October 27, 2011

Hamid Karzai clarification and grey sheen over Af-Pak

0CTOBER 26, 2011

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's purported statement, in an interview to Geo TV last Saturday, that his country would support Pakistan in the event of an attack by any country, including the US and India was widely reported - with some degree of surprise and consternation - both in India and abroad.

The less kind quip was that here was a President who could barely leave the confines of his palace without US support, who was cocking-a-snook at his principal benefactor - and in the process also trashing the recently signed strategic partnership agreement with India, that among other provisions allows for training of Afghan security personnel.

The intriguing Karzai statement had come in the wake of a steadily deteriorating US-Pak relationship, which in turn had led to a selective leak of Pak Army Chief General Kayani's reassurance to his parliamentarians that the US would have to "think 10 times" before embarking on any unilateral military operations in North Waziristan region from Afghanistan. Kayani reminded the US that Pakistan was a nuclear power and hence should not be compared with or treated like Iraq or Afghanistan.

In a rapidly evolving, high-level political environment, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a sudden visit to Islamabad and publicly chastened the Pakistani government - the GHQ in Rawalpindi in particular - for playing both sides in the campaign against terror by supporting groups operating from within Pakistan and along the troubled Af-Pak border. Strong words were used - reminiscent of the public admonishment her husband Bill Clinton as US president in March 2000 had administered to the Pak military in a publicly televised address.

Yet despite Hillary Clinton's reference to 'snakes in the backyard' - the metaphor for the Pak military's support to terror groups - the Pak ISI, as she admitted, was also instrumental in enabling a quiet meeting between US and Taliban interlocutors to arrive at a political settlement, that would pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of the US military from the region by 2014 - a date which US President Barrack Obama is committed to.

Seemingly contradictory statements and policies cloud the air and it is against this backdrop that Kabul has weighed in with a clarification of what President Karzai had actually meant in the course of his Geo TV interview. Asserting that the Pak media had misinterpreted the Karzai remarks and reported them out of context, an Afghan official spokesman added: "They only showed the first part when the President says Afghanistan will back Pakistan if there is a war."

The actual import of the remarks, it was clarified, was reference to Afghanistan's willingness to house refugees from Pakistan in case of any conflict, in the way that millions of Afghans are given refuge across the border in Pakistan's northwestern frontier region.

And to avoid any ambiguity about where the Karzai regime stood, the spokesman further observed: "But in connection with the war on terrorism, if there is a war on Pakistan, Afghanistan will not support that." It is nobody's case that an attack on Pakistan is imminent and the current pattern of increasing brittleness and bitterness in the Pentagon-Rawalpindi axis - was in the making since October 2001 when the Bush administration had launched its military strikes against the Taliban in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. This axis between the two militaries was both contradictory and contorted since the US-led global war on terror (GWOT) began and Afghanistan was bombed 'back to the stone-age'. Like the emperor's new clothes, an elaborate make-believe was orchestrated.

Ten years later a consensual political settlement seems elusive, despite the humongous loss of human lives and considerable material wealth. The ontological dissonance lies in the very divergent objectives that the US and by extension India, on one hand have, and that embedded in the Pak military psyche. While the former want the Pak military to renounce radicalism and terror, the latter has dug its heels in.

Rawalpindi as the citadel of the Pak Army's corps (crore?) commanders is committed to investing in non-state terror groups as part of a very long-term Afghanistan strategy. This was enunciated by Presient Zia ul Haq unambiguously, at the height of the Afghan war in the mid 1980's when he declared: "We have earned the right to have a friendly regime (in Afghanistan)a¦We took risks as a frontline state, and we won't permit it to be like it was before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and claims on our territory. It will be a real Islamic state, part of a pan-Islamic revival that will one day win over the Muslims in Soviet Union, you will see it." Alas, General Kayani is ploughing the same furrow and spilling considerable Pakistani blood in the process. It is a Pyrrhic victory for the Zia vision, that a pernicious pan-Islamic revival has tenaciously embedded itself in large sections of the Pakistani 'fauji-maulvi' psyche and hence many malignant mirages have been created.

In this menacing medley, most of the principal interlocutors are adopting seemingly contradictory policies but they are not devoid of both pragmatism and prudence, though the public and private discourses will be very different. For Delhi, focusing on the gray sheen will be the post Diwali challenge, which hopefully will not be marred.

(The writer is a former Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses)

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