The Afghanistan drama, different actors and India
The United States had been conducting secret negotiations with the Taliban over the last few months to bring an end to the Afghan insurgency, and enable it to withdraw with some sense of achievement. Both the Karzai government and Pakistan were uncomfortable with the United States for not taking them along in these discussions. The Pakistanis have been looking forward to the end game in Afghanistan, hoping to secure a place on the high table with their hold over the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, while Karzai would feel threatened with this move of the United States which might render him irrelevant in the near future. Afghan and Pakistani officials have often stated that efforts by Washington to make peace with the militant group are bound to fail without the involvement of Kabul and Islamabad.
So what happens? According to reports, someone from the Afghan government of President Karzai leaked the information about the secret talks, including the name of the Taliban interlocutor Tayyeb Aga, who promptly fled the scene fearing for his life. Then late September suspected Haqqani network terrorists attacked and laid siege to Kabul for about 20 hours, directing their attacks on the United States’ embassy and the NATO headquarters.
The US officials suspect that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency ISI was in league with Taliban elements in executing this attack in Kabul against the US embassy and NATO headquarters, according to the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, Afghan intelligence expert believe that the Kabul siege ‘was designed by the Haqqanis to kill as many Americans as possible and that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) unit directly trained the Taliban affiliate and aided them in pulling it off’.
The US officials agree with this assessment. They say that the ISI has aided Haqqani attacks in Kabul in the past. The US has warned Pakistan they would face stronger action if the Haqqanis are not reined-in, in Pakistan’s tribal areas and threatens to stall normalisation of frayed bilateral relations. However, in a NATO conference of defence chiefs in Seville in Spain, in which the Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was honoured with an award, the General ruled out any imminent full scale action against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. According to a statement, issued during the conference, the General ‘reiterated the resolve and commitment of Pakistan in the struggle against terrorism while underlining Pakistan’s sovereign right to formulate policy in accordance with its national interests and wishes of the Pakistani people’.
United States officials, including defence secretary Leon Panetta and their ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, have queered the pitch by warning Pakistan of ‘doing everything possible to end the threat posed by the network, the most potent insurgent group’. Cameron Munter, in an interview with Radio Pakistan said that further attacks would not be tolerated, and that they would defend themselves, as they have always claimed they would. As if on cue, in an interview given to Reuters, Sirajuddin Haqqani said that his group was no longer in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, but had fully moved into Afghanistan from where they were better placed to attack the foreign forces. This statement of Sirajuddin Haqqani appears to have been given in order to take the American pressure off his mentors, the ISI.
What appears strange is that though the Taliban’s Quetta Shura headed by Mullah Omar was considered to be an asset of the Pakistanis, they have shown that they have an independent streak, and were willing to talk with the United States keeping Pakistan out of the loop. A peep into this mindset of the Taliban is offered by their former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, in his well received book, My Life with the Taliban in which he explains his troubles at the hands of the ISI in Pakistan, and how, in the aftermath of 9/11, he was bundled by the Pakistanis and handed over to the Americans, who took him to Guantanamo where he was held for four years. In an interview to an Indian journalist, while on the subject of Pakistan’s control over the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Zaeef said that they (Pakistanis) cannot be trusted. To quote: “It was from their air bases, that the Americans first struck Afghanistan. They facilitated the US troop movements. And do you think they will let the US leave? Do you know that Balochistan is the critical supply route for US Afghan operations? Will Pakistan ever give up this source of income and, above all, control on the Americans?”
So Pakistan provides shelter to Mullah Omar and his Quetta Shura hoping to use them when the Americans leave. Pakistan also provides shelter to the Haqqani network, considered the most dangerous Taliban group attacking western targets in Afghanistan, hoping to use them against the Indians when the Americans vacate Afghanistan. And Pakistan is waiting patiently for the Americans to quit for playing its cards. Karzai, on the other hand, appointed a High Peace Council headed by former President and Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani to talk with all groups to bring peace. While most of the countries, including India, welcomed the move neither Pakistan nor the Taliban were comfortable with Rabbani, a Tajik and known to have friends in India and Iran. Rabbani’s rule in the Nineties was known for being sadistic and corrupt, and responsible for the rise of the Taliban.
Rabbani was brutally assassinated on September 20 by a suicide bomber at his residence where the bomber and another companion had allegedly gone as Taliban emissaries to talk about peace. While it is still not clear as to who carried out the assassination, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the assassination. According to Mujahid, the Taliban’s central leadership had appointed two ‘articulate and well-trained’ fighters — Mohammad Masoom and Wahid Yar, the latter reportedly a former Taliban minister — to build contacts with Rabbani. According to a report, ‘Both of them were frequently meeting him at his Kabul home and secured trust of Rabbani and his guards. They were telling Rabbani that they would soon bring senior Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.’
Writing in the Foreign Policy journal, Anand Gopal says, many in the Afghan government believed that Rabbani was appointed to head the High Peace Council in order to involve the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance along with Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami party, in the peace process. ‘Jamiat, which has long been hostile to the Taliban, is an important force in northern Afghanistan, particularly among ethnic Tajiks. But many in the Taliban and in Pakistan met the appointment with derision’, he writes. There were also reports that the Taliban has denied responsibility for the assassination. The picture is yet to get clear. But it is obvious that the Pakistanis and the Taliban would be happy with this development.
In recent times there have been some high profile assassinations of Afghan officials, like that of President Karzai’s half brother and of the mayor of Kandahar city by the Taliban as they were seen as obstacles to the peace process where the Taliban hoped to get a favourable deal. But this would drive a deep wedge between the Taliban and the members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, which was led by the Tajik Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud before his assassination by two al Qaeda terrorists a day before 9/11, and instead of peace in Afghanistan, there will be an even more ferocious civil war.
Where will this leave the United States? Will their talks with the Taliban continue in this background? Can they leave Afghanistan without some peace deal having been brokered with the Taliban? There were reports of the Taliban being permitted to open an office either in Turkey or Qatar, so that they can have talks on peace with the international coalition that is currently involved in Afghanistan, without being influenced by others. With the American Presidential elections of 2012 looming, there is considerable pressure on the United States to go for a deal without delay, and withdraw from Afghanistan. But they are also working at a strategic partnership with the present Afghan government that will enable them to retain bases with Special Forces to keep an eye on developments in Pakistan’s Waziristan province from where most of the conspiracies to strike the United States are likely to be hatched. While the Afghan security forces have shown the will to fight in spite of several odds, they have not been able to prevent high profile suicide attacks in the heart of Kabul. The situation in the unfortunate country appears fraught with danger.
India has excellent relations with the present government of President Karzai. The Indian government has invested wisely and heavily in Afghanistan’s development process. India has suffered innumerable terrorist attacks by militants trained in Afghanistan under ISI’s tutelage when it was ruled by the Taliban and would be most unhappy if a similar dispensation, taking orders from the Pakistan Army were to return to power there. India will therefore have to keep a close watch over the unfolding drama in Afghanistan to protect its investments and its ‘interests’ in that country.
(The writer retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Vigilance Commissioner in Jammu & Kashmir)