A former Pakistani general pulled new strings in Afghanistan’s conflict in the summer of 2000, trying to set up a Pakistani-controlled ‘anti’ or ‘neo-Taleban’ force. It was to get rid of the increasingly discredited Mulla Omar, safeguard the alliance with the US – and Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan. The plan failed, or was abandoned – but the tale might serve as a lesson. By AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig(*)
In full confidence, retired General Anwar Sher sits in the cushions of his sofa, surrounded by diverse cups, an oil painting of a belling deer and a portrait that shows him as a young officer in full gala. A tea pot and an electrical fan, indispensable in the summer heat of Peshawar, complete the set-up.
Peshawar, the Pakistani city down the eastern mouth of the famed Khyber Pass, is the Mecca of the Afghan diaspora, and General Sher (‘the Lion’) is their latest talk in town.
The white-haired, moustachioed and highly eloquent ex-officer, barely 1.60 meters in height but almost as square, looks like a mixture of Omar Sharif and East German Stasi chief Erich Mielke. It is him who is supposed to frighten the Taleban across the border in Afghanistan: According to the rumours, the US – and, under its pressure, the Pakistani military regime – had enough of their terrorist connections and are looking for an alternative to this movement of religious students amongst the Pashtun majority of the neighbouring country.
General Anwar Sher is a Pashtun himself, born in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). He says he has revived his contacts to the tribes on the other side of the border he had established during the war against the Soviets during the 1980s and extended them to the other minorities, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras. He claims have contacts within all of Afghanistan’s 377 districts – he calls this creation of him National Islamic Peace Council of Afghanistan’s Tribes. Upon his signal, he explains to everyone who wants to listen to him, all over Afghanistan tribal elders and influential figures will rise up and lead an uprising against the Taleban. Their followers will disarm the Taleban very quickly. Those who resist the elders will be banished from their particular tribes – there is no bigger penalty for a Pashtun than this.
But hitherto no one knows fact and fancy in the general’s tale, whether he acts on his own initiative – as he claims – or whether he has the backing from the Pakistani leadership or its powerful intelligence service, the ISI. It is hardly believable that he would be able to discuss his plans publicly without being ruled in, if that wasn’t the case. He relates himself that half of the current military government once had sat in his lectures at the military academy. And as long as the question about General Anwar Sher’s real potential remains unanswered, US and other diplomats, journalists and Afghans from Pakistan and abroad line up at his doormat to find out.
The sheer possibility that there was some truth at the story about the planned uprising also has made the Taleban nervous. The movement already faces internal rifts and increasing resistance. Even amongst its main base, the Pashtun tribes, some reject their forced recruitment drives. Only last week, the population of Kajaki, not far from the Taleban stronghold in Kandahar, drove out a Taleban recruitment party and reportedly shot eight of its members. The Taleban sent in tanks to quell the revolt. In the south-eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost a movement grows stronger that wants to call the former King Muhammad Zaher back into the country. According to aid workers’ reports, even family members of high-ranking Taleban support this movement.
Coordinated tribal action could reduce the Taleban to a local power factor around Kandahar, a second Panjshir, as Sher jeers about the Taleban’s main adversary Ahmad Shah Massud who also does not control much territory anymore beyond his home valley.
On top of this, Sher Anwar’s plan seems to fit the US intentions who – after initial sympathies – increasingly dislike the Taleban because they shelter the international Islamist leader Osama ben Laden and are involved in the international drug trade. Under the US pressure, Pakistan seems to be urged to put some distance between itself and the Taleban. While Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf publicly has underlined his country’s friendship with Taleban a number of times – a gesture in the direction of the increasingly powerful Pakistani Islamists who support the Taleban -, Pakistan’s leadership meanwhile puts some pressure on the Islamic students movement, fearing to become isolated by Washington which manifestly turns toward India – and this during an endemic economic crisis. As a result, Musharraf has no choice.
Or has he? A fictitious de-Talebanisation of Afghanistan under Pakistani lead – namely through General Anwar Sher – , followed by a removal of the increasingly autocratic Taleban leader Mulla Muhammad Omar and the metamorphosis of the Taleban into a ‘new’ Pashtun movement – the same way, many former mujahedin once became Taleban – which, perhaps, would even turn over Osama could safeguard the jeopardized US-Pakistani alliance. And Pakistan’s influence on its neighbour, Afghanistan.
(*) This article was originally printed in Berlin’s die tageszeitung on 27 June 2000. Not available online.
This article was last updated on 21 Apr 2020