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Afghan Factor behind moves to revive talks between India and Pakistan

P.K. Upadhyay was a Consultant with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for its Pakistan Project.
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  • February 25, 2010

    India-Pakistan talks, suspended since the November 26, 2008 attack on Mumbai, are scheduled to resume on February 25 in New Delhi at the level of the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries. The decision to resume the dialogue came against the backdrop of a further deterioration in the already uneasy relations between the two countries following the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the privately run Indian Players’ League (IPL) Cricket tournament. The decision not to enlist any one of the Pakistani players was taken by the private franchises of various teams participating in the tournament, in view of their own business interests and the Indian Government had no hand in it. Yet, Pakistani Ministers (Interior and Sports), the Pakistan Election Commission, the National Assembly and the media lost no time in launching an anti-India tirade on the issue. Representative of the illogicality and pettiness of many of those statements was a group discussion on a private Pakistani television channel in which participants, including Pakistani Cricketer Sohail Tanvir (who has regularly played in IPL tournaments until this year), lost no time in attributing the action of the IPL franchises to “Hinduon ki zahaniyat” (the Hindu psyche) and Indians being “baniyas” with “muh me Ram, bagal me chhuri” (duplicity of the Hindu race) attitude. Therefore, the move to resume parleys came as a total surprise to many.

    However, for those who have been following the unfolding US ‘AfPak’ policy over the past few months, this would have hardly been a surprise. The resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue is apparently closely linked with US moves in Afghanistan in the context of President Obama’s publicly declared intent to begin the process of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan from 2011. However, this does not mean abandoning the region as in the past. In the words of the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, “One of the top objectives [of the US policy in Afghanistan] is to keep US and its friends safe from attacks…. US will continue to attack, disrupt and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.” For a secure and stable Afghanistan, she speaks of “encouraging international cooperation toward open societies and free economies, as well as supporting democratic institution and processes.” The US strategy quite apparently is to install such a regime in Kabul before it leaves the country, as may have broad-based support and has a good enough chance to hold on to its ground against ‘irreconcilable’ radicals and hardliners. This would necessitate seriously eroding the military capabilities of the Taliban of all hues and varieties and allowing those from among them who abjure violence to join the new dispensation in Kabul.

    In contrast, the Pakistan establishment (i.e. the Army and its allied bureaucratic-political circles) has been wanting to dominate post-US withdrawal Afghanistan through the Taliban - its Afghan ‘strategic asset’. In the wake of the ‘success’ of their strategy in Istanbul and the London talks on Afghanistan, they would have liked the political talks between the ‘Quetta Shoora’ of Afghan Taliban and the United States and the Karzai regime backed by it over the future power structure in Afghanistan to immediately commence through their good offices. According to Najam Sethi of The Friday Times, in early February General Kayani very clearly laid down that Pakistan sought “soft strategic depth” in Afghanistan (a friendly Afghanistan with a pro-Pakistan security apparatus) and a transparent non-military Indian role in that country. Secondly, Kayani asserted that Pakistan has a right to be a core player in America’s “surge and exit strategy” in Afghanistan, since it is a direct neighbour of Kabul (unlike India) and is willing and able to muster critical Taliban support for any future political dispensation in Kabul under US sponsorship.

    However, the United States has apparently not let itself be unduly influenced by Pakistani ideas of distinguishing and engaging with supposed “good Taliban” (those who act in concert with Pakistan and further its strategic goals) and going against the “bad Taliban” (those who fight or go against the Pakistani establishment). The United States has believed in segregating the Taliban into ‘reconciliable’ (those who abjure violence and are willing to co-exist in a democratic Afghanistan) and ‘irreconcilible’ ones (those who remain riveted to their ideological beliefs and commitments), and has systematically been working to deny the Taliban of the latter hue any pre-eminence in Afghan affairs. The surge in US troops in Afghanistan has been used to launch a major operation in Marjah to hit at a key area of Taliban control, which provides them their economic backbone in the form of poppy cultivation and opium trade. However, this attack on Taliban would not produce the desired results unless a complimentary military action takes place on the Baluchistan side of the Pakistani border, where the ‘Quetta Shoora’ is safely ensconced due to Pakistan’s benign attitude towards it. The United States would not like the Taliban cadres fleeing from Helmand province in Afghanistan to escape to Kandahar and on to Baluchistan in Pakistan, or Taliban fighters from those areas reaching Helmand to relieve their beleaguered colleagues.

    Some recent developments in Pakistan suggest that the Pakistanis may have successfully been pressurized by the United States into finally beginning to act against their ‘Good Taliban’ protégés. This shift in the Pakistani position is clearly discernible for the past few weeks. Kayani is stated to have said that when Pakistan spoke of strategic depth in Afghanistan it did not mean controlling Afghanistan, but to have an Afghanistan which was “peaceful, stable and friendly”, providing Pakistan with strategic depth “because [then] our western border is secure.” He went on to add in the same breath that Pakistan did not want a “Talibanized Afghanistan,” implying that Pakistan would be more than happy if there was a pro-Pakistan Taliban dominated as against a totally controlled dispensation in post-US Afghanistan. Kayani’s statement has to be seen in conjunction with an interview given by Gen. David Peteraeus, the US Central Command commander, around the same time that there was a need for Islamabad to play a key role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, using the links between the jihadists and Pakistan’s military-intelligence.

    Apparently, for the present, Pakistan has abandoned its efforts to advocate exclusively the case of its ‘Good Taliban’ protégés to the Americans, who have generally not been involved with the Pakistan Taliban in attacking the Pakistani military in FATA, or civilian targets in other parts of the country through suicide attacks and bombings. The largest Taliban regional command structure under Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan, has also generally been keeping away from Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and concentrating its efforts on the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. This Pakistani move could, however, be just a tactical move to ease off US pressure and they would like to revert back to their old ways of exploiting their ‘strategic assets’ in pursuit of their national agenda. However, the US insistence on immediate and firm action against ‘irreconciliable’ Taliban seems to be making this somewhat impossible. It is the important Afghan Taliban leaders who have been targeted by the Pakistanis in the past few weeks, mostly through US drone attacks (which require tactical intelligence inputs from the Pakistanis), or in joint Pakistan-US intelligence operations. These are:

    1. Killing of Hajji Omar Khan, the main go-between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban in South Waziristan in a drone attack on January 1;
    2. Arrest of Mullah Abdul Salam, the Shadow Governor of Kunduz in Afghanistan, in Faisalabad on January 26;
    3. Arrest of Mullah Mir Muhammad, the Shadow Governor of Baghlan, also in Faisalabad on January 26;
    4. Arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Second-in-command of the Taliban, in Karachi on February 15;
    5. Killing of Muhammad Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani family and network in a drone attack on February 18 in North Waziristan. This operation was said to be under plans since middle of December 2009; and,
    6. Arrest of Mullah Kabir, former Shadow Governor of Nangarhar in Nowshera on February 20.

    None of the above persons was directly or indirectly working against Pakistani interests at the time of the arrest/killing and has clearly helped the US strategy of degrading the Taliban politically. Moreover, the continued presence of these Taliban leaders on the scene should have been necessary for their Pakistani masters if there was any move to propel them to power through negotiations. Each of the above arrests has led to production of further intelligence leading to more arrests. For example, the arrest of Mullah Kabir followed inputs provided by Mullah Baradar during his interrogation.

    This shift in Pakistan’s Afghanistan strategy, or its greater alignment with the US strategy, has been brought about by some stiff diplomatic and non-diplomatic arm twisting of the Pakistanis by the United States. The non-diplomatic arm twisting has come in the form of suspension of the release of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and even withholding of a substantial amount from this year’s Kerry-Lugar Aid Bill allocations on the grounds that Pakistanis refuse to let nearly 100 US auditors visit their country to audit the actual utilization of these funds. The total withheld amount under CSF is estimated to be around $2.5 billion (actual disbursement till date has been only $400 million) and the one under Kerry-Lugar Bill is $950 million to 1.1 billion. The Obama Administration has also been going slow in releasing $175 million in the shape of hard cash for budgetary support for Pakistan. In terms of military hardware, so far the Americans are said to have released only some night-vision devices, body-armour, six used Mi-17 helicopters and some spares. This has apparently hurt the Pakistanis very hard as the CSF amount is actually in reimbursement of what they have already spent on their part on the ‘War on Terror’. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani has been reduced to repeatedly pleading with visiting US Congressional leaders to ensure release of the withheld funds at the earliest. “Though Pakistan had persisted in its war efforts by using its own meagre resources, the non-disbursement of the pledged assistance would be to the detriment of the world interests at large,” he told a Congressional delegation led by Stephen Lynch on January 30, 2010. Later on February 17, he pleaded in similar terms with Senator Kerry.

    The diplomatic pressure seems to have been exerted through almost a constant stream of planned as well as unplanned high-level US visits to Pakistan in recent weeks. These include visits by Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, National Security Advisor General (Retd.) James Jones, President Obama’s Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Stanley McChrystal, Commander International Security Assistance Force, and General Peteraeus the US Central Command Commander. Just before his visit to Pakistan, Gates told a US television network that he would encourage Pakistan to build on its successes in South Waziristan and extend the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda. He also sought to use his visit to underline the US resolve not to abandon the region as it had done previously after the Soviet withdrawal. He reiterated the need for resolute action against Taliban and al-Qaeda in an editorial page article he wrote for the Pakistani daily The News during his visit and in an article for the US Embassy magazine after it.

    However, it has not been all sticks in the current US policy towards Pakistan. Carrots have also been provided in the form of public acknowledgment of a preeminent role for Pakistan in Afghanistan and accepting its security concerns there. The US Ambassador in Pakistan Anne Patterson has spoken of transparency and close consultations with Pakistan in negotiation in Afghanistan, as and when they take place, with or without Taliban participation. While acknowledging that at present the Pakistani military had reached a limit regarding the scope of operations on its side of the border, General Peteraeus has also spoken of a Pakistani role in negotiations with pragmatic Afghan Taliban, duly separated from the hardcore of the organization. The Americans and their NATO allies have also seemingly been attentive to the Pakistani concerns regarding India, as projected by Kayani in his presentation to the NATO Headquarters and in talks with US leaders. Kayani claims to have bluntly told NATO Commanders that he was India centric and there was no way he could relax on his eastern borders to concentrate on the western one. He asked NATO and US leaders to help resolve pending contentious issues with India, thereby implying that then he could do more in the context of the war on terror. It is here that India comes into the larger Pakistan-US-Afghanistan scene.

    There has been a concerted effort in Pakistan to put up a brave front and cover up the crucial withdrawal on the Afghanistan policy in the form of direct or indirect action to degrade the military and political capabilities of their Taliban protégés. Kayani’s rare interaction with the Pakistani media in early February appears to have been more of bravado to put up a positive front than signalling the country’s ultimate triumph in Afghan developments. While highlighting receptiveness on the part of NATO and other western powers to Pakistan’s security concern vis-à-vis India, the supposed exclusion of India from any meaningful role in Afghanistan as exemplified by its omission or relegation to be a mere participant in recent meetings on Afghanistan, the acceptance of the Pakistani role in Afghanistan, etc. have been highlighted by various Pakistani circles to boost the sagging national morale and cover up the total about turn they have been forced to quietly make on their pro-Taliban policy. The recent spurt in public activities of Pakistan-based and supported jehadi groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, and their leaders in Lahore and Muzaffarabad, is also an attempt by the Pakistan establishment to demonstrate to its demoralized protégés that it has not abandoned them or their cause and due to dexterity of its diplomacy, despite Afghanistan and FATA, the focus of attention is back on Kashmir and India.

    Apparently, in order to blunt the Pakistani argument against doing more on the Pakistan-Afghanistan scene due to lingering threat from India, the US leadership has been trying to persuade India to resume dialogue with Pakistan that could lessen the tension between the two countries and improve the atmospherics in South Asia. During his visit to New Delhi in January 2010, Gates, and before him Holbrooke, were at pains to underline the long-term strategic nature of Indo-US ties, particularly in confronting new security threats. Gates also lauded India’s economic assistance programme in Afghanistan, though it appeared to be fuelling Pakistani concerns. Without saying it in public, the US leaders seem to have pitched in for resumption of India-Pakistan parleys that could remove a major hurdle in tackling the spectre of terrorism stalking Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

    India would seem to have agreed to the US suggestion, but on the terms that any talks with Pakistan must foremost focus on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored/supported terrorism. However, the Pakistanis would like these talks to cover all issues, including Kashmir and now even water. What should India be doing now? We need to keep some dialogue with Pakistan going. There is international opinion in its favour and India cannot continuously resist it. However, India should try to focus these talks on the issue of terrorism. If at all their ambit has to be enlarged, India could suggest a discussion on a missile control regime between the two countries and even something like a Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). To further match Pakistan’s propagandist approach, India could unilaterally announce withdrawal of the first generation of liquid fuelled Prithvi missiles from the India-Pakistan border, which may be on the verge of technological obsolescence. Let the Pakistanis and the world see for themselves that the Pakistan establishment is mentally tied to the baggage of the past and is incapable of discussing the issues of 21st century.

    Lastly, what should India be doing if there is fresh provocation by Pakistan-based terrorist groups? India should take most of them in its stride, just as it has done in the case of the recent Pune blast. However, if there is a major provocation like Mumbai 26/11, Pakistanis could be forced to deploy on borders with India. An Indian deployment would be costly and seemingly wasteful, but given its high GDP growth rate India can live with it. It would, however, force Pakistan to counter deploy and bleed white, particularly as US aid is not easily forthcoming and Taliban insurgency is not waning. The Soviet Union was destroyed by the United States by engaging it in an arms race and global cold war without firing a shot. Let Pakistan pay the cost of military mobilisation in the east and may be also forced to yield ground to TTP and others in FATA. Let it worry of east while figuring out how to keep TTP at bay, which may now be increasingly joined by Afghan Taliban groups who may have now a grudge of their own to nurse against the Pakistan regime.