Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Return of the Mamluk empire

President Obama’s olive branch of talks with a moderate Taliban has furrowed brows in New Delhi. For India there is no good or bad Taliban only extremists bent on creating an Islamic state stretching across the subcontinent. India sees talk of talks with the Taliban as worse than appeasement. Already the media has picked up on the French foreign minister's innocuous comments on having to accept a possible Taliban's victory - if it came through the ballot.

True Obama has promised to raise troop levels in Afghanistan a la the Iraqi surge, but analysts worry in Delhi that this is simply a prelude to a phased withdrawal under the gaze of a US-installed regime.

For New Delhi this opens the way for the worst possible option: a soft Taliban in Kabul backed by Islamabad – which according to defence analyst Ajai Shukla would allow “the Pakistani army to run Afghanistan on its behalf”.

But Shukla undermines this thesis with a pertinent point.

“The unpredictability within Pakistan is multiplied, say Indian officials, by the fragmentation within Pakistan’s radical fringe. During the anti-Soviet jehad in the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan dealt with just one jehadi leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In 2005, when negotiating a ceasefire in Waziristan, Pakistan had 17 tribal Shoora (council) chiefs sitting at the table. Now there are dozens of shooras, often with competing demands.”

Pakistan no longer has no single telephone number to call in the badlands along the Durand line. It could create one by boosting a single Islamic group with arms and cash so that it could wipe out its rivals.

But controlling - let alone unifying - the Taliban, who have an expansive ideological agenda distinctive from the Pakistani state, will be no easy task.

The cutting off of Nato supply lines in NWFP, the bombing of Shia mosques in Punjab and the razing to the ground of a police station point to a much bigger problem. One where imperial masters are toppled by former slaves. If this were ever to happen it would be a reprisal of the Mamluk age – when tribal vassals took over empires in South Asia and the Arab world.

The point is that Islamists do not want to be controlled. They want to control. They are authoritarians who will privilege a small percentage of Muslims to rule over all others. From where this Islamic vanguard springs will determine the distinctive vision of society imagined by Islamists in territory they acquire. Given the historical and geographical roots of the resurgent Taliban, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan have much to worry about.

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