Pakistan’s road to Kashmir passes through Kabul and Washington

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New Delhi should make sure that the U.S. maintains an ambivalent role in Afghanistan. Not so much to keep monitoring actionable intelligence on terrorist activities against Washington but to have sufficient presence in the region to keep an eye on an increasingly restive Pakistan.

“With troop levels having shrunk to around a tenth of its former size, it is no longer possible to maximise military pressure. Any such claims that Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump make is bluster. No new rabbits can be pulled out of that hat.” | AP

After Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, the Intelligence Bureau received an unusual request. This was from a source in the Afghan community in New Delhi. A doctor who worked in Kabul, with the wounded Taliban, wanted to meet someone in the IB to convey a message. Let’s call him Dr. Mohidullah. He had three children, and a wife, all living in Kabul when Najibullah was overthrown. He had worked in Afghanistan for a number of years. Good doctors were hard to come by in an Afghanistan in the throes of a war, and he was persuaded to stay back in Kabul while his family came to Delhi. Whenever he wanted to go home to meet his family, the Taliban would let him, provided he one or two of his sons were sent to Kabul, to be kept as guarantees to ensure that he returned to tend to the wounded. That year, see-saw battles had been going on between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance for control of Mazar-e-Sharif. He was a surgeon, and his job of late had involved mostly amputations — so many that he often ran out of gauze material and had to use newspapers as bandages.

When Dr. Mohidullah met the IB officer, he told him that the Taliban was interested in developing contacts with India and was seeking help in reconstruction. The Taliban had money; they could buy medical equipment but it was a challenge to keep them in good repair. India had a strong profile in Afghanistan in such areas — like reconstruction, engineering and medicine — and the Taliban wanted to explore if India would help. Could the officer carry this message to those who could make a decision?

Internal discussions ensued in the Intelligence Bureau as it tried to determine how genuine the interlocutor and the feeler were, and from what level the request had originated. The next time Dr. Mohidullah visited Delhi, the IB gave him a set of questions to carry back. The officer met Dr. Mohidullah thrice over the intervening months, during which it became clear that the exploratory meetings could be set up in Dubai, and shielded from the ISI. From the interactions it appeared that Dr. Mohidullah knew the leaders of the Taliban, including Mullah Omar, who had lost an eye in the battlefield. The matter went up to the IB Director for a decision. Intelligence types meet all sorts of people. It’s the nature of the job, even those you are warring against. The Taliban was implacably opposed to the Soviet occupation, and then their successor, Najibullah, whom they executed. New Delhi was in the Soviet camp, and supported their successor, the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban, including in Mazar-e-Sharif. The then IB Director — this was in late ’97 or early ’98 — had been brought in from outside. He had been a policeman, not a quintessential intelligence type. He burst out saying, “Bah! Taliban! What Taliban! These are bad guys. We don’t want to get mixed up with these types,” and dismissed the idea saying, “Yeh mera kaam nahin hai [This is not my job].”

Taliban redux

With the spectacular collapse of the Trump-Taliban talks, the dice now seem loaded in favour of the Taliban. Officially, the combat operations ended in December 2014, over four-and-a-half years ago. Yet the war lurches on. As Trump declared the talks with the Taliban “dead”, Secretary of State Pompeo revealed that in the previous ten days, while the Americans were talking to the Taliban, they had managed to kill 1,000 Taliban personnel, which works out to roughly a hundred a day. In the last eighteen years, during which three American governments have redefined their goals in Afghanistan, the core objectives have remained elusive each time even as they were recalibrated for successively for more modest outcomes. What the Americans were really discussing with the Taliban was the shape and size of the fig leaf they would get to wear when they retreated to Washington.

The political stalemate that ensued following the charges of rigging in the previous (deeply flawed) elections has increased the factionalism, strengthened ethnic and tribal faultlines, and seriously undermined what little faith existed in manufactured political processes. The latest round public dalliance with the Taliban over 10 months has upended what remained of the political process in Afghanistan. The presidential election scheduled for the end of this month is unlikely to make any dramatic change for the better. The winners will know the Taliban are lying in wait to take the stage, and time is on their side. After eighteen years, foreign troops have comprehensively overstayed their welcome. Which has been the bigger fiasco: the routs on the battlefields of Afghanistan or the inability to win the hearts and minds? That is open to debate.

For some months now, the United States has stopped divulging how many districts are under Kabul’s control and how under the Taliban’s. For two years, casualty figures among the Afghan security forces have been unavailable. The forces are operating at far below optimum levels, with insufficient numbers to hold even the few parts it has under its control, and is rendered critically vulnerable to infiltration by factional and other regional and Islamic interests. The most optimistic estimates credit the government with being in control of less than 64% of the territory. Desertions in the Afghan army ranks have increased.

Point of diminishing returns

Is this the end-state the Americans envisioned when they came in guns blazing? Initially, the goal was to destroy the Taliban, and the al-Qaeda. Now Afghanistan is a bewildering stew of radicals. The vanquished are winning, including the al-Qaeda, the various Taliban branches, and now the IS. With troop levels having shrunk to under 15,000, around a tenth of its former size, it is no longer possible to maximise military pressure. Any such claims that Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump make is bluster. No new rabbits can be pulled out of that hat.

Talks did not prevent the Taliban from announcing a Spring Offensive in April this year. In Afghanistan, peace presents a bigger challenge to achieve than war. The Taliban has been under ISI patronage. The families of many Taliban leaders are thought to live in Pakistan. Its production lines, minting militants endlessly, are in Pakistan. Battlefield and other losses are effortlessly and constantly replenished. Many Taliban members travel on Pakistan-provided passports. Pakistan is unquestionably the safe haven for the various hues of the Taliban, from the Haqqani network, Islamabad’s preferred branch of the Taliban or Mullah Omar’s successors, whom the Americans almost hosted at Camp David. Out of the 15 people in the Taliban political office, part of the negotiating team, five are Guantanamo Bay veterans, having spent over 10 years there; one has spent eight years in a Pakistani prison, and one was part of the body that issued the fatwa to bring down the Bamiyan Buddhas. Just as Osama Bin Laden was sheltered innocuously for several years, cheek-by-jowl with the Pakistani Military Academy in Abbottabad, Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed leader died of a lingering disease in a Karachi hospital.

The talks with the Taliban (during which the Afghan political class, who were given a soft-landing as a result of the American intervention, were carefully excluded) have given both the Taliban and Islamabad more than an edge. After Trump declared the talks dead, the political office in Doha continues to function, and the Taliban negotiators continue to travel openly for further political discussions. What the Taliban couldn’t wrest in war they hope to take on the negotiating table. They are on a glide path to Kabul. It is apparent which way the wind is blowing. Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the Taliban’s negotiators, was arrested in Karachi based on a tip-off from the U.S., and yet he spent eight years in Pakistani prisons, not Guantanamo Bay. A former deputy to Mullah Omar, Baradar is thought to be a pragmatist who favoured dialogue. It is suspected that the Pakistanis softened him suitably while he was with them.

The American aim is now to leave just enough troops and assets behind to enable intelligence-gathering for preventing any attacks on itself. Pakistan is going to help the U.S. “extricate” itself from Afghanistan. That is the word that Trump used in July when Imran Khan came to the White House with army chief Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief Faiz Hameed in tow (or is it the other way around?). Help is a two-way street. Pakistan has signalled more than once that its core interest in solving the Afghanistan problem is tied to how Washington helps Pakistan mediate Kashmir. It wants Afghanistan to snuff out Indian influence there. Pakistan wants a detailed breakdown of where India is in Afghanistan and what it is doing, what contracts are given to which Indian company, how many Indians work in Afghanistan and where. Pakistan is against the Afghan army officers being trained in India.

 

As Pakistan aims to impress upon the Americans that Washington’s way out of Afghanistan lies through Kashmir, it would be useful to remind the Americans that keeping sufficient and specialised troops in Afghanistan is also vital to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of the various extremists Pakistan is aligned with and many that are not in its control but seem to have a wonderfully free run in the country.

 

The Americans have been in Afghanistan long enough to understand Pakistan’s priorities in the region and know first-hand how it pursues them. Each and every attack on Indian interests in Afghanistan, whether repeatedly in Kabul, or Herat, Jalalabad, has been discussed threadbare with American intelligence, Afghan intelligence, and western intelligence agencies. Many attacks have been thwarted by timely tip-offs by the American intelligence, and Afghan intelligence. It was the Americans who gave a briefing in graphic detail how the Haqqani faction of the Taliban was responsible for the attack on the Kabul embassy that killed over fifty people including the military attaché, a brigadier, and the counsellor. That the Taliban and ISI had been cosy was made clear when Pakistani transport aircraft began a series of rescue flights for those Pakistani advisers and Taliban fighters trapped by the oncoming Northern Alliance at Kunduz. George Bush ordered an air corridor to be provided for the escaping Pakistanis and Taliban militants in order to politically bail out General Musharraf. The then national security adviser Brajesh Mishra put the figures of those who made it to the airlifts at a “ballpark figure” of 5,000, speaking to journalist Seymour Hersh, who wrote about it in The New Yorker.

The backwash

The backwash from Afghanistan began from 1990. Foreign mercenaries began turning up in significant numbers in Kashmir, as senior generals who served there recall. In 1991-92, the numbers had surged. By 1996, there was unmistakeable evidence of arms and fighters being diverted. Diaries were found on some of those who were killed. Written in Urdu, they would detail which camps in Afghanistan they had received training in and when they had entered Kashmir. Initially, the attempt was to get them alive to question them before they were killed about where they had been trained, what kind of training, when and how they crossed the Line of Control, and what their mission directives were. Through translators, they found that they were either from Pakistan or Afghanistan. The arms that had been captured from the infiltrators were deposited with the local police, AK-47s, Chinese and Pakistani, American weapons, their marks obliterated, shoulder-fired rocket-launchers, radio equipment, all originally meant to fight the Soviets with. The army began sending monthly reports and quarterly reports itemising the weapons and foreign fighters. So far, none of them have been declared or identified as Taliban, preoccupied as they are in throwing foreigners out of their land. When the Taliban take over again, the cycle will be complete again, these veterans fear. Pakistan will direct their energies towards India.

This time there will be quiet desperation. It has been suggested that the move on Article 370 was to present a fait accompli, after Imran Khan’s invitation to Trump to “mediate” on Kashmir and Trump’s repeated exhibition of eagerness to do so. Doing away with Article 370 and the lockdown in Kashmir will be a red rag, as well as the repeated assertions that the only aspects left to discuss with Pakistan are how to cede control of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to India. The change in the status quo accompanied by the language of belligerence could possibly encourage a sequence of unfortunate events leading to an escalatory military misadventure that could invite intervention. Call it brinkmanship.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Trump, the backdrop will be clear. When the Taliban gets into the driving seat in Kabul once again, there will be a backwash in Pakistan as well. Imran Khan recently revealed that there are more than 30,000 radicals running around freely in his country. It could be a very conservative number. Pakistan, by its own estimation, has been the target of more major terrorist attacks than either Iraq or Afghanistan, after it joined the Americans in sorting out the good Taliban from the bad. It has lost as many army personnel as the Americans. By deploying over 1,00,000 forces inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it has created new dynamics for new terrorists. Yet, China will be aligned with Pakistan to make capital out of the new Afghanistan. As India fashions a credible and long-term response to the imminent changes in Afghanistan, it should be New Delhi’s aim to make sure that the U.S. maintains an ambivalent but sufficient role in Afghanistan. Not so much to keep monitoring actionable intelligence on terrorist activities against Washington but to keep an eye on an increasingly restive Pakistan, and to effectively act in Pakistan when things start spinning out of control. As Pakistan aims to impress upon the Americans that Washington’s way out of Afghanistan lies through Kashmir, it would be useful to remind the Americans that keeping sufficient and specialised troops in Afghanistan is also vital to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of the various extremists Pakistan is aligned with and many that are out of its control but seem to have a wonderfully free run in the country.

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