October 11, 2011

A twist in the Great Game



India has done well to sign a Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan. But it will have to remain pro-active in order to prevent Pakistan from playing spoiler.

During the RK Mishra Memorial Lecture at New Delhi last week, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai bowled a googly. He said, “We have decided not to talk to the Taliban because we don’t know their address. We don’t know where to find them,” and added, “We’ve decided to talk to Pakistan… between countries rather than with organisations or individuals whom we cannot find.” What he did not say was that Afghanistan has been talking to Pakistan for months on finding the right address through the Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Commission on Recon- ciliation. Top leaders of the two countries and the High Peace Council have exchanged visits and organised joint jirgahs without any outcome.

In addition to bilateral efforts to find a reconcilable Taliban, Afghanistan was engaged in direct talks with Taliban emissaries facilitated by Western and other countries like Germany and Turkey. The US has got 14 former Taliban leaders removed from the UN sanctions list despite Russian protests. Besides former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led the High Peace Council, other individuals were also engaged in face-to-face talks, notably the MP from Ghazni, Ms Homa Sultani. She is believed to have met Mullah Omar and held a Press conference in Kabul to describe the historic meeting.

The Americans held their own independent engagement with the Taliban and in one instance met with Mullah Masoud who was paid and flown in a helicopter but turned out to be an imposter. Mr Karzai is, therefore, right: He has not found the Taliban but he was less than accurate about talking with Pakistan as they hadn’t stopped doing so. Both the US and Afghanistan tried direct talks bypassing Pakistan and reaching out to whoever they believed represented Taliban. Mullah Omar’s Eid message confirmed that talks have been held over prisoners’ release and more talks would be held about ending foreign occupation.

Thoroughly disliked by the vast majority of the Taliban, Rabbani invited his end by speaking to Pakistan’s Geo TV about Islamabad “not doing the right thing, giving sanctuary to those opposed to Afghanistan”, meaning the Afghan Taliban. He also questioned why the US had kept Afghanistan out of talks it had with the Taliban. Besides these wheels within wheels, there are serious differences among Taliban about engaging the US and/or Afghanistan in talks.

Further, the US is not keen to engage the Haqqani network, the Miranshah shura based in North Waziristan. It has been persuading the Pakistan Army for the last three years to conduct operations against the Haqqanis as they are the key killers of Nato and US troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has resisted acting against the Haqqan network as it is one of its strategic assets to provide strategic depth and a friendly Government in Kabul in a post-2014 Afghanistan. The reason Pakistan gives for shying away from fighting the Haqqanis is that it is already ‘overstretched’ and cannot afford to open a new front.

American gloves seem to have come off after it accused Pakistan’s ISI of complicity with the Haqqani network that attacked the US Embassy in Kabul last month. Pakistan rejected any links but admitted contacts with the Haqqanis. In a show of solidarity, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani held an all-party conference on September 29 with the Army in attendance to forge consensus to fight US political pressure. He also announced that he would talk to the Haqqani network for the sake of peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clearly, Pakistan’s Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is steadfastly following his strategy of ensuring that Pakistan is seen as part of the solution, not the problem, in Afghanistan. He would, therefore, never allow the Americans or the Afghans individually or jointly to talk to the Taliban without going through their good offices. The despatch of imposters, suicide-bombers in the garb of Taliban emissaries, the attacks in Kabul, including on the US Embassy, and outside Kabul against Mr Karzai’s kin are violent ‘do-not-bypass-Pakistan’ signals.

After raising the ante and trying to force change in the Pakistani Army’s behaviour and failing, the Americans are coming to terms with the idea of supping with the devil. Both the US and Pakistan need each other. As for Mr Karzai, Afghanistan and Pakistan are Siamese twins! This is the ground reality. The Pakistani Army is tightly holding on to the Haqqanis in the face of multiple US threats and nearly 200 drone attacks.

Mr Karzai’s visit to India has to be seen against this background. While anger and frustration with Pakistan drive him closer to India, he understands that New Delhi broadens his options in the Great Game. In the works for some time, the Strategic Partnership Agreement may be the first Mr Karzai has signed but it is only the formalisation of India’s ongoing impressive ‘soft power programme’ that has now been extended into the security sector minus boots on the ground.

The former Afghan Army Chief, General Bismillah Khan, was keen his troops train in India but would demur because of Pakistani (and American) sensitivities. The US has welcomed the agreement, asking Pakistan not to treat it as a zero sum game. Pakistan has blown hot and cold, invoking both Afghanistan’s sovereign rights to enter bilateral agreements and simultaneously warning it to act in a more mature manner.

The Strategic Partnership is an official endorsement by Kabul (and Washington, DC) of India’s legitimate role in Afghanistan, something that Islamabad has always questioned. Mr Karzai indicated in New Delhi that his country was discussing in the Loya Jirgah a framework for Strategic Partnerships with the US, Nato and the EU. Pakistan is not on his list for the moment. With his statement that he will talk to Pakistan (again) to find the Taliban, Mr Karzai has not forgotten that when the US and Afghanistan were exploring/engaging the Taliban directly, the ISI promptly arrested Mullah Omar’s No 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Birader, in February 2010. The message then, as now, has not changed: Pakistan holds the key to reconciliation.

With the second conference at Bonn (December 3-5), the Afghanistan political process would have moved a full circle. In the 2001 conference, 93 countries attended. This time, 123 countries are expected with a 35-member civil society delegation from Afghanistan. The formal conference is for one day with interaction with the Afghans on the second day. A revised political framework for transition and drawdown of troops integrated with a US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement expected to be finalised before Bonn II is on the cards. New Delhi must keep its own strategic partnership agreement with Kabul pro-active.

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