Shifting sands in Kabul

Arif Nizami

The Sunday Times made the sensational, albeit nebulous, claim based on a report ostensibly commissioned by the London School of Economics that “there is growing evidence that the government in Islamabad arms the (Taliban) insurgents, gives them targets and has seats on their war council.” Accusing Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, of backing the Taliban is virtually as old as the Afghan conflict itself. In fact, many Western analysts, and some of our own, consider the Taliban a creation of the ISI.

However, what is a first is the accusation in the report is that President Zardari is in cahoots with the Taliban. According to the report, the president and a senior ISI official recently met 50 high-ranking Taliban commanders in jail and assured them of the government’s support. Five days after the visit a handful of Taliban prisoners were set free in Quetta, the seat of the so-called Quetta Shura.

A presidential spokesman has vehemently denied the ludicrous report implicating Zardari, who is generally viewed as pro-Western and anti-Taliban. At the most he can be accused of abdicating the Afghan policy to COAS Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani and his trusted ISI chief, Lt Gen Shuja Pasha.

President Zardari, unlike his predecessor, has managed to have a reasonably good rapport with the Afghan president. But Karzai’s credentials as an honest broker have increasingly become suspect in the eyes of his Western mentors. Perhaps that is why the Pakistani leader has also been implicated in the messy equation.

An ISI official expressing real or feigned surprise at the charge has admitted fostering contacts with militant groups. However, he said that, “to say we are sitting on their council, directing them and playing a game hurts me a lot, given the price we have paid.”

The timing of the LSE report is ominous. It has been released at a time when NATO and US forces have become increasingly bogged down in Afghanistan. While casualties have mounted in recent months, the much-touted offensive in the Taliban home base of Kandahar has been delayed for months. The consultative peace jirga held in Kabul on June 2 endorsed the Karzai government policy of negotiating with the Taliban “to bring them into the political mainstream.” For the West it is adding insult to injury.

The Afghan president has refused to clearly accuse the Taliban of the abortive attack on the peace jirga. One report quoted him as saying: “I don’t know who did it!” While another report claims that he believes that the US and not the Taliban are responsible for the rocket attack on the conference.

As a direct outcome of the attack, President Karzai’s long-trusted intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, a former aide of the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar were forced to resign. This is seen as a setback both for the US and the Indians. Saleh is a long-time ISI-hater who considers the Pakistani intelligence agency as Afghanistan’s enemy number one. Obviously, Karzai, himself a Pakhtun, no longer considers them loyal.

Despite Karzai’s fence-mending sojourn to the White House last month, a deep schism persists between Washington and Kabul. The US by questioning the transparency of the presidential elections held in autumn last year robbed Karzai of his legitimacy as a leader. The so-called drawdown plan of US and NATO troops by July 2011 does not sit well with the Afghan leader.

So far as Washington is concerned, it views President Karzai’s contacts with the Taliban as highly suspect. The US is not happy about the secret meetings Karzai’s half brother and trusted lieutenant Ahmed Wali Karzai had with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former deputy commander of the Taliban. Neither was the ISI happy about these contacts. Hence, Baradar was arrested early this year by the very ISI which was housing him in Karachi.

Some analysts contend that Karzai has lost faith in the ability of the American and NATO forces to prevail in Afghanistan. Having serious doubts that the Americans and NATO forces can ever defeat the insurgents, he is trying to strike a secret deal with the Taliban and Pakistan. According to a US official quoted in the New York Times, “there are deep fissures among Afghan leaders how to deal with the Taliban and with their patrons in Pakistan.”

In an interview Karzai’s discredited intelligence chief has claimed that the Afghan president was strongly involved in a more conciliatory line towards Pakistan. According to him, Afghanistan will be forced to accept “an undignified deal” with Pakistan. He has also claimed that he was removed on Islamabad’s insistence.

In this backdrop the timing of the LSE report based on a discussion paper appropriately titled as “The Sun in the Sky: the Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents,” is ominous. The author, Matt Waldman of Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is quintessential establishment. He has been an Oxfam official in Kabul as well as a defence advisor to the UK and European parliaments. With little or no knowledge of Dari or Farsi, it is a miracle that he had a meaningful conversation with so may unnamed Taliban sources.

The paper concludes that Pakistan’s “involvement in a double game of this scale,” could have major geopolitical implications and could even provoke US counter-measures. However, the report concedes that the powerful role of the ISI, and parts of the Pakistani military requires their support. It suggests the only way to secure such co-operation is to address the, “fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, especially its latent and enduring conflict with India. This requires American backing for moves towards a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.”

It is obvious that commissioning of such reports and selective leaks in the Western media are meant to tighten the noose around Islamabad’s neck to change its historic India-centric strategic paradigm. Implicating the Pakistani civilian government as being an active backer of the Taliban has further upped the ante.

So far as the ISI is concerned, its fine distinctions between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the Punjabi Taliban, the Kashmir- and India-specific Taliban and, last but not least, the good and the bad Taliban, are losing their relevance as fast as the West is losing patience in Afghanistan. In the final analysis, it is only one Taliban which is the nemesis of the West, eating into the very entrails of the state. More so for Pakistan!

The demand for the Pakistani army to start an attack against Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan will gain further impetus though such damning reports alleging a real or perceived nexus between the ISI and the Taliban. The ISI wants to be part of any future negotiations with the Taliban. President Karzai, opening his own channels not entirely approved by Washington, is a window of opportunity for the ISI. It puts Islamabad in a relatively advantageous position to safeguard its interests in a post US and NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan.

President Karzai’s removal of some key anti-Pakistan officials from his cabinet has cleared the decks for some kind of role for Islamabad. Nevertheless, the ISI cannot win a popularity contest in Afghanistan where it is viewed as overbearing and interfering, but at the same time a necessity by the Pakhtuns.

The writer is a former newspaper editor. Email:


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