With 2014 close, Islamabad’s continued demand for primacy in its relationship with Kabul is fuelling tensions between the two neighbours
In Pakistan these days, a strange kind of schizophrenia is afoot, as the excitement over completing five, fulsome years of democratic rule competes with a growing tension with Afghanistan. Over the past couple of weeks, Pakistani officials and Afghan leaders have accused each other of fomenting terrorism, disturbingly raising the pitch and dropping all pretence of good neighbourly relations.
According to the Afghans, the Pakistani military in late March indulged in unprovoked shelling and illegal construction along the Durand Line in the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan — which Pakistan denies — which has so angered Kabul that it has cancelled its offer to train some of its military personnel in Pakistan.
War of words
An accompanying war of words has since claimed the air between the two neighbours. An unnamed Pakistani official told Reuters that the “biggest impediment to the (Afghan) peace process is Karzai. In trying to look like a saviour, he is taking Afghanistan straight to hell.”
The Afghan Foreign Ministry made its anger known through a statement. “This demonstrates the interfering but delusional tendency of some in Pakistan who choose to ignore Afghanistan’s sovereignty...and continue to want to...re-exert control in Afghanistan through armed proxies,” it said.
About the same time, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), told its Supreme Court that the Afghan government was providing “strong support” to several anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Clearly, as the clock moves inexorably towards the drawdown by the U.S. and international troops in April 2014, exactly a year from now, questions about the kind of role Pakistan can — and should play — in the region, lie at the heart of the escalating tension between the Afghan and Pakistan leadership.
The Afghans argue that the Pakistanis have done little since the 9/11 incidents to eliminate terrorist havens and safe spaces inside their country, which the Taliban brazenly uses as sanctuary to mount attacks inside Afghanistan and then return home to Pakistan.
But Pakistan continues to demand a position of primacy in the Pakistan-Afghan relationship, citing its front line state status as well as deep ethnic, civilisational and religious links between Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.
For years after September 11, as Afghanistan and the international community sought to rebuild that country, Afghanistan’s leaders held their tongue about what they really felt the Pakistani “deep state” was up to.
Karzai, in fact, even moved out his former outspoken intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh because he realised that Saleh had gone too far in his public criticism about the Pakistani army and ISI using the Haqqani network of terrorists and other Taliban to foment trouble in Afghanistan. And that his comments were beginning to impact the relationship between Kabul’s chief sponsor, the U.S., and Pakistan.
But Pakistan refused to back off. So when Karzai’s new intelligence chief Asadullah Khalid barely survived a suicide attempt in early December, a furious Karzai announced that “this man, who came in the name of a guest, came from Pakistan.”
What really infuriates the Afghans is that Pakistan continues to treat their country as a weak-willed state with a ragtag security and police force that is totally corrupted from within. Even if serious trouble breaks out between the various Afghan ethnic groups after the Americans leave, a Karzai adviser said on the condition of anonymity, it will be a totally different situation from the time the Soviets left in 1989.
“Afghanistan is a new country today, but the only one who doesn’t seem to have recognised it is Pakistan,” he said. “When the Taliban took over in the mid-1990s, the Pakistanis were only one in three countries in the world who supported them. They believe that when the Americans leave in 2014, they will return to being the most influential in Afghanistan through their control of the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The reality is totally different,” he added.
Karzai’s supporters say he remains deeply upset by Pakistan’s refusal, in the decade since September 11, to act against hardline Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan, in Quetta or Miramshah or elsewhere. Instead, the Pakistanis instigated the Americans to open direct talks with the Taliban, while the Americans, never very fond of Karzai, kept telling him to settle with Pakistan. Both initiatives sought to undermine him, Karzai felt.
The last straw came in February during the London peace talks when the Pakistani side pushed Karzai to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement, on the lines that Kabul had signed with Delhi in 2011. The document, in fact, had been given to the Afghan Foreign Minister, Zalmai Rassoul, during a visit to Islamabad in November 2012 by his charming counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar, throwing the suave Afghan off-balance. It had not been on the agenda of their talks, but Rassoul took the paper back home with him.
For constructive role
It turned out that the Pakistanis wanted a special relationship to be institutionalised with Afghanistan, code language for prioritising Pakistan in its affairs. They demanded the sidelining of India (“not even a Muslim country,” the Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammed Sadiq, had dismissively told former Taliban leader, Musa Hotak, during Ramzan celebrations last year) and discussed the offer to train some Afghan army personnel in Pakistan. Both sides promised to get their clerics to hold a conference in which suicide bombings would be condemned as un-Islamic.
Within weeks, a top Pakistani cleric was justifying the actions of the suicide bomber and refusing to attend such a conference.
“We want Pakistan to play a similar constructive role and secure the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, just as India has done. We don’t want a relationship that breeds violence and hatred. Afghanistan will protect its partnership with India at any cost,” Shaida Abdali, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, told this reporter.
“As for Pakistan’s remarks that President Karzai has become an obstacle to a peace settlement...Yes, he is an obstacle to a foreign-owned and foreign-led peace settlement, not to an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led one,” Abdali added.
An Afghan-watcher in Islamabad pointed out that Zardari is fully aware that his own “establishment” continues to use terrorists to promote its interests in Afghanistan, but cannot do much about it. He agreed that Zardari’s influence, even at the end of five years in power, hardly extended to security and the foreign policy towards India, leave alone Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, as U.S. troops begin to draw down from Afghanistan, all eyes are focused on what the region will do to keep a civil warlike situation at bay. Karzai is said to be extremely keen that India supply military equipment to Afghanistan as well as substantially increase the numbers of security forces being trained by New Delhi, in line with the SPA signed with Kabul in 2011. But the truth is that India remains extremely hesitant.
Some talk has also begun of a realignment of forces between Russia, Iran and India to both train and fund the equipping of the nascent Afghan security forces. The Americans have begun secret parleys with Iran in the hope that it will support the new Afghanistan’s interests. Moscow remains deeply worried. Only the Chinese still want to deal on their own.
“We will not allow anyone to undermine the Afghan state, not the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Americans or anyone other foreigner. In fact, we have decided to talk to the Taliban, in Bagram prison or outside, those who are willing to join the political process...There are many, including those in the Quetta shura willing to reconcile. We are tired of war. And we are determined to create a new country,” Abdali said.
(Jyoti Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist.)