With Washington having braced itself to turn the tide of a losing war in Afghanistan, pressure on neighbouring Pakistan has inevitably increased.
While the US is determined to not allow Afghanistan to become another Vietnam, it’s policy remains mired in confusion and doubt. Grappling at every straw thrown its way, the US seems caught up in trying out all available options to prevent heading the way of the Red Army. This is indeed unfortunate since it is not only for the sake of Western interests but also in the interests of the entire region, that terrorism is defeated and stability restored.
Moreover, recent developments have consolidated the perception that there is visible mistrust and lack of consensus between the three key players, all with considerable stakes. This emanates from the Reconciliation and Reintegration Strategy, President Hamid Karzai has adopted as necessary to winning the war. Originally a US brainchild, it came into existence when the realisation sank in that military means are not going to do the trick. Alas, it is now being viewed in an unfavourable light. This is especially true when Kabul and Washington are at loggerheads over which insurgents to do business with.
Pakistan’s role in the process is both crucial and complex. It bears the distinction of allegedly hosting the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. To Washington’s frustration Pakistan is yet to decide on when to start military operations in the tribal agency. These Afghan insurgents led by Jalaluddin and son Sirajuddin Haqqani are believed to be even closer to Al Qaeda than Mullah Omar-led Taleban and are proving to be an onerous challenge to US war efforts.
The visit of the new Coalition Commander General David Petraeus to Pakistan last week was to emphasise a new set of expectations from its strategic partner. General Petareus is well known among Pakistan’s military circles owing to his frequent contact with them as former head of US Central Command. However, in view of the rapidly shifting dynamics and new responsibility at the helm of the Afghan operation, Petraeus is likely to demand more from Islamabad. At this point one could make a reasonably safe assumption that it would be to target the Haqqanis. They are now on top of the US agenda, so much so that General Petraues is believed to have pushed Washington to include the group in the US list of terrorist organisations. This is likely to impact both Kabul and Pakistan.
First, Pakistan would come under further pressure to open a fresh offensive and hunt down past allies—that have long standing ties with its security establishment. In addition, Pakistan understands that its connections with the Haqqani’s would be crucial in the future political roadmap of Afghanistan. This is something even Kabul has realised. Not only that, the Afghan government’s improving relations with Islamabad reflects the birth of a new trust and joint commitment. It is especially evident in cooperation with negotiation efforts of the Reconciliation and Reintegration strategy.
Second, President Karzai’s efforts to broker a deal with the Haqqani’s and eventually Mullah Omar are likely to fail if US succeeds in blocking these negotiations. While both Islamabad and Kabul rejected reports of a meeting between Sirajuddin Haqqani and Karzai in Kabul arranged through Pakistan’s military channels, it is very possible that such a meeting took place. It is also rumoured that Washington is unhappy with the increasingly independent Afghan ruler who has finally woken up to the feasibility of carving a bigger role for himself in Afghanistan’s political future. While his assertions may have been tolerable for Washington, his making contact with undesirable elements among the insurgents remains a major contention.
The overriding apprehension in Washington is that brokering a deal with Al Qaeda sympathisers would negate all its efforts, thus the threat to US and Western interests would remain a tangible reality. This threat perception may be an exaggerated one but it is credible save for one aspect; what the US fails to realise is that these insurgent groups were forced into an alliance with Al Qaeda. They do not share Al Qaeda’s global Islamic objective, their’s is simply a nationalist struggle to oust foreign forces and regain control. While Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgents may have colluded in sharing operational knowledge and staging terrorist attacks against foreign forces and even civilians these can be explained as desperate measures to fight superior combatants.
Even though Petraeus on his recent visit praised Pakistan for its efforts to counter terrorism and take on home- grown militants, US frustration with its lack of efforts to target Afghan insurgents, allegedly present in the country, is growing. Further, it is deeply suspicious of Islamabad initiating negotiations with these insurgent groups.
It is something Richard Holbrooke in his capacity as Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan remains sceptical about. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, Holbrooke defined Pakistan’s role in the Reconciliation and Reintegration process as “ambiguous and opaque.” At the same time Holbrooke was careful to leave room for manoeuvre saying it was difficult to determine the veracity of reports pertaining involvement of certain elements in Pakistan in deals with elements within the Taleban insurgency.
This is precisely the concern Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to raise on her forthcoming trip to Pakistan before she attends the Donor Conference in Kabul. One can imagine her exchange with the political and military leadership of both states. Secretary Clinton may actually have a more fruitful trip if she listens to reason and tries to understand how political dynamics in this part of the world actually work. She must realise that neither Islamabad nor Kabul would like to live with Al Qaeda. After all they have suffered much more and lost thousands of more lives than US, even if you add up all the fatalities of Qaeda-led terror attacks visited upon it. If the US is serious about brining political stability and clearing out terrorist elements it must work in congruence with the national interests of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, not try and impose a system it deems best. Mutual trust and a solid strategy that works in tandem with safeguarding the political and security interests of all three needs to be worked out. Unless that happens, the waters are only going to get murkier.