India’s Afghan moment

India’s Afghan moment. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Kudenko

India’s Afghan moment. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Kudenko

Delhi watches Islamabad’s involvement in Afghanistan with some degree of trepidation, but Washington is pressing ahead regardless, ceding a significant degree of control over the reconciliation process to Pakistan.

India’s worst fears with regard to the situation in Afghanistan are probably coming true. The United States was India’s closest partner on Afghanistan up until very recently, but Washington lately began making overtures to Pakistan to putting together a new regional condominium. This is happening just as India’s ties with Pakistan have also run into difficulty. And, historically speaking, the two tracks have always had a co-relation.

The intense period of US-Indian dalliance on Afghanistan last year culminated in the “trilateral” that the two countries held with Afghanistan, in New York in September. Unsurprisingly, the US-Indian dalliance coincided with a low point in the US-Pakistan and Afghan-Pakistan relationship.

Whether the US’s “psywar” on Pakistan worked or not is uncertain – it is unlikely to have worked since Pakistan is au fait with American traits of behavior – but anyhow, Washington and Islamabad have had a remarkable reconciliation lately and the old allies are back together again in a renewed enterprise to fix the Afghan problem.

There has been a big shift in the US approach towards Afghanistan. The US is showing willingness to outsource to Pakistan the reconciliation process with the Taliban. This shift in US policy has created a new dynamic in the Afghan endgame. Pakistan responded with alacrity by releasing 18 Taliban prisoners.

de facto “core group” of the US, Pakistan and the Kabul government with an outer circle comprising Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia has surfaced. Britain, as usual, is hovering somewhere in the shade playing indeterminate but critical roles underpinning the US strategy. In fact, Britain played a crucial role in healing the US-Pakistan rift.

To be sure, Delhi watches the heavy Pakistani involvement with some degree of trepidation, but Washington is pressing ahead regardless, and has ceded a significant degree of control over the reconciliation process to Islamabad.

Delhi feels the impact of the US’ volte-face already, with Washington no longer interested in putting pressure on Islamabad to bring the Pakistani perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack to justice. Washington is stonewalling India’s requests for the extradition of two key protagonists who are in the US jails – David Headley and Tahawwur Rana – and recently administered a “shock therapy” to the Indian security establishment by snapping back that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] enjoys immunity from prosecution by a foreign country, being a state organ!

Evidently, ISI is the single most important influence on the Taliban and Washington cannot do without its help and cooperation. Thus, as the “core group” gets cracking on the reconciliation talks, Delhi will have not a few bitter pills to swallow in the coming year. Delhi is becoming peripheral to the Afghan settlement, whereas, Pakistan is the US’s indispensible partner.

Going on a credit card

The bottom line is that it is only Pakistan which is capable of rendering help to facilitate the movement of the Taliban representatives to meet the Afghan government officials in Saudi Arabia and to sit down with the American diplomats in Qatar in the coming weeks and months.

The American commentators give the spin that Pakistan has had a genuine change of heart and is now prepared to play a constructive role in negotiating an Afghan settlement. According to this thesis, Islamabad has realized that: (a) so long as the Afghan war continues, Pakistan too will remain unstable and, therefore, only an Afghan settlement can resolve its own conflict with its own (Pakistan Taliban) insurgents; (b) an enduring Afghan settlement needs to be riveted to a broad-based power sharing arrangement that accommodates all Afghan groups; and, (c) the peace dividends are so much more to Pakistan’s strategic advantage than a continued pursuit of the military option of supporting the Taliban.

Washington is inclined to give the benefit of doubt to Islamabad, as apparent from the gesture to release $700 million for the Pakistani military as a goodwill gesture. The fact that the US Congress is cooperating with the Administration’s decision shows that there is a broad consensus in the Washington political establishment regarding the centrality of Pakistan in the American regional strategies. The nomination of Senator John Kerry as the new secretary of state has also raised Pakistan’s comfort level regarding the US’s intentions.

Indeed, the US’s options are limited. As of December 26, 2040 members of the US military had died in Afghanistan and 18154 US servicemen have been wounded in hostile action. A new report by the Government Accountability Office [GAO] in Washington also has estimated that the US has spent nearly $600 billion on the Afghan war and even the troop withdrawal through 2013-14 will cost an additional $5.7 billion. No doubt, these are weighty compulsions working on the US Administration’s sense of urgency that the Afghan war should be wound up without any delay, no matter the apparent imponderables in the way. This is where Pakistan’s cooperation becomes an imperative need.

As Walter Pincus wrote in the Washington Post last week, “with the ‘fiscal cliff’ approaching fast, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that the costly Afghan operation is going on a credit card, along with the $1 trillion or more spent in Iraq.”

Interestingly, the GAO report also revealed that the US military needed to evacuate more than 750000 major items worth more than $36 billion in Afghanistan. A substantial portion of this materiel exiting Afghanistan will have to use the Pakistani route. Suffice to say, a “double dependency” is developing: on the one hand US expects Pakistan to facilitate its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by providing secure transit routes to Karachi port, while on the other hand it seeks Pakistan’s help to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table so that a settlement in Afghanistan is possible by end-2014 that could enable Obama to claim an orderly end to the US’s Afghan war.

Thus, it is only natural that the so-called Peace Process Roadmap to 2015, which is notionally attributed to the Afghan High Peace Council (and which manifestly enjoys the support of Islamabad and Washington), is riddled with contradictions. The Roadmap proposes a “five step process” (with the first phase under way already since last March) during which the focus is on “securing the collaboration of Pakistan” to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, and on the involvement of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and UK.  

Step Two will cover the coming 6 months during which the effort will be to introduce “confidence building measures” to incentivize the Taliban to talk, and with Pakistan’s help to initiate a formal process of negotiations in a location in Saudi Arabia between the Kabul government and the insurgent groups. (Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.)

Step Three (in the second half of 2013) will aim at reaching agreements on the priority issue of a ceasefire. Step Four (through the first half of 2014) will consolidate the agreements reached, whereupon Pakistan will “monitor and prevent” any breach of the agreements. Step Five envisages bringing in the regional and international community to provide for the “long-term security” of Afghanistan. The idea seems to be to formalize the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan.

The fog of war

Clearly, the pitfalls are many. Arguably, there is logic in putting the fox in charge of the sheep pen. Simply put, it holds the tantalizing potential to prompt the fox to feel “responsible”. But then, the fox is also inherently interested in making a great meal out of the sheep under its protection. The analogy is quite applicable here. At least on six different counts, the format of the Afghan peace plan as has emerged in the Roadmap becomes a high-risk venture.

One, the premise that the Taliban is genuinely interested in power sharing is highly debatable. We have nothing other than Pakistan’s word and some odd statements by figures who claim to represent the Taliban to that effect. Two, who indeed are the Taliban?

There are several cliques and factions within the Taliban movement, which are open to manipulation by outside forces. The Kabul government is already skeptical about the bona fide of the so-called Taliban representatives who attended the recent Track II meet in France and has warned that it won’t take part in such enterprises in future.

Now, the sanctity of the agreements reached with the Taliban is at stake unless there is clarity about the credentials of the figures who claim to represent the Taliban. Three, the most crucial period of the peace plan will be the one-year period starting from the middle of 2013. Curiously, this will also be the period when the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be far advanced and in political and military terms, the insurgent pressure can prove lethal.

We may well have a situation with some Taliban groups negotiating while some others continue fighting and taking advantage of the security vacuum left by the US (and NATO) troop withdrawal. That is to say, Taliban (and Pakistan as their mentors) will be negotiating from a position of strength.

By that time, the US will be rather desperate to reach a settlement so that President Barack Obama can claim “victory”. Four, the United Nations has been practically sidelined in the Roadmap except as a convenient errand boy, while a clutch of countries – UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar – have been brought in from nowhere as the charioteers of the peace process along with the US. It remains unclear who invested this clutch of countries with such special prerogatives and/or on what grounds. They don’t even belong to the region where Afghanistan is situated. What is most disconcerting is that it is this very same cabal, which is most active today in destabilizing Syria as part of the West’s geopolitical agenda in the New Middle East.

Five, has Pakistan had a genuine change of heart and is no longer projecting power into Afghanistan in terms of its strategy to gain “strategic depth”? No one can affirm with certainty – not even the naive American commentator. Anyone who knows Pakistan would know that the more things appear to change in that country under representative rule, the more they remain the same.

Equally, the Pakistani military would be aware that it has brilliantly outmaneuvered the US – which isn’t surprising because Pakistan has hardly any leeway to compromise over the Afghan problem where its vital interests are at stake such as the sanctity of the 2500-kilometre long Durand Line and the explosive mix of Pashtun nationalism.

As 2013 progresses and Obama becomes desperate for a ceasefire, the US position at the negotiating table will become more and more untenable. All in all, therefore, Pakistan has come within striking distance of putting the Taliban in power in Afghanistan without having to invade that country for a second time as it did twenty years ago.

Finally, looking ahead, it is conceivable that beneath the “fog of war”, the Anglo-American plan (with the Turks, Qataris and Saudis playing as sidekicks) hopes to influence and manipulate Islamist groups for geopolitical purposes. Libya and Syria have shown the potentials of Islamism in the geopolitics. An Islamist regime in Kabul (under Saudi and Qatari influence) would have its uses elsewhere in the regions stretching from Kashmir to Xinjiang and Central Asia to Trans-Caucasus and Iran. 

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