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Karzai Raises the Anti-Taliban Rhetoric

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 30, 2008

    Kabul has for long been wary of Pakistan’s idea of negotiating ‘peace’ deals with Taliban militants operating out of its north-western tribal areas. Pakistan’s earlier peace deals in 2004 and in 2006 were short-lived and had helped the Taliban emerge stronger. Moreover, the 2006 North Waziristan Pact had led to a notable surge in Taliban attacks west of the Durand Line. In view of their ineffectiveness in the past, the decision of Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government to hold dialogue and negotiate peace with the Taliban militants early this year was viewed with suspicion by both Kabul and the United States (US). With the military pressure off, Taliban militants are apparently having a free run across the vast Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal frontiers. This has inevitably led to a tremendous spike in the Taliban offensive against Kabul and Western forces since April 2008. Pakistan’s disregard for Afghanistan’s security concerns, while it explores non-military options to pacify the Taliban, has recently evoked strong criticism from the Afghan government.

    On June 15, President Hamid Karzai took many by surprise when for the first time he reportedly threatened to send soldiers across the border into Pakistan to fight the Taliban militants carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan. Asserting Afghanistan’s right to self-defence, he argued “If these people in Pakistan give themselves the right to come and fight in Afghanistan, as was continuing for the last 30 years, so Afghanistan has the right to cross the border and destroy terrorist nests, spying, extremism and killing, in order to defend itself, its schools, its peoples and its life.” He particularly lashed out at Pakistani Taliban leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, with whom Pakistan is believed to have negotiated peace deals. It is noteworthy that they have vowed to continue their fight against the Afghan government and the Western forces. Karzai has threatened that Afghan soldiers would hit Baitullah Mehsud and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, whom he called a Pakistani, in their safe havens in Pakistan.

    Karzai also expressed concern over the plight of his fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan for the first time. He tried to speak as a good old ethnic Pashtun leader appealing to Pashtun nationalist sentiments transcending the Durand Line. He accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of training militants “against the Pashtuns of Pakistan and against the people of Afghanistan” and whose “jobs are to burn Pashtun schools in Pakistan, not to allow their girls to get educated, and kill the Pashtun tribal chiefs.” He asserted that it was “the duty of Afghanistan to rescue the Pashtuns in Pakistan from this cruelty and terror… to defend itself and defend their brothers, sisters and sons on the other side.”

    Since the limitations of the nascent Afghan Army are well known, Karzai’s unusually harsh statements are open to varying interpretations. According to some observers, Karzai was probably hinting at a possible shift in US policy to deal with the rising Taliban. In their opinion, US coalition forces are likely to adopt a more aggressive approach to deal with the cross-border dimension of the Taliban militancy. To others, it was suggestive of Karzai’s growing desperation over his government’s lack of control and authority in the country, as well as the ambivalence in Pakistan’s approach towards the Taliban. They largely interpret his statements as pre-election polemic.

    Karzai’s statements clearly reveal that he spoke in various capacities. While threatening to send Afghan soldiers against Taliban militants based in Pakistan, he was asserting his position as the president of Afghanistan and a national leader. This can be seen in the context of some of the spectacular attacks recently staged by the Taliban that have further undermined his position and that of his government. The April 27 attack on Karzai during the national day parade in Kabul, and the daring June 13 attack on the Kandahar main prison complex in which hundreds of Taliban detainees were freed, were seen by the Afghan government as a blatant challenge to its authority. The very fact that the Taliban fighters captured and held on to the Musa Qala district in southern Helmand province for nearly ten months last year, despite a strong presence of British forces, must have been an embarrassment for the Karzai government.

    Similarly, while speaking of his fellow Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, Karzai was also trying to project himself as an ethnic Pashtun leader. He was appealing to the historical Pashtun fraternalism as a counter to the Pakistan-exploited Taliban attacking fellow Pashtuns in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kabul’s growing inability to weaken the Taliban by weaning away the Pashtuns may have led Karzai to assert his position as an ethnic Pashtun leader ruling from the historic city of Kabul, which has for long been the capital of various Pashtun dynasties.

    The tremendous rise in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan since Pakistan began negotiating with the Taliban also evoked strong reactions from the US coalition and NATO officials. On May 14, NATO spokesman James Appathurai stated that the terrorist attacks in eastern Afghanistan during the month of April went up by 50 per cent as compared to the same period last year. While agreeing that Pakistan has the sovereign right to negotiate with their Taliban, NATO’s civilian spokesman Mark Laity argued that “It is no real solution if trouble on one side of the Durand Line (the border) is merely transferred to the other side.” On May 19, the departing US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, observed, “We are troubled by the negotiations and the possibility of yet another peace deal in the northwest. We keep our eyes on Pakistan. It seems to me to be very dysfunctional right now.” He categorically stated that there is sufficient data to prove that “whenever there is dialogue or a peace deal consummated, our aggregated number of untoward events typically goes up.” According to the Pentagon, for the first time, more number of Western soldiers died in Afghanistan (19) than in Iraq (17) during the month of May. In a report recently submitted by the Pentagon to the US Congress, it was categorically stated that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan offer the “greatest challenge to long-term security within Afghanistan.”

    Therefore, given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and in view of growing assertiveness of US coalition forces along and often across the Durand Line, Karzai seems to be making common cause with the US by raising the anti-Taliban rhetoric. For long, Karzai has been urging the West to re-strategise its war on terror. In his opinion, there is no point killing the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan so long as their training and mentoring centres inside Pakistan are intact. He has been consistently arguing for the need to concentrate on the external sources of terrorism and violence which lie in Pakistan. Having failed to convince the West of the need to prevail upon Pakistan to stop nurturing and encouraging the Taliban, Karzai has found himself increasingly isolated and subjected to criticism for not doing enough. The US criticism of Pakistan’s peace deals, and the growing impatience of coalition forces over Taliban attacks along the Durand Line, provided him an opportunity to reinforce his argument by raising the rhetoric against the Taliban in an unusually forceful manner. Though one could say that Karzai’s statements were undiplomatic, what was notable was that he carefully avoided making a direct attack on Pakistan’s nascent civilian government. He was clearly hinting at the need for Islamabad and Kabul to cooperate with each other on what he regards as a common threat to both countries and the region as a whole.

    Thus, keeping in view the constraints of NATO’s Afghan mission and the limitations of the Afghan government in the face of growing Taliban militancy, the patience of both Kabul and Washington seems to be wearing out. However, at the same time, it is important to point out that any direct military intervention across the Durand Line, however brief and subtle, can prove counter-productive in the long-run. It has the potential to widen the conflict theatre in the region and add to the ongoing chaos in Pakistan’s tribal frontiers. Moreover, it would work to the advantage of the Taliban and its allies. A divided Western coalition is certainly not in a position to risk any such misadventure in a region where interventions are easily construed as invasions.

    What is required at the moment is forceful diplomacy to convince the Pakistan government of the need to adopt a comprehensive strategy in cooperation with Kabul and the Western forces to deal with the Taliban in a firm and a decisive manner. The so-called peace deals or pacts with the Taliban are not going to work so long as Islamabad is negotiating from a weak position. The Pakistan government needs to understand that the Taliban movement can no longer serve its regional aspirations. It has gone too far, and has acquired its own regional and global dynamics. It is ironic that the Pakistan state still prefers to remain oblivious of the long-term impact of increased talibanisation in the region on its own national fabric.