Kabul-Islamabad relations have nosedived after the Rabbani assassination, putting Pakistan's “strategic depth” policy under the scanner.

The “50 Years Ago Today” column in The Dawn on October 8 featured a report headlined “Afghans warned to beware.” The report from Peshawar said: “Minister for States and Frontier Regions Lt. Gen. K.M. Shaikh said here yesterday that Pakistan was prepared to deal with any situation which might arise as a result of Afghan troops' incursion into our territory… Gen. Shaikh said he had no knowledge about any U.S. proposal for the amicable settlement for the Pakistan-Afghanistan dispute.” This was in 1961.

Little has changed along the Durand Line in the 50 years since. On October 6 this year, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani issued a similar warning to Afghanistan against cross-border activities; and the U.S., after 10 years of visible ground presence west of the Durand Line and decades of covert action, is nowhere near an answer to the Afghan conundrum.

In fact, as the 10th anniversary of the start of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan was clocked on October 7, the region looked even more unstable. Last year had been the bloodiest in Afghanistan since 2001, and 2011 is racing to outdo the 2010 body count.

The Taliban feels victorious. In a statement put out by the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' on October 8 to mark the 10th anniversary of Afghanistan's occupation by “the arrogant American colonists,” the Taliban spoke of how the Americans had been forced to contemplate “leaving this soil” by the mujahideen with scarce weapons and equipment amid growing realization world-over that a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan will “add nothing to the end result except more expenditure, failures and humiliation.”

More worrisome has been the mounting tension between Islamabad and Kabul. It has grown to the extent that both countries are not just crossing words but warning the other of retaliation if cross-border incursions continue. Amid reports suggesting that Islamabad had warned Kabul of possible hot pursuit west of the Durand Line if terrorists continued to attack Pakistan's border outposts, Afghanistan, on October 2, put forces on high alert in eastern Kunar to thwart possible creation of security checkpoints by Pakistani forces in the Bajaur tribal agency.

Just how rapidly bilateral relations have nosedived is evident from the fact that on September 16, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and Afghanistan's Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin were speaking in Islamabad about how the two countries had a “shared fate,” and believed in an “Afghan-led and Pakistan-assisted” effort against a “common enemy.”

Briefing the media in Islamabad on the third meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) of the Peace Commission, the Afghan Minister deviated from the oft-repeated “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” formulation for the since-in-tatters reconciliation process to bill it as “Afghan-led and Pakistan-assisted.”

He was rather emphatic: “I think the only process that will deliver proper results, that will be concrete as a process, will be the one which is Afghan-led and Pakistan-assisted. No other countries can help. There are various contacts which are being made by the United States and by Germany. All of these will have to be streamlined into one common process that is essentially what we are talking about here. Our efforts are targeted at creating that single process towards peace in Afghanistan. We would be grateful for Pakistan's role in facilitating that process and strengthening that process. Whatever other contacts are there will have to be ultimately streamlined into this one single process.”

He also announced that the next meeting of the JWG would be held at the leadership level in October, for which Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani would travel to Kabul. This was three days after the “spectacular” 20-hour-long attack on the U.S. Embassy and headquarters of the NATO in Kabul, arguably one of the most secure areas of Afghanistan.

But soon after the assassination of Afghan High Peace Council chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani on September 20, the three-year-old bonhomie between Islamabad and Kabul began to unravel. Afghanistan accused the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of having a hand in Rabbani's assassination and called off a meeting of the trilateral process — Kabul, Washington and Islamabad — scheduled for October 8. There were also reports suggesting that the October-end meeting in Kabul to be attended by Mr. Gilani had been cancelled.

In a recorded message to a gathering of the country's top religious leaders on September 30, President Hamid Karzai articulated Afghan frustrations, saying that the attempts to negotiate with the Taliban had proved futile and that the dialogue must focus instead on Pakistan. Maintaining that he had changed his position on dialogue with the Taliban after Rabbani's killing, he said: “Their messengers are coming and killing. So with whom should we make peace? I cannot find Mullah Omar. Where is he? I cannot find the Taliban Council. Where is it? I don't have any other answer except to say that the other side for this negotiation is Pakistan.”

This was, by far, the most scathing indictment of Pakistan from across the Durand Line in recent years. South Asia expert C. Christine Fair said this meant Mr. Karzai had realised “that rather than talking to the floor manager, he had to talk to the CEOs, and the CEOs are Pakistani intelligence and military officials in Rawalpindi.”

Pakistan rejected these charges against the ISI and, in turn, questioned the direction taken by Afghan intelligence and security agencies, calling for introspection by Afghanistan as to why people considered favourably disposed towards Islamabad were being systematically killed. Pakistani diplomatic circles maintain that Rabbani, despite his Tajik ethnicity and Northern Alliance links, had a huge role to play in improving bilateral relations and keeping Afghan rhetoric against Pakistan in check.

With his death, the diplomacy of the recent past which had seen the two countries gingerly address the key irritant — cross-border incursions — fell by the wayside as both governments surrendered to their traditional suspicion of each other.

Though Mr. Karzai sought to mend fences in New Delhi after signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement with India, Islamabad was clearly not buying into his description of Pakistan as a twin brother. In a measured response to the India-Afghanistan agreement — described by the Daily Times as a potential “nutcracker squeeze from east and west so feared by our military strategists” — Islamabad trained its guns on Kabul without saying a word out of place that could possibly harm the renewed dialogue process with New Delhi.

“At this defining stage when challenges have multiplied, as have the opportunities, it is our expectation that everyone, especially those in position of authority in Afghanistan, will demonstrate requisite maturity and responsibility. This is no time for point-scoring, playing politics or grandstanding,” the Pakistan Foreign Office said.

Though there has been a growing acknowledgement in Pakistan that India, as the largest economy in the region, has a role to play in Afghanistan's economic progress, the deep-seated suspicion that New Delhi's engagement goes beyond development has been fuelled by the strategic partnership agreement with Kabul. Analysts critical of Pakistan's strategic depth policy and attempts to ensure a pro-Pakistan and anti-India administration in Kabul insist that this very myopic thinking has provided Mr. Karzai with a valid enough reason to open Afghan doors to Indian security presence west of the Durand Line, bringing to life the deep state's nightmare of Indian encirclement.

Pakistan's desire to have a friendly government on its western flank — in a country with which it shares a 2,640-km-long border that runs through villages and settlements — is natural but even within the country, where matters of security are seldom discussed publicly, Islamabad's desire to have a proxy government in Kabul is being questioned. According to Khalid Aziz, former Chief Secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (better known in India as the North-West Frontier Province), “we have a mental hubris to consider Afghanistan as an extension of Pakistan. Karzai's dealing with India shows his disappointment with Pakistan.”

But the Pakistani foreign policy elite continues to push for “an all inclusive government in Kabul” that would “necessarily require” Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network to be part of that arrangement.

The raison d'être for sticking to this policy is evidently provided by the U.S., which wants to reach out to the Taliban on the one hand and insists on Islamabad going after the Haqqani network on the other. While this has given currency to the fear on the streets that the U.S. wants to undermine Pakistan from inside and outside by making even the Afghan Taliban its avowed enemies, the policy elite see it as a bid by Washington to minimise Islamabad's role in the negotiations. As Pakistan's former Ambassador to the U.S., Maleeha Lodhi, put it: “What does the U.S. want us to do? Deliver bodies to the negotiating table!”

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