercises in 2000, established a secretariat in 2004 and changed its name from the Shanghai Five to SCO in June 2001 when it admitted Uzbekistan as the sixth member. Russia doesn’t want the Americans to leave Afghanistan. It describes terrorism as “threat from failing states” which is presumably how it looks at Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Will the Central Asians again seek help from Russia? “In 1989 after the exit of the Soviets, the Taliban’s triumph alarmed the five Central Asian republics. Their leaders met in the Kazakh capital of Alma Aty on October 4-5. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, urged his counterparts to strengthen Dostum’s Northern Alliance government, which controlled six provinces. He provided it with military and economic aid”.
This time the war is going to be more chaotic. The Pakistan-backed Haqqani network sits atop all of the Punjabi non-state actors that Pakistan is scared of: the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, the Jaish-i-Muhammad, Uzbek warriors of IMU and all others that Pakistan evacuated from Kunduz after 2001 when Dostum fell on them in the wake of American invasion. If the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan has had a decade in which to prepare itself against Pakistan, the non-state actors of Pakistan are also sure about what they will do to Pakistan after triumphing in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2012.