Seething at bad-boy image

Zahid U Kramet

While Pakistan – and even the Taliban – have reacted angrily to a report that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has “strong” ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the sensitive issue highlights Islamabad’s growing concerns over losing what has for many years been its key role in Afghanistan as a United States ally.

The London School of Economics (LSE) this weekend released a report that said its research “strongly suggested” that support for the Taliban was the ISI’s official policy, adding that the intelligence agency “orchestrates, sustains and strongly influences the [Taliban] movement”.

The LSE said that its report, prepared by Matt Waldman, a former Oxfam official, was based on interviews with nine Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan between February and May of this year. The document also claimed that President Asif Ali Zardari visited senior Taliban prisoners in Pakistan this year and promised their release and help for militant operations.

A spokeswoman for Zardari called the allegations “absolutely spurious” and suggested they were an attempt to derail US-Pakistani strategic talks. Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said, “It’s the same old story which provides no credible evidence. It is misleading with malicious intent. We reject it.” And Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef called the report “ridiculous and absurd”. A senior ISI official simply dismissed it is “rubbish”.

An editorial on June 14 by the Nation newspaper possibly came closest to the heart of the matter. Under the headline “Pakistan targeted again”, it wrote, “There is certainly a double game going on here but it is being played rather skillfully by the US and India with NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] a compliant partner.”

In the bloody civil war of the early 1990s that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, Pakistan saw the emerging Taliban as a key strategic asset against bitter rival India, and it encouraged and nurtured the movement.

When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Pakistan was one of only a few countries to recognise the government. Although this support officially ended when the Taliban were driven from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001 and Islamabad signed onto the US’s “war on terror”, the ties to the Taliban run very deep among sections of the security apparatus.

Footprint in Afghanistan

On Tuesday, two days after the release of the LSE report, America’s top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, fainted during a congressional hearing in which he was being questioned by senators about US strategy in Afghanistan.

In particular, he was asked about President Barack Obama’s resolve to begin a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. Republican Senator John McCain asked, “When you say that you continue to support the president’s policy both in terms of additional troops and also the setting of that date to begin the [troop] reduction, does that represent your best professional judgement?”

Petraeus hesitated before replying in the affirmative and McCain responded that the deadline was “convincing the key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan that the United States is more interested in leaving than succeeding in this conflict”.

Pakistan sees itself as one of these key actors. And while it roundly rejects accusations such as those made in the LSE report of direct intervention in the Afghan war, it has repeatedly voiced its concern about the expanded Indian presence in that country.

Islamabad has been concerned over the reluctance of the US to press India to work for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, and it is also upset that the US signed a civilian nuclear deal with India while refusing to do so with Pakistan.

Ultimately, however, Pakistan remains concerned about the US’s seemingly ambivalent policy in the AfPak region, with Under Secretary of State William Burns announcing at a seminar in Washington early this month that the US sees “India’s continued involvement in there [Afghanistan] as a key part of that country’s success, not part of its problems”.

Yet a day later, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan, ventured in a “leaked” report, “Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate tensions and encourage Pakistani counter measures.”

Confusion was compounded when Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reaffirmed in a Times of India article titled “Promoting Strategic Dialogue” that India “will be a defining partnership of the 21st century” to effectively marginalise the significance of Pakistan.

This will not go down well with the Pakistani military, which is still smarting over last year’s Kerry Lugar bill that grants Pakistan US$1.5 billion annually for five years. Although it is essentially a non-military aid package granted for Pakistan’s efforts in the “war on terror”, it imposes some checks on the military. The army’s top commanders have officially expressed their “serious concerns” on some of the clauses of the bill that they believe affect national security. The objections centre on clauses about the country’s nuclear programme and suggestions of Pakistan’s support for cross-border militancy.

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake recently made an effort to pacify Pakistan. During a web chat with a confrontational Indian press he reminded that “we [the US] will not be able to succeed without the active support of our friends in Pakistan”.

But then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took up the cudgels on India’s behalf, again in the Times of India, in a column on June 4 entitled “Partnership of Democracies” in which she wrote, “Through our strategic dialogue, we are expanding our cooperation on global issues on which India can and must play a leading role.”

Meanwhile, this month’s peace jirga (council) instigated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai ended with a call to “reintegrate” the Taliban (supported by Pakistan initially) into the political system, but it has drawn little water.

A major offensive planned against the Taliban in their strongholds in Kandahar province has been delayed for several months, causing Obama, in an effort to sustain public support for the war in Afghanistan, to give a December deadline to show progress.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and McChrystal are confident of some success by year’s end, but they apparently warned during a closed-door meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels that “gains will not come easily or without high cost”.

Karzai’s “talking with the Taliban” still appears the best option, but it is clear that this has to be occasioned under the flag of a truce negotiated directly with the Taliban leadership – and this would not go down well in India. Delhi sees the Taliban as a Pakistan by-product and fears integrating them into the Afghan political fold would jeopardise whatever efforts it is willing to make towards Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Still, the news of a trillion dollars of minerals waiting to be tapped in Afghanistan would have whetted the Indian appetite – more so with Afghanistan reportedly having asked Indian companies to prospect and extract minerals such as copper, lithium, iron ore, gold and precious stones.

But herein lies the rub. A New York Times report by Alissa J Rubin warns that the Laskar-e-Taiba, a “Pakistani-based militant group identified with attacks on targets [in India] has expanded its operations in Afghanistan, inflicting casualties on Afghans and Indians alike, setting up training camps, and adding new volatility to relations between India and Pakistan”.

The United States needs to accommodate both Pakistan’s and India’s interests in Afghanistan, while also trying to tame the Taliban. These complex inter-relationships – and ups and downs like the LSE report – make the likelihood of any US withdrawal most unlikely, let alone showing any progress by December.

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