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Strange bedfellows


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, March 15, 2013


Five US troops were killed in a helicopter crash and two American soldiers died in a green-on-blue attack on March 11, making it the deadliest day for the United States in Afghanistan this year so far. Last year, attacks by Afghan troops or police took at least 31 US lives. 

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left Afghanistan at dawn the same day, after he described events in the country as complicated. "We are still in a war," he said. Hagel also snubbed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had accused the US of "collusion with the Taliban" and also told US troops to leave the Maidan Wardak province, next to Kabul, by March 10 following angry protests by villagers.

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, during his recent interaction with journalists and writers, had already cautioned that with an insecure fated-to-exit Karzai becoming increasingly unpredictable, Washington and other NATO countries needed deft diplomacy to preempt mischief.

The war of words that erupted in Kabul between the increasingly confrontational "lame-duck" president Karzai and the US-NATO military, as well as the cancellation of their joint press conference, underscored the intensity of another phase of conflict that stares at Afghanistan. In a readjustment of policy, the US military announced over the weekend it had stopped publishing monthly data on drone strikes because it made them "disproportionately focused". Missile attacks are made in only 3 percent of unmanned aerial vehicle sorties, according to CNN. 

Incumbents in Kabul and Washington appear to be at daggers drawn - both driven by their own objectives and deadlines, but discernible from almost every press dispatch out of Kabul, the progress on the Pakistan-US front offers reasons for comfort, if not rejoice. We are on the same page as far as reconciliation is concerned. The Doha process is on track, fully backed by Pakistan, while the US itself appears totally reconcilable with the inevitability of Islamabad's support in the run up to the Afghan presidential election in April 2014 and the foreign troops' withdrawal in December that year.

Taliban, it seems, are also responding positively to the US messaging on the end-goals - stability in Afghanistan, decrease in violence before the presidential elections, and negotiations with the full involvement of Taliban for an interim mechanism that would lead up to a national, largely credible government with total Afghan ownership. This process may stretch beyond five years, reckon US officials, and they will agree to a Taliban office in Qatar to facilitate the talks. Safe passage constitutes an important element in reconciliation and the Pak-Afghan-US core group is working on that with considerable success.

This also means that the US now looks at the Taliban insurgents as one entity under Mullah Omar, and has abandoned its earlier policy of splintering the Afghan insurgency in the hope of weakening them.

This US repositioning seems to have countered - at least for now - some of the mistrust that Pakistani establishment nurtured vis a vis the US establishment. Much of Pakistan's confidence flows from what appears to be a tacit understanding with the US on the Iran gas pipeline, inaugurated on March 11 at Chabahar. Pakistani officials are happier and confident than ever before that the mistrust between Islamabad and Washington has finally given way to a more pragmatic and empathetic view of Pakistan within the US administration. This, officials say, at least acknowledges Pakistan's centrality to the Afghan reconciliation. Under the burden of circumstances, Washington is no more buying into the insinuative reporting out of Kabul or New Delhi, Pakistani officials believe.

Primarily, this sense of relief in Islamabad rests on two counts. Firstly, with the release of about 26 Taliban leaders, Islamabad demonstrated both its willingness to help, and gained leverage. The US welcomed this gesture. It still holds another dozen or so Taliban leaders, including Mullah Biradar, but would not release any of them "until we have assessed the impact and relevance of those already released."

The delay in the release of more Taliban leaders might have displeased the US, but Pakistan apparently would not want to exhaust all its cards without seeing tangibles, a very highly placed military commander told us recently. 

It looks quite obvious that both Pakistani and American officials are still a little apprehensive as to whether all those Taliban being released by Pakistan are and will be able to influence the reconciliation process. We are not sure whether they go back to the combat or stay on the side of reconciliation and try to influence that process.

Secondly, despite public brinkmanship on the issue of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline, the US administration seems reconciled with the inevitability of such a venture between Pakistan and Iran.

"They will keep publicly protesting and intimidating us on the pipeline issue the way we have been protesting drone strikes," said an official. He argued that sanctions on the pipeline are not entirely automatic. In the past, the US administration has granted waivers in the name of "national security interests." 

Another official said both countries need an extremely collaborative framework in the run-up to the December 2014 withdrawal of the bulk of US and NATO troops, for which the US still considers Pakistan as the most feasible, crucial link.

Every seven minutes, one NATO container with critical cargo will be crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan. The process, stretched over a few months, would possibly include at least 80,000 containers, carrying millions of tons of cargo. Its safe passage through to Karachi requires a congenial climate at the institutional level within Pakistan, with the hope of no or little public threat or opposition to this venture. At least preemption of physical threats to this cargo would require a closely coordinated mechanism.

The top brass at the ministry of foreign affairs and the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi consider this leverage as crucial for pushing projects such as the pipeline as well as requesting more energy-focused US support. 

But given Pakistan's internal instabilities, it would be a daunting task for the civilian and military leadership as to how well they play the situation to the country's long-term benefit. Short-term tactical gains are hardly any panacea for this crisis-ridden country.

Pakistan also feels that the Taliban, vying for position in the future political set up that will culminate in a fresh, all-inclusive general election, have stood down from their maximalist position - the demand for total withdrawal of foreign troops - and reconciled with the presence of a few thousand American-NATO troops in the country beyond 2014. 

"After all, if the Taliban could talk to Karzai representatives in Paris, and if they are ready to accept assistance for setting up the Qatar office with the western financial and political facilitation, why should they be averse to the presence of foreign troops in their country?" asked a very important Pakistani official.

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