Gulf of mistrust
By Imtiaz Gul
The News, January 01, 2014
Mutual suspicions, acrimony, allegations, and brinkmanship marked the Pakistan-Afghan relations during 2013. Pakistan “released” Mulla Baradar and some three dozen Taliban prisoners. This year, bilateral trade hovered around two billion as compared to $ 2.5B in 2012. Pakistan not only extended the deadline for Afghan refugees living in Pakistan but also facilitated Taliban leaders’ travel to the meanwhile dead and dysfunctional Qatar office. A seemingly erratic President Hamid Karzai, despite blowing hot and cold on Pakistan, visited Islamabad in August, demanded more cooperation and promised reciprocity. Eventually, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Kabul in November, while members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council were given access to Mulla Baradar secretly (the Taliban claim that Baradar is still under detention and is, therefore, irrelevant to peace negotiations).
In early 2013, Pakistan, like many other countries including India, the US and Germany, also offered a strategic partnership agreement to Kabul. However, the Afghans dithered and never responded to the offer.
Later on, on the 20th of December, 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that Pakistan, Afghanistan and India had no option other than becoming good friends. He also added that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, had agreed not to let his country to be used against Pakistan.
Such pleasantries, however, hardly change realities of an acrimonious relationship that is clouded by several geo-political factors. Pakistan’s links to, and alleged support for, Mulla Omar and Haqqani Taliban remain at the heart of this vacillating and rancorous relationship that keeps resonating in Kabul, with Afghan leaders putting the blame of all of their problems on Pakistan.
Let us look up a few of such statements which illustrate the deep-rooted mistrust and the propensity among most Afghans to hold Pakistan responsible for all that plays out in their country.
Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, National Security Advisor to President Karzai during his brother’s funeral in Herat province in early summer, accused Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of assassinating his brother. “The foreign elements are training and hiding some people in Peshawar and Quetta. After the training, they are sent on terror missions during whom they kill our brothers, sisters and relatives,” said Dr Spanta. (http://www.tolonews. com/en/afghanistan/11262-dr-spanta-holds-pakistans-intelligence-agencies-responsible-for-his-brothers-assassination)
The Afghan army chief, General Sher Mohammad Karimi in a BBC interview (broadcast on the 3rd of July, 2013) vented his antagonism by bringing in the controversial CIA drone strikes:
“Pakistan was complicit in drone attacks because Islamabad had “given the lists” of militants it wants taken out.”
He also alleged that the drones are used against those Taliban who are part of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The drones are never used against Haqqani or Afghan Taliban, he said, in reference to one of the most feared Afghan insurgent group.
Gen Karimi’s claim came two days after Deputy Foreign Minister, Ershad Ahmad, publicly accused Pakistan of having asked the Afghan government to cede power in some provinces to the Taliban in a power-sharing deal. The idea, Ahmad said, was raised during a recent meeting between Pakistani national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz and Afghan ambassador – now the home minister -Umer Daudzai in Islamabad.
Similarly, rather than finding faults with the US reconciliation approach, most Afghans turned their guns towards Pakistan when the Taliban opened their office in Doha, in June 2013.
“The opening of the Qatar office, the way it happened was a plot and Afghanistan foiled that plot and this plot was aimed at splitting or breaking up Afghanistan… We have concerns and those concerns have increased since January, and that is over US closeness with Pakistan, especially over issues linked to Afghanistan. I can’t say 100 percent for sure, but you, yourself, can understand that one of these two countries is behind this (Doha office) plot (implying that both the US and Pakistan were working against his country),” Karim Khorram, President Hamid Karzai’s Chief of Staff said in an interview (an Agence France Press -AFP – report, quoting Khorram’s interview with private 1TV).
But Khorram’s boss went several steps ahead in his condemnation of talks between some Taliban groups and the United States. Speaking at a news conference, shown live on National Afghanistan TV on 24 August, Karzai said:
“First of all, it cannot be true. If any talks are under way between America and these groups – America and the Taliban, America and Hezb-e Eslami and America and other foreigners on such an issue -such talks will be a failure. We will make them fail. If foreigners make such efforts, we will break their teeth.”
This was Karzai at his best when confronted with a question on Pakistan’s role in the reconciliation.
Little do most people realise that issues such as how to deal with the Taliban remains a source of consternation for all, even in Washington. The Haqqani Network has, for instance, become the cause of an interagency battle of wills in Washington. The recent defense spending bill that the US Senate passed on the 19th of December, asks the administration to come up with a plan to attack the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network where it lives -by going after its cash.
“We need a comprehensive strategy from them about how the network operates, how they recruit and how they travel,” a Congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. “Shockingly, nothing like this has been done,” he added.
This illustrates the Congressional frustration over this issue. Even Gen Joe Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, raising concerns about the lack of a comprehensive effort to counter the Network. Then, on the 11th of December, some senators met with James Dobbins, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He, too, drew spiteful response from the senators.
“The manner in which the ambassador addressed the members’ questions was not helpful to our efforts to address this important issue mutually,” according to a December 20th letter that six members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State, John Kerry, obtained by Foreign Policy. “Frankly, his manner was one of the least professional engagements we have had with the Administration”, he said.
Outsourcing of border
Meanwhile, the Haqqani network, in fact, also constitutes the core of another issue i.e. outsourcing of border. Senator Afrasiab Khattak of the Awami National Party (ANP), in an interview with a foreign radio explained this:
“The real issue is not border management… it is sourcing out borders to militants. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been doing it for a very long time and recently Afghans have also resorted to this tactic by giving shelter to our fugitives. I think we have to stop this,” he stated. Khattak’s obvious reference was the Haqqanis. Similarly, President Karzai, when asked whether his government was ignoring the presence of Mulla Fazlullah and his militants in eastern Afghanistan, he responded quite candidly.
“Yes, they are there. Yes, they are there because of the war created against Afghanistan by the [army] establishment in Pakistan. This is the consequence of the activities from across the Durand Line in Pakistan towards Afghanistan… it is not my fault,” Karzai told Geo TV in June 2013.
Karzai’s response amounted to accepting that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” and left no doubt that Fazlullah and others will keep operating out of eastern Afghanistan as long as Haqqanis would remain ensconced in Waziristan.
As the year 2013 drew to a close, Pakistan-bashing in Kabul seemed to have mellowed down a bit; during his press conference in mid-December in India, President Karzai, for instance, thrice expressed his trust and confidence in Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.
“He has promised cooperation and that he would not allow Pakistani territory to be used against Afghanistan,” Karzai said.
This marked a turn-around in Karzai’s position, probably for two reasons. First, he wants to secure Pakistani cooperation in checking cross-border militant movement for the Presidential election in April 2014, so that he can push his favourite candidate. Second, by toning down his anti-Pakistan rhetoric, he is trying to get closer to Islamabad and Tehran to blunt mounting American pressure for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). This ties well into the already good relations with New Delhi, and this trilateral relationship provides Karzai with what he might believe is a firewall against American arbitrariness. He is certainly not oblivious to Afghanistan’s near financial dependence on the US and NATO, yet would like to be seen as a president having acted under their pressure.
As a whole, the year 2013 remained turbulent and marred by mutual accusations. It will be interesting to whether the bilateral relationship can at all break out of the deep-rooted mistrust and acrimony, as testing times lie ahead for both the countries in 2014 and beyond.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India