Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghan Report: March 24, 2006

24 March 2006, Volume 5, Number 8
By Amin Tarzi

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be best described as tense ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Afghanistan took the first political shot at its new neighbor with a demand that Pashtun and Baluch tribes on the Indian subcontinent be granted the right to self-determination as the process of partition was beginning. The British decision to offer the tribes the choice of joining either Pakistan or India (they chose the former) was rejected by Kabul, which called for a third option: the creation of "Pashtunistan" -- a homeland for Pashtuns in the geographical area that now constitutes Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. India, at the time of partition, supported Kabul's cause. Afghanistan announced its policy regarding "Pashtunistan" by casting the lone vote against Pakistan's admittance to the United Nations in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003).

While Afghanistan and Pakistan did not engage in full-scale military action, mutual relations were hostile at best. Pakistan and Afghan ally India have engaged in three major wars.

In 1965, in a conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir, Indian forces approached the gates of Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city. Later in 1971, Pakistan lost its eastern territory, which became modern Bangladesh, due in part to Indian military strength.

While India has moved on from concentrating solely on the threat emanating from Pakistan and has sought to become a true global player, Pakistan has yet to move beyond an Indocentric worldview that regards India as an aggressor in Kashmir and as an existential threat to Pakistan. Confrontation with India has thus become part of Pakistan's national identity.

Pakistani policies are aimed in part at securing Afghanistan as a strategic safeguard against the perceived India threat. Islamabad received a helping hand toward effecting that goal when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Overnight, Pakistan became the center of an international effort to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Islamabad was hoping to see a client government in a weak and dependent Afghanistan in exchange for its hosting of millions of Afghan refugees and its masterminding the strategy to bring anticommunist forces to power in Kabul.

But when the communists were finally driven from power in 1992, Pakistan's main Afghan ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, failed to gain control of the government and Afghanistan was plunged into a bloody civil war.

Pakistan's second major attempt at controlling Afghanistan began with the fundamentalist Taliban regime's ascent to power in Kabul in 1996. The Taliban policy came to a deadly end after the Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- which had enjoyed safe haven in Taliban-led Afghanistan -- attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

The outcome of the resulting U.S.-led international military intervention to replace the Taliban regime with a system to lead Afghanistan toward democracy did not yield the results that Islamabad had sought.

The Islamabad-friendly Taliban were ousted and replaced by a government that Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf accused on March 6 of housing elements that are promoting a "deliberate [and] articulated conspiracy" against his country. One day earlier, Musharraf had accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of being "totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country," where he charged that anti-Pakistani policies are being pursued. After September 2001, Afghanistan had also become a center for international military and economic activity in which Pakistan's role was marginal. Lastly, and perhaps most disturbing to Islamabad, the new Afghan government has reinvigorated friendly ties New Delhi and began retooling its "Pashtunistan" policies.

For its part, the Afghan government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of serving as a base for much of violent insurgency directed against Afghanistan. Karzai himself, however, had maintained a more diplomatic line. Then in January, after a wave of dozens of suicide attacks that had killed nearly 100 people since mid-November, the Afghan president charged that "a neighbor" of Afghanistan had had a hand in the recent upsurge in violence (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, 2006). "The reason for these attacks is the continuation of subversive endeavors" by foreigners whose aim is "to dominate" Afghanistan, Karzai said. The former Taliban regime, the Afghan president continued, was part of a "hidden invasion" of Afghanistan "by a neighbor for the second time" since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979.

While clearly pointing to -- but refraining from directly identifying -- Pakistan, Karzai added that since the collapse of the Taliban regime following the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, those "who controlled Afghanistan during the Taliban regime have not altered their intentions." Karzai went on to say that the unnamed neighbor has continued to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs and, for "this reason, terrorism and attacks [are] still widespread."

In order to take his case to Musharraf personally, Karzai traveled to Pakistan in mid-February. According to Afghan sources, Karzai presented a list containing the names of former Taliban leaders living in Pakistan. For several days, Islamabad denied having received a list from their Afghan counterparts. Finally, in an interview on February 27, Musharraf defended his country's efforts in the war on terror, adding that the list Karzai had handed to him contained a "ridiculous" number of names. Two-thirds of the leads were "a waste of time," he added. Musharraf said that he had ordered his intelligence agencies to take foreign intelligence agents to the addresses supplied by the Afghans "so that their lies are once and for all nailed down."

Since 2003, Islamabad has accused its arch nemesis India of setting up camps in Afghanistan to train Afghans and Pakistanis as terrorists to destabilize Pakistan. With the recent and current instabilities challenging Islamabad's authority in Baluchistan and the FATAs, the fingers of accusation to India's involvement from across the border in Afghanistan have become louder in Pakistan.

Kabul also has revived its "Pashtunistan" policies, although it has avoided labeling them as such. During his recent visit to Pakistan, Karzai advocated an open-border policy between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- rejecting Musharraf's idea of fencing or mining the border. More ominously -- and perhaps less visibly -- Kabul, in a move reminiscent of the 1950s-80s, is inviting delegations of Pashtuns from the Pakistani side of the border to visit Afghanistan. A visit by a delegation from Kurram, one of the FATAs, to Afghanistan in early March, reportedly included a pledge of support by the Pakistani Pashtun delegation to the Afghan government. Media also carried a statement apparently made by the leader of the delegation suggesting that there is no difference between Pashtuns living in Afghanistan and those in Pakistan.

While Pakistan and Afghanistan are playing an old hand that has already been overplayed, the terrorists and their allies on both sides of the border are emboldened. Unless Pakistan accepts Afghanistan as an independent country -- one not subservient to its demands -- and Kabul begins to concentrate on events inside its own borders, international terrorism will reap benefits.

By Ron Synovitz

Dozens of people have been fleeing a Pakistani village near the border with Afghanistan on March 8 in fear of fighting between government troops and pro-Taliban militants. Artillery barrages by the Pakistani army destroyed at least five buildings in Naurak after militants there late on March 7 ambushed the convoy of the top administrator for the tribal region of North Waziristan. Meanwhile, the U.S. military's Central Command chief, U.S. General John Abizaid, visited Pakistan on March 8 for talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in an effort to defuse tensions between Kabul and Islamabad (see above).

The administrator of North Waziristan, Sayyed Zahir al-Islam, says he was not hurt when his convoy was ambushed late on March 7. But one of his bodyguards was shot dead.

Pakistani officials say their artillery barrages at Naurak targeted suspected hideouts of pro-Taliban fighters, killing at least four suspected militants.

But Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL March 8 that his organization is hearing from displaced villagers who say that civilians are being indiscriminately targeted by the Pakistani army.

"The Pakistani government has essentially banned all outside eyes [from monitoring a series of clashes that began last week]. So we don't really know what's going on," he said. "But [Pakistan's army has] a long history of collective punishment against whole communities when they get engaged in hostilities with rebels in the Northwest Frontier Province, or in Waziristan -- or with Taliban or Al-Qaeda. They often have a 'take no prisoners' mentality."

Pro-Taliban fighters who controlled North Waziristan's nearby administrative headquarters of Miran Shah during the weekend have dispersed into the rugged mountains and into villages along the border with Afghanistan under pressure from government air strikes. Pakistani army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan says at least 100 suspected militants are thought to have been killed.

Ian Kemp, an independent defense analyst in London, tells RFE/RL that the seizure of Marin Shah by militants suggests that Pakistan's army has less control over security in the tribal regions than Islamabad is willing to admit.

"I certainly think that's the case. Given the difficult nature of the terrain, it's very easy for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces to concentrate in the mountains for a particular operation -- whether it is [an ambush or] a raid on a town or a village. So they can concentrate in strength -- probably of a couple of hundred [fighters] -- and then overwhelm the Pakistani security forces in a particular location. And then, when Pakistani forces move in for the counterattack -- relying upon helicopter gunships and fighter jets to drop bombs -- then the opposition forces can fade away back into the mountains." Thousands of people have been fleeing the area around Miran Shah during a week of fighting that began when the Pakistani army attacked a nearby camp suspected of sheltering Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Kemp says it is not a coincidence that government troops launched the attack just two days before a visit to Islamabad by U.S. President George W. Bush.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that the timing of the operation was intended to deflect criticism from President Bush during his visit to Pakistan," he said. "The American authorities [and], to a lesser extent NATO, and certainly the Afghan government itself, have been highly critical of the porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ever since the United States overthrew the Taliban, they have been urging the Pakistani authorities to do more to tighten up security [in order] to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda [forces] from crossing the border almost at will."

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said during a visit to London on March 7 that Afghan forces need to do more on their side of the border to stop militants from using the area as a sanctuary.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai today responded to criticisms from Islamabad by saying that finger pointing does not help either country in the fight against terrorism.

"I wish our brother in neighboring Pakistan, his excellency, the president of Pakistan [Musharraf], would have more serious, more active, cooperation [with Afghanistan] in the fight against terrorism," Karzai said. "Cooperation will be for the good of both countries and the rest of the world."

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says Pakistan's concerns about improved relations between New Delhi and Kabul also are a factor in the diplomatic row.

"Observers view the relationships between Islamabad and Kabul as the lowest they have been since the demise of the Taliban [regime] in late 2001," he said. "Afghanistan is accusing Pakistan of either supporting the neo-Taliban and other militants or, at least, not doing enough to stop the infiltrations. On the other hand, Pakistan is openly critical of Afghanistan's relationship with India. And also, now they are accusing Afghanistan of supporting separatists and rebellious movements inside [the Pakistani province of] Balochistan."

Pakistan's private Geo-TV channel quotes Musharraf as telling Abizaid that Afghanistan's accusations against Pakistan could hamper counterterrorism efforts along the border.

Major General Sultan expressed hope that the meeting would help defuse tensions and bring an end to the finger pointing. Sultan says the meeting also focused on ways to improve intelligence sharing between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States.

By Ahto Lobjakas

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in Brussels on March 13 that the security situation in his country is improving, despite the recent increase in terrorist attacks. Speaking at NATO headquarters, Wardak said the increase in terrorist incidents and suicide bombings shows the insurgents are turning to softer targets as the Afghan National Army has gained the upper hand in the battlefield. He also called for a lasting NATO role in Afghanistan, but one that will increasingly rest more on symbolic presence, rather than large numbers of troops.

Speaking to reporters at NATO headquarters, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak offered a distinctly upbeat view of the security situation in the country.

Wardak conceded there has been a marked increase in terrorist activity in recent months, but argued that this represents a shift in strategy. That shift, in turn, he said, has come in response to the growing prowess of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

"Recently, there has been a rise in violence. The enemy has lost the capability to [counter] our forces in the field, so they are more resorting to terror tactics and going against softer targets," he said. "As a result of that, it looks like there is deterioration in the security situation, [but] I would say it is too early to reach that conclusion."

Wardak also suggested that the epicenter of the insurgency is correspondingly shifting out of Afghanistan. He said the numerous suicide bombings that have hit the country in the past few months are new -- and alien -- to the country and its culture.

"The suicide bomber is a new phenomenon. We Afghans do not believe that committing suicide is a way to [fight]. [It is] such [a] cowardly action. Out of all suicide bombings that have taken place in Afghanistan, only one case has been confirmed it has been an Afghan. Of the rest, every individual has been a foreigner."

Wardak said there is absolutely no local support for suicide bombers inside Afghanistan. He said that what is needed to counter suicide attacks is to improve the government's human intelligence capabilities and cooperation with local people in affected areas. Most important, he underscored, is to increase security on Afghanistan's borders, and "also some districts which neighbor our borders."

The latter formulation appears to be a reference to a war of words that has erupted between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Pervez Musharraf. Karzai has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to suppress the neo-Taliban insurgency within its own borders -- a charge that Pakistan denies. Karzai's visit to Pakistan last month appears to have produced no visible breakthroughs.

Wardak said on March 13 that Afghanistan continues to look for better cooperation from Pakistan.

"We would like to have more cooperation on the borders and to have coordinated efforts to overcome the present problem. This has been agreed in the meeting [of the two countries' presidents]. And as far as the Afghan government is concerned, we have followed the same path and we will be continuing to extend our hand towards our Pakistani neighbors."

Wardak said the two countries were waging, "a common war," that threatens Pakistan's peace and security as much as it does Afghanistan's.

He praised the fast-improving capabilities of ANA, saying it had received nothing but praise from NATO and coalition forces. NATO and other international forces should stay in Afghanistan until the country can, he said, "stand on its own feet," but no longer.

"Once that is achieved I doubt that there will be [a] need for the deployment of large formations of international troops in Afghanistan," Wardak said. "But in the meantime we would like to have enduring relations with organizations like NATO, which will serve as a [deterrent] against conventional threats to our country. But that will not mean that they will have to have thousands of troops in Afghanistan, that [is rather for] the political commitment and a symbolic presence."

Wardak echoed NATO officials in their recent observation that the alliance's presence is linked to the development of the ANA and other Afghan security forces. But the minister noted that the ANA is improving quickly and already taking over many tasks from western forces.

Wardak appeared to prefer a significantly shorter time scale for the withdrawal of NATO and coalition forces than western officials have suggested -- noting that under the terms of the 2001 Bonn Conference, the ANA will be fully operational within the next four or five years.

However, Wardak underlined that everything will depend on developments in Afghanistan's security situation, which, he noted, cannot be predicted.

Wardak said Afghanistan is also seeking to join NATO's Partnership for Peace project, of which its Central Asian neighbors are members. He noted Afghanistan's situation does not differ markedly from that of its northern neighbors.

The minister said Afghanistan will contribute a brigade of ANA forces to match the expansion of the NATO-led ISAF stabilization force to the south of the country -- known as "Stage Three." ISAF forces will increase by 5000 to 6000 troops as a result (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," December 20, 2005).

Wardak said the ANA and other Afghan security structures have already destroyed "thousands of acres" of poppy fields in the southern Helmand province. He said the operation was launched in advance of the arrival of ISAF forces, as cultivation activities are seasonal.

By Ron Synovitz

It has been five years since the Taliban regime demolished two ancient, giant Buddha statues carved into a hillside in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan. The demolition took place over two weeks in late February and early March 2001. At the time, few of those who joined the international chorus condemning the demolition imagined there might be a third statue -- an even larger "sleeping Buddha" -- buried in the same valley. But an Afghan-born archeology professor thinks he is close to uncovering a 300-meter-long Buddha statue buried in a horizontal position nearby.

Professor Zemaryali Tarzi is one of the world's most knowledgeable experts on the demolished Bamiyan Buddhas. Before fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he had spent three decades studying the area and repairing the two giant Buddhas that eventually were destroyed by the Taliban. Tarzi, who now teaches in France, plans to return to Bamiyan this summer for a fifth consecutive summer to continue his excavations. He talked to RFE/RL about the work he is doing in the shadow of the hill where the two giant Buddhas once stood.

RFE/RL: As the president of the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archeology and a man who dedicated decades of work to studying the Bamiyan Buddhas, how did you feel five years ago when you first learned that the giant statues had been completely destroyed by the Taliban as "un-Islamic"?

Tarzi: We didn't expect the Taliban to destroy the largest Buddha. When I saw on television that they had done this despite the pleas of UNESCO, I lost my temper. I took off my sandal and threw it at the television. I was so angry that I wanted to destroy the television.

RFE/RL: You have spent the four summers since the demise of the Taliban regime leading a team of French archeologists in a search for a third giant Buddha. This third statue is thought to be even larger that the 38-meter and 55-meter-high statues the Taliban destroyed.

Tarzi: The talk about a third Buddha is not new. Around 1975 or 1976, when I was still living in Afghanistan, I had studied the possibility of the existence of a third 'sleeping' Buddha. But I left the country before I could finish this work, and I didn't expect to ever return to Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Why do you think there is a third giant Buddha statue at Bamiyan? What are the historic sources that have led you to that conclusion?

Tarzi: I am searching now for a Buddha that I think is about 300 meters long and was built in a sleeping or lying position -- [originally within a very large temple complex]. We have been able to locate the right temple, and excavations are continuing. This is not a small compound. So we have not been able to finish our excavations within a year or two. We need to be patient and do this the right way. The temple is about 1.5 kilometers east of the ancient royal city of Bamiyan. That temple was discovered by my archeological team. We are now studying the travel journal of a Chinese tourist from the year 632 A.D. to see if descriptions of a third giant Bamiyan Buddha are accurate. [Editor's note: The descriptions in that travel journal of the two standing Buddhas proved very accurate.] In archeological work, any expected result is never a 100 percent guarantee. But we are continuing. If we find it, this would be the largest Buddha statue in the world. It is described as lying down horizontally with a length of about 300 meters -- and the form of the Buddha is said to have 1,000 legs.

RFE/RL: What kind of security has been offered by Afghan authorities to guard against vandalism, looting, or even attacks against your archeologists?

Tarzi: Before returning to Afghanistan [in 2002], I expected the security situation to be precarious. But I am pleased that there is peace and stability in Bamiyan now. The reception we've had from the people of Bamiyan and from the governor of Bamiyan Province has been better than we expected. So we don't have any problems with security [because guards are posted there around the clock].

RFE/RL: Your current excavations have been financed by the French Foreign Ministry and the American National Geographic Society. What other kind of archeological work is going on in Bamiyan related to the Bamiyan Buddhas?

Tarzi: The Japanese government and UNESCO has allocated a large amount of money for the restoration and maintenance of all of Bamiyan's monuments. This is true. But on the other hand, the director of UNESCO [Koichiro Matsuura] is from Japan. That is why the Japanese project in Afghanistan gets more support from UNESCO than ours. I think officials in the Afghan central government also have a favorable attitude about the Japanese project.

RFE/RL: In the past four years, you already have uncovered the heads of many smaller Buddha statues. You have said that this is why you think you have found the area of the temple complex around a giant sleeping Buddha?

Tarzi: With the ongoing excavations in the eastern temple -- to the southeast of where the 38-meter Buddha once stood -- the goal has not been just to find the heads of statues. Many statues have been found: I'd say that 30 to 40 heads have been discovered. All of these finds are recorded, and our findings our published each year to let others know about it. These are very valuable monuments of an ancient type that has been discovered for the first time at Bamiyan.

RFE/RL: What impact do you think the discovery of a third giant Buddha at Bamiyan would have on the psyche of those Afghans who feel the Taliban destroyed one of the most important symbols of Afghan history?

Tarzi: The impact upon the morale of Afghans and the national conscience will be significant. On the other hand, a large number of other Afghan monuments also have been destroyed. So when we find a new monument, it gives the country something that helps make up for those treasures that have been lost.

(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz and Radio Free Afghanistan reporters Sami Abass and Sultan Sarwar.)