M. K. Bhadrakumar
An Afghan soldier stands guard at a street corner in Shindand, west of Kabul, on Saturday. With the U.S. statements virtually acknowledging Pakistan’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, the time has come for Pakistan to assess the United States’ willingness to accommodate its aspirations as a regional power
Pakistan insists that all dealings with the Taliban will need to be routed through its agencies. Yet, senior U.S. officials actually end up commending Pakistan’s role.
The idea of engaging the Taliban, which welled up stealthily to the surface during the London conference on Afghanistan on January 29, has since become official American and British policy. It has imparted a competitive edge to the region’s political environment. The resultant tensions complicate the prospects of the Afghan Loya Jirga, which by present indications is expected to take place in Kabul on April 29. Diplomatic activity has noticeably picked up. The recent visitors to Kabul include Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Pakistani Army chief Pervez Kayani. Indeed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s two-day trip to Islamabad served to highlight the gathering momentum.
Mr. Karzai insists on his legitimate leadership role as the elected President to navigate the national reconciliation. This translates as his prerogative to convene the Loya Jirga and decide on its participants. Mr. Karzai is drawing up a “reintegration” plan for the Taliban, which he will present at the Loya Jirga. The parliamentary elections that may follow the Loya Jirga, if they take place as planned in August, would consolidate Mr. Karzai’s power base as he advances the road map to “reintegrate” the Taliban.
On the other hand, Washington and London, which originally disfavoured the idea of convening a Loya Jirga and preferred putting primacy on reconciling the Taliban, are now determined to influence its proceedings in the direction of favouring the formation of an “interim government.” The crux of the matter is that while they may have grudgingly accepted Mr. Karzai’s re-election as President last year, he has long since ceased to be their preferred choice. The U.S. and British expectation is that the Loya Jirga will arrive at a consensus to bring the Taliban into the political system. As the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said recently, “Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigour and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort.”
The British hope is that the upcoming Loya Jirga will endorse the need of a “political outreach” in terms of a “sustainable Afghan government” with “more inclusive” Pashtun participation, a decentralised form of government that gives primacy to regional governing councils, a shift of the locus of constitutional power away from the President to Parliament and a political leadership in Kabul that will forcefully address the “pervasive problem of corruption” in the Afghan government. In short, the U.S.-U.K. approach is to concede autonomy to Taliban-led local administration with Mr. Karzai notionally as the fountainhead of the new power structures, and thereby integrate the Taliban into the political mainstream, which will bring the war to an end. Curiously, Washington and London remain non-committal on putting any sort of timeline for the vacation of foreign occupation.
In the meanwhile, Pakistan has begun to “finesse” the Taliban with implicit U.S.-British acquiescence. The opaqueness of the exercise remains worrisome. Unsurprisingly, Tehran is extremely concerned that if the U.S.-British game plan succeeds, an open-ended American troop presence in the region may ensue. Mr. Ahmedinejad’s visit to Kabul was intended to express solidarity with Mr. Karzai and to bring on to the Loya Jirga’s political agenda the central question regarding the vacation of foreign occupation. Equally, Tehran would have misgivings about Taliban-dominated power structures. Tehran plugs for a settlement that takes into account Afghanistan’s plural society. Tehran also shares Mr. Karzai’s thinking that any inclusive settlement needs to be on the basis of the Taliban’s commitment to lay down arms and abide by the Afghan Constitution.
Mr. Karzai could hope to tap into Iran’s influence with various Afghan groups, which traditionally meant the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazara Shias but today also extends to segments of the Pashtun population. With help from Iran (and Turkey and Russia), Mr. Karzai could hope to have the bulk of the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups extend support to him. Besides, he has also reached out to Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is interested in a political accommodation. On the contrary, the U.S. and Britain count on various elements to raise the banner of revolt against Mr. Karzai in the Loya Jirga, such as opposition leader Abdullah and disgruntled old war-horses of the Mujahideen era like Sibgatullah Mojaddidi and Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The “swing factor” nonetheless lies in the extent to which Pakistan cooperates with Mr. Karzai. Iran and Turkey, which remain supportive of Mr. Karzai’s leadership, have been encouraging Pakistan to work with them as part of a sort of regional initiative. Pakistan pays lip service to regional cooperation but in the ultimate analysis, it will only be swayed by its hardcore interests. Pakistan has immensely gained out of the U.S.’ pragmatism to overlook its dealings with the Taliban. Pakistan today openly flaunts its influence with the Taliban and brazenly insists that all dealings with the Taliban will need to be routed through its agencies. Yet, senior U.S. officials actually end up commending Pakistan’s role.
In sum, Pakistan’s demands vis-à-vis Mr. Karzai are: Islamabad expects that in the “stabilisation” of Afghanistan any Indian role and presence should be kept out or restricted to a minimal level; it expects to be fully involved in any reconciliation with the Taliban; and it envisages that the traditional Pashtun influence in the power structure in Kabul will be restored.
Mr. Karzai acknowledged in Islamabad that without Pakistan’s cooperation, his reconciliation plan would not get anywhere. In his press conference, Mr. Karzai also extended broad assurances as regards Pakistan’s so-called legitimate strategic interests. He said, “India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother. We are conjoined twins, there’s no separation.” He also stressed Afghanistan’s neutrality by saying, “Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory. It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan.”
The Pakistan army has offered to train the Afghan army. Indeed, the NATO remains keen on “Islamisation” of the Afghan war. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently said that Muslim countries have “valuable cultural and religious awareness and expertise to bring to bear” on the war in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani motivations seem India-centric. Mr. Kiani is reported to have remarked recently, “I cannot afford to have Afghan soldiers on my western borders trained by the Indians with an Indian mindset.”
Of note, Mr. Karzai had a separate meeting with Mr. Kiani in Islamabad. However, Mr. Karzai left open Mr. Kiani’s offer. He said, “We have discussed this offer from Pakistan where some equipment has also been offered. We accepted this [equipment]. As far as the training of Afghan soldiers, my minister of defence will study and we will come back on this.” He pointedly recalled that the Soviets had also trained the Afghan army and “so, we are careful.”
Without doubt, having heard out Mr. Karzai, Islamabad will now turn towards Washington to see what is on offer. Mr. Kiani has reason to be satisfied with the U.S. statements virtually acknowledging Pakistan’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Almost the entire Pakistani leadership is proceeding to Washington in the coming weeks – navy chief Noman Bashir is reaching Washington on March 17, followed by Mr. Kiani and ISI chief Shuja Pasha, foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in end-March and prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in the second week of April. The Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue is also scheduled to take place in Washington in the last week of March at the level of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Quite obviously, the time has come for Pakistan to assess if and to what extent the U.S. is prepared to accommodate its aspirations as a regional power. With the endgame in progress in Afghanistan, the U.S. (and NATO) bandwagon is indeed preparing to roll onto the Central Asian steppes. As early moves on the Central Asian chessboard, Washington has been courting Uzbekistan, a key country in the region, and working hard to erode Russia’s ties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Last week American diplomats confirmed the sensational news that the U.S. army will be setting up a counter-terrorism training centre in Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan, close to China’s border, where Moscow had previously contemplated setting up a base under Collective Security Treaty Organisation. The U.S’s AfPak special representative, Richard Holbrooke undertook a tour of Central Asia last month, the first of its kind “as part of an accelerating intensification of our diplomatic outreach efforts,” during which he made dire futuristic predictions regarding an Al-Qaeda threat.
These ominous regional trends suggest that the AfPak agenda is slouching toward Central Asia. Any credible enlargement by the NATO into Central Asia remains predicated on a stable Afghanistan for which optimal Pakistani cooperation becomes vital. All in all, therefore, Pakistan can take a final call on national reconciliation in Afghanistan only after assessing the outcome of the forthcoming U.S.-Pakistan consultations in Washington. For good or bad, the U.S.-Pakistani strategic nexus may have begun impinging on regional security.