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What Transpires in Afghanistan

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Author: Musa Khan Jalalzai
Publisher: New York, Algora Publishing, 2014

Book Review by Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed *

As 2014 draws to a close, the concern uppermost in the mind of many an individual is that of the future of Afghanistan once the US pulls out (will they really or can they really or should they really?). What happens in Afghanistan will inevitably carry deep implications and ramifications for neighbours and indeed the wider world.

The foreword to the book is written by Lieutenant General (retd) Asad Durrani, the former director general of Pakistan’s ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Both contributions make interesting reading. He makes an unusually caustic remark contrasting the mercenary nature of the Pakistani army, a fighting force created by the British Raj, with the Afghan armed forces when he says, “I do not know of many other countries where the soldiers proudly wearing emblems touting their unit, while in service of a foreign power, massacred its own people.

I believe the Afghans, while pragmatic when dealing with power, are too proud to worship it.” He does not specify when the Pakistan army played such a role while in the service of a foreign power. Is he referring to the role the British Indian army (of which the Pakistan army is a direct descendant) during the colonial period or the more recent partaking of the Pakistani army in President Bush’s “war on terror”, or perhaps both? Another assertion he makes is that the Afghans told the Pakistanis that they could safely move their soldiers from the western front during the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. That is exactly what Pakistan did and the western front remained quiet during the duration of those wars. One can hope that General Durrani will provide reliable evidence of such an understanding between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the general impression is that Afghanistan has always leaned towards India. 

Jalalzai is a veteran Afghan journalist who also writes a column for Daily Times. There is no doubt that he is well informed about what goes on in Afghanistan. He has drawn upon a great deal of relevant material to demonstrate his thesis that the Afghan National Army (ANA) will not be able to operate as an effective force, maintain the peace and thus help consolidate Afghanistan as a nation state. He reiterates General Durrani’s argument that the ANA is perceived by the Afghans as a force that was created under the tutelage of a foreign power. In the context of Afghan history, such a fighting force is destined to fail in winning the support of the Afghans who have always despised foreign intervention in their country.

Moreover, its ethnic composition is heavily slanted in favour of the nationalities of the northern areas. The biggest nationality of Pashtuns is under-represented. Moreover, sectarian divisions existing in Afghan society are reflected in the ANA as well. The Taliban have been able to exploit such weaknesses and, despite claims to the creation of a fighting force of 250,000, high rates of desertion have been noted. The actual fighting strength is not more than 100,000. US and NATO reports have warned that the collapse of the ANA will plunge Afghanistan into a brutal civil war once again. He cites several examples of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on US and NATO forces. Then of course there are scores of suicide bombers recruited from the poorest sections of society. Terrorism can therefore play havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even India and China are cases in point of countries to which terrorism can be exported. 

Jalalzai severely criticises the Afghan government that has failed to provide clean and transparent governance. Corruption is rampant. Notorious war criminals, drug mafia bosses and warlords are present in the corridors of power. Nepotism and tribalism are rampant in its affairs. There has hardly been an improvement with regards to the rights of women. Under these circumstances, neither the armed forces nor the civil government can operate as cohesive and coherent organs of the state. 

Unlike General Durrani who obliquely suggests that Afghanistan and Pakistan have been friendly and, during the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan secretly sided with Pakistan, Jalalzai adheres to the more familiar understanding that, from the outset, relations between them have been bad originating from the disputed border created by the Durand Line (1893), which effectively divides the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan, something the Afghans reject while Pakistan wants to have the Durand Line declared as the international border. In the more immediate period, he writes, “Relations between Pakistan and the ANA have never been friendly due to Pakistan’s interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan” (page 142). Such a policy will continue as Pakistani generals are poised to use the Taliban to contain Indian influence in Afghanistan and the Taliban and ISI have infiltrated the ANA. With regard to India, he asserts that it has played an important role in the development sector but it too was involved in clandestine activities and a special intelligence agency, RAMA, has been created as a unit within RAW for Afghanistan. Jalalzai writes that 50 nations are involved in intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. 

The main message in the book is that if the US abandons Afghanistan again, a brutal civil war with Pakistan, India, Iran, China and other players being drawn into another ‘great game’ will break out. Such an ill-fated future for Afghanistan is inevitable because the ANA is not capable of preventing internal dissensions and external manipulations subverting the peace. Jalalzai is convinced that the US will maintain its presence for a long time and that it will use its facilities to spy on Russia and China. 

The recent Afghan elections that brought into power a government of national unity headed by President Ashraf Ghani, which includes representatives nominated by his main rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah, are not included in the book but one can assume that Jalalzai does not invest much hope in it. On the whole, the book strikes a dismal note of despair and frustration. Afghan agony and suffering, according to him, will continue unfortunately. 

The reviewer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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