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Strategic blunder


By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times , June 28, 2013


Pakistan denied its purported contacts with and influence over key Taliban leaders for years. Civil and military officials would reject out of hand any link whatsoever with any Taliban leaders. They also expressed ignorance of the whereabouts of the militant leadership. Beginning early this year, they forgot all those denials and turned over 26 Taliban prisoners in two installments, saying the rest - about a dozen or so - would be set free as and when necessary. By doing so, the Pakistani leadership essentially began admitting what they had been brushing aside as allegations and propaganda.

But the bait by American interlocutors (Pakistan is being made relevant to the Afghan reconciliation process) worked, and one after the other, Islamabad and Rawalpindi pulled out cards - first the Taliban prisoners, then linking up the most hunted and condemned terrorists Haqqanis with the Americans, and now claiming credit for what turned out to be, at least for the time being, a big faux pax at Doha ie the Taliban office and the ensuing controversy over the flag of "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". 

Then, by taking credit for the Taliban office formally launched on June 18 amid great fanfare, Pakistan again displayed the usual indecent haste. Only a day later, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stunned his western backers by announcing a suspension of talks on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. Ironically, Pakistani officials went the Karzai way, and during special envoy James Dobbins' Islamabad visit, they expressed fears that the initiative might break down due to the 'contradictory approach' of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration. Before that, for two days, newspapers in Pakistan were awash with official chest-thumping for "Pakistan's instrumental role in the reconciliation." Even Foreign Ministry officials went public with a credit-taking, self-adulatory statement, realizing little that by doing so Pakistan itself has confirmed the allegations that the international community had made against it, ie Islamabad's undeniable clout over the Taliban leadership.

Once again, the megalomaniac mindset led Pakistan to shoot itself in the foot - totally oblivious to the long-term consequences of such admission. It revived the whisper outside Pakistan that "we have been assisting the country while it has been backing those who have been killing our boys in Afghanistan".

And finally, to add up to its list of strategic blunders, Pakistani officials then had the media believe that "muddled US policies" led to the snags in the Doha process. Premier Nawaz Sharif resounded this in his meetings with James Dobbins.

No surprise therefore that John Kerry came to India, just a 50 minute flight away, but skipped Pakistan. That also reflects the real mood on Pakistan in Washington.

Instead of denials, couldn't Pakistan have been straightforward in telling the Americans that maintaining a semblance of relationship with the Taliban as an undeniable reality next door was unavoidable? Proximities such as geography (border), ethnicity (Pashtun tribes on both sides of the borders) and politico-historical relations (CIA-ISI-led anti-Soviet jihad) dictated the policy, should have been the message.

Now, the damage has been done to Pakistan's credibility. Doha talks, nevertheless, will most probably resume. Karzai will fall in line too (because he would be too stupid to challenge and upset the American roadmap). And although Dobbins told reporters in Islamabad that the Taliban "can't roll the clock back," nobody can deny or ignore that the militia remains "still a significant military force" (in Dobbins' words).

And herein lies the predicament, or the compulsion, for Karzai and the US - despite publicly playing down the obscurantist militia, the US endgame for Afghanistan depends entirely on the Taliban, and the extent to which they might want to back down from their maximalist position and agree to a mechanism that a) suits all, b) facilitates the US-NATO bulk withdrawal, and c) paves way for Taliban participation in Afghan politics.

Linked to this is the question whether it will be a cakewalk for the allies even if the Taliban agreed to concede to most of the American demands? Certainly not. Geopolitics are likely to weigh heavily on the reconciliation process and create potential obstacles on the road to peace - the current state of India-Pakistan, Pakistan-Afghan, and US-Iran triangle and their conflicting interests hardly allow any promise. And this takes us to what John Jerry, the US secretary of state, said in New Delhi early this week. "The world's largest democracy can play a central role in helping the government of Afghanistan improve its electoral system and create a credible and independent framework for resolving disputes."

By publicly placing India at the center of efforts for Afghanistan's dispute resolution, Kerry invariably raised alarm in Pakistan's power centers which remain seized with the increasing Indian role in Afghan governance and security establishment.

Also, Iran or Central Asia (and Russia by implication) hardly figure in the American conversation on Afghan reconciliation. This means the US wants to secure self-serving strategic gains there without securing the strategic neighborhood with the support of a country which is on the periphery.

While the string of developments may be in synch with the US plan, this certainly doesn't augur well for Pakistan which is already drawing considerable flak from Karzai and his associates. Caught up in a hostile relationship with India, sandwiched between two hostile regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia - one an ally of the US and the other a declared enemy, Pakistan faces a grim scenario.

The situation at least for Pakistan amounts to a double jeopardy. The specter of more chaos following a US-NATO failure in Afghanistan appears to be haunting the military establishment as much as the new civilian government.

Can Pakistan - itself faced with the omni-present and creeping monster of religious extremism and invisible terror agents - make a strategy of its own? Or will it wait and see which way the Pentagon and the State Department will go in Afghanistan? Also, it has become increasingly evident that if Washington had hoped to score strategic gains by excluding Afghanistan's strategic neighborhood ie Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China, those hopes have certainly dashed.

The daunting challenge therefore for those seeking reconciliation in Afghanistan remains as to how to unlock the grid populated by an internally complex array of factors being influenced - directly or otherwise - by mutually conflicting geopolitical factors.

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

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk