There are underlying worries whether in exchange for cooperation in fighting the Afghan Taliban and the other terrorist groups Pakistan would have obtained U.S. and NATO promises to get their mediatory intervention on the Kashmir issue.
First came the news of the arrest of the commander of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Baradar, in Karachi, said to be in a joint operation of the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan (ISI) and U.S. agencies. Though the arrest was made on February 8/9, the information became public only on February 15/16. He was reported to be under joint interrogation of the agencies of the two countries. Though this information was first denied by the Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmation later came from the ISI's spokesman and subsequently from the Foreign Minister, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He said the action was not under pressure from allies but in Pakistan's own national interest. Now it is reported that 124 terrorist suspects have been arrested in Pakistan, including five senior members of the Taliban Supreme command and nine militants with close links to Al Qaeda. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry have praised the new cooperation between the Pakistan Army and Intelligence and the U.S. So has the U.S. Special envoy to the Af-Pak area, Richard Holbrooke, who was visiting Pakistan. Mullah Baradar was earlier considered to be a key person in the negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai regime.
Some observers have described these developments as Pakistani moves to gain the goodwill of the U.S. and NATO to ensure that Pakistan will have its way in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Others think that these actions place Pakistan in an advantageous position to facilitate negotiations between the Karzai government and the reconcilable Taliban as per the strategy formulated in the London conference. As is to be expected, in Delhi the main focus is on what it would mean for India and how Pakistan would use these developments against India. There are underlying worries over whether in exchange for cooperation in fighting the Afghan Taliban and the other terrorist groups Pakistan would have obtained U.S. and NATO promises to get their mediatory intervention on the Kashmir issue. Further concerns are, relying on the U.S. gratitude for action against some of the jehadi groups whether Pakistan may carry out more terroristic attacks on India and hope for the U.S. and NATO putting pressure on India not to retaliate. The Indian fears have very valid bases and the Indian agencies have to assess the consequences arising from the latest developments for India carefully and initiate steps for optimum preparedness to meet such contingent threats.
Need for objective assessment
At the same time it is very essential for the Indian intelligence community to carry out an objective assessment of the measures reported to have been initiated by Pakistan against the Afghan Taliban and the Al Qaeda. How far are they genuine? It should not be forgotten that Pakistan claimed to join the U.S. in the war against Taliban in October 2001 and in reality ensured that the leaderships of Taliban and Al Qaeda, significant numbers of their cadres as well as the Pakistani Army and ISI personnel serving the Taliban regime were rescued from the forces of the Northern Alliance and were brought to safety in Pakistan.
During the Afghan war in the 1980s, the Pakistan Army and the ISI, acting as the sole conduit for U.S. aid to the mujahideen, appropriated the bulk of the aid and armaments to themselves and to their favoured jehadi groups which later transformed themselves into the Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Al Qaeda and other anti-western jehadi groups. Therefore the Pakistani claims and actions cannot be taken at face value. Even among the U.S. observers there is considerable scepticism about the Pakistani actions. This present change in strategy is being handled at a very low key and the arrests of Mullah Baradar allegedly in collaboration with U.S. agencies has not produced the anti-U.S. outbursts to be expected from the anti-U.S. popular opinion in Pakistan. Obviously the army's guidance in shaping public opinion is at play.
An objective assessment will call for a careful calculation of the risks and benefits the Pakistani Army leadership should have taken into account in this switch of strategy, if it is genuine. On February 2, 2010 the Director of National Intelligence told the Senate, “Islamabad's conviction that militant groups are an important part of its strategic arsenal to counter India's military and economic advantages will continue to limit Pakistan's incentive to pursue an across-the-board effort against extremism,… Islamabad has maintained relationships with other Taliban-associated groups that support and conduct operations against U.S. and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces in Afghanistan,…. It has continued to provide support to its militant proxies, such as the Haqqani Taliban, Gul Bahadur group, and Commander Nazir group…..The Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani militant safe haven in Quetta, will continue to enable the Afghan insurgents and Al Qaeda to plan operations, direct propaganda, recruiting and training activities, and fundraising activities with relative impunity.” There was no hint in the report that Pakistan could even modify its strategy in the very near future under certain circumstances. The arrest of five members of Quetta Shura tends to contradict the thesis that Baradar was arrested as he was for reconciliation.
Mullah Baradar's Taliban is offering stiff resistance to the U.S.-U.K. forces at Marjah in Helmand province of Southern Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar's “flowers” (inertial explosive devices) are proving formidable obstacles to the U.S.-U.K. advance. Is there no expectation of the Afghan Taliban's resentment being expressed against Pakistani cities and Army targets? In the absence of the central leadership how will various Afghan Taliban groups with conditioned jehadi suicide bombers at their disposal respond to the alleged betrayal of the Pakistani Army of a trusted ally? If there is no significant response to this betrayal in Pakistani territory from the Afghan Taliban cadres, is it not likely the Taliban within Afghanistan will become more reconcilable without any good offices from the Pakistan Army, and will not the task of the U.S. and the ISAF become that much easier?
If, on the other hand, there is large-scale resentment over the Pakistani betrayal, the Pakistani Army and security services will have a whole-time task on their hands in dealing with that resentment expressed through terrorist acts, as has become the normal practice of such jehadi groups. These considerations apply in equal measure to Al Qaeda also since some of its members are also reported to have been arrested.
No doubt this is an existential war for the sovereignty and security of Pakistan and the application of a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy to the cancer of religious extremism eating into the vitals of Pakistan may have become inescapable at this late stage as had been stressed by President Obama. While scepticism of the Pakistani Army's new strategy is entirely justified one should not overlook the possibility of their launching on a new strategy fully overconfident of their capabilities to prevail, as they did in 1965, 1971 and 1999 and coming to grief. Their bona fides are likely to come under test as Mr. Obama insists on his aims in his just war to dismantle, disrupt and defeat the ‘holy warriors' on Pakistani soil, the main battlefield.