Afghan Policy (Feb 27, 2010)

Would it be pre-mature to say that Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is changing on the basis of the recent arrests of some leading Afghan Taliban leaders by Pakistani security forces? If nothing else it could be termed as Pakistan testing the waters to see whether the US and other NATO countries deliver on what our government has been demanding from them to feel secure.

Media reports and briefing of some leading journalists by the COAS General Kayani have claimed that Pakistan has laid out its ‘official threat perception’ with the Western Alliance and they now understand our position better. Let’s quickly recap our ‘official threat perception.’ Pakistan has always felt threatened by India from the East, we have had four wars with them including Kargil and a number of skirmishes and stand offs so threat perception is not misplaced. Indian and some objective Pakistani peace activists do debate that each time we instigated the war. But the fact remains that India has built its army and stockpiled war machinery that is more Pakistan specific than China. It is Pakistan with which it has many outstanding territorial issues biggest being that of Kashmir. Even the smaller unsubstantial issues like Siachen and Sir Creek have not been resolved although we have been told many times that both the parties have broadly reached the agreement.

Even the last week secretary talks are the result of Washington nudging the Indians. As expected the talk ended without any outcome. Most India-Pakistan relations watchers were of the view that it only shows that the tip of the ice has started melting and that’s all. Pakistan side came out much frustrated and expressed it undiplomatically. In his statement the Foreign Secretary Bashir did not mince his words. A seasoned diplomat doesn’t show frustration unless it is a deliberate attempt to let the world know that India is still letting the terrorists dictate the normalisation of relations between the two countries. (Perhaps the usage of term normalisation when it comes to Pakistan-India relations is presumptive as if we never had normal relation with India).

At a reception in Islamabad when an Indian diplomat asked me about the talks I said that nobody in his right mind could have pinned much hopes from this. But still it is a small step ahead. My contention was that Pakistan and India should act as mature nations and should not let themselves be a hostage of terrorists, who wants to solve the issues through a militant struggle. One diplomat said that just when Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh agreed to talks there was a bomb blast in Pune. He was skeptic that for another one year there may not be any major progress. Now some people may say that the Friday blast in Kabul in which many Indian doctors died was also an attempt to sabotage the moves to open a meaningful dialogue between the two countries. The question is are we going to let the terrorist organisations dictate the peace agenda?

Indian diplomats do not agree with their independent peace activists who visited Pakistan last week that all governments in their country cannot take a bold decision in this regard because of a strong South Block influence (South Block is where Indian Foreign office is located in Delhi). They claim that any political government can dictate the South Block to change the policy.

My view was that one of the major stumbling blocks is that for quite a foreseeable future there are no chances of a strong government in India. All governments are likely to be formed by a coalition. And coalitions are always shilly-shallying when it come to breaking the inertia and taking a bold political decision. Seemingly, in Pakistan both the establishment and major political parties want to resolve the outstanding issues with India. Once that happens Pakistan Afghan policy would also change as then it would not be afraid of being cornered from the rear by India courtesy Afghanistan.

That brings us to the questions: Can there be peace in the region? Can Afghanistan be stablised giving an honourable exit to US and its allies? Can Pakistan stop supporting Afghan Taliban covertly booking what is actually a liability as a strategic asset? According to strategic analyst Nasim Zehra stablisation of Afghanistan is possible but not without the cooperation of all the regional countries – Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan and India. The latter is a stakeholder in Afghanistan because of its strong relations with the present government. Our government doesn’t like it but the reality is that to address the Taliban and terrorism issue in the region we have to bring India on board. India is too afraid of the menace of rising Islamic fundamentalism and militancy.

Without this regional cooperation the American cannot implement its policy of ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ — a new catch-phrase in Washington regarding Afghanistan. Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has rightly pointed out in an article recently: “History indicates that successful reconciliation is possible when the government and its outside supporters are doing well militarily against insurgents and providing security and improved living conditions for the population in areas cleared of insurgents. The insurgents have to conclude that time is not on their side, and that their best interests are served by striking a deal while they still have some bargaining chips in hand.”

“Unfortunately,” he explains “this is not the situation in Afghanistan right now. Militarily, the insurgency has grown stronger in recent years while popular support for the government and the coalition has declined in areas where the insurgents are strong. The Taliban also enjoy external support and sanctuaries. Not surprisingly, its leadership has so far rejected reconciliation.”

Khalilzad has disclosed that “In their meetings with U.S. military leaders, the Pakistanis have offered to arrange meetings with the Taliban.” If this is true, is Pakistan trying to send the message to obstinate Mullah Omar that either he has to come to the table or his commanders would be arrested? The recent arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, senior Afghan Taliban commander; Mullah Abdul Salam, Taliban shadow governor of Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province; Maulvi Kabeer, former Naganhar governor in Taliban regime; Mullah Mohammed of Baghlar; and Ameer Mauwia a liaison officer of Taliban with Al Qaeda by Pakistani forces could be the pressure tactics to bring the top leadership to the negotiations table. It was a positive shift of policy regarding Afghanistan to show to US administration and its allies that if they would push India to give security assurance on the East, Pakistan would be willing to burn its Afghan Taliban assets.

Mikhail Gorbachev in his recent article in IHT has reminded the West that, that was the precise policy he had introduced when he decided to pull back the Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. But the short-sighted Zia regime and his American master did not let the Najibullah government in Afghanistan stablise. And today the whole world is paying for their follies unfortunately and sadly. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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