Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential – former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
A recent two-part BBC documentary ‘Secret Pakistan’ accuses Pakistan of playing a double game in Afghanistan. It shows British and US security officials claiming that by day Pakistan is a US ally but by night it trains and arms Taliban-affiliated insurgent groups operating inside Afghanistan who are increasingly effectively targeting NATO forces, Afghan security forces and launching brazen attacks in major cities. For anyone familiar with the pattern of Pakistani foreign policy and the line towed by its military, this should come as no surprise. As early as 2002, Akram Hospital and Civil Hospital in Quetta and relief organizations such as Al-Rashid trust were amongst the many organizations openly treating hundreds of wounded Taliban foot-soldiers in the heart of Quetta city and in plain view of the public and Pakistani security agencies. Officers working at Quetta’s special branch security center would jokingly mock the Amreekis for bombing Afghanistan looking for Mullah Omar while he, in their words, sat comfortably in Kharot-Abad, a western suburb of Quetta. Walls in the city’s markets were covered with pamphlets promising material and spiritual rewards for joining jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan under the banner of such and such organizations located at such and such addresses in all major Pakistani cities. If you knew the right people, for a price of a few thousand rupees you could smuggle a truck full of people back and forth the Chaman border with Afghanistan multiple times day and tag a car load of ammunition along with you, just for the extra thrill.
But, such is the dilemma of international diplomacy and realpolitik that the US and the international community chose to overlook the entire history of the Afghan jihad (perhaps for reasons of self-vindication), the history and the origins of the Taliban movement as well as the open and visible signs of Pakistan-Taliban alliance in exchange for the kill and capture of Al-Qaeda leaders by Pakistan’s military dictatorship led by General Musharraf. A decade on, it appears that the Pakistan-Taliban tactic of continuous effort and consistency is gradually beating the US and NATO’s tactic of strength and intelligence, in their own game – Churchill was right.
Diplomats from fourteen regional countries are due to be in Istanbul on Wednesday, 2nd of November to discuss security and stability issues in Afghanistan in the run up to the planned 2014 withdrawal of international security assistance forces. The conference title, ‘Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia‘ takes place mere days after car bombings and attacks targeting US soldiers and Afghan security forces in Kabul and Kandahar, weeks after similar Taliban attacks were blamed on Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
Additionally, US secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently concluded a two day visit to Pakistan urging its civil and military leadership to crack down on Islamic extremist outfits responsible for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, namely the Haqqani network. Her visit came amidst public accusations against Pakistan by US security officials over links between insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI. Clinton’s statements to the press are indicative of both US frustration with respect to Pakistan based insurgent groups and also of increased doubts over whether the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other groups could be made part of a reconciliation process: “Now we have to turn our attention to the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani, and other terrorist groups, and try to get them into a peace process, but if that fails, prevent them from committing more violence and murdering more innocent people“. At the same time she said that she looked forward to negotiations with Pakistan turning into actions in a matter of days and weeks rather than months and years. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister insists that “ground realities must drive policies” and that departure from ground realities, as viewed by Pakistan, would be counter-productive.
The US is hedging its bets on “squeezing” the Haqqanis to the negotiating table through secret talks at the behest of the ISI as well as by surgical strikes against its operational commanders in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well as eastern Afghanistan. Either way, in words of Secretary Clinton, the US doesn’t know if the carrot and stick approach will work. The Haqqanis meanwhile enjoy cordial relationship with the Pakistan’s security establishment, evident by both their freedom to operate and move around Pakistan but also, increasingly through indirect admissions by Pakistani diplomats and a former dictator through juxtaposition of the Haqqani’s importance to peace in Afghanistan and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.
In a recent column in The News International, former Pakistan envoy to the US and the UK, Maleeha Lodhi falls just short of re-stating the standard Pakistan military dictum that both Afghan government and the International Security Assistance Forces will have to accommodate the demands of the insurgents. While ruling out any regional security arrangements, she is insistent that a serious reconciliation process is “yet to take off the ground”, meaning that Pakistan is yet to be provided with enough incentive for it to be serious about clamping down on its proxy groups. For it, the threat of being surrounded by India, losing its only potentially pseudo-client state in Afghanistan and the possibility of Afghan influence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan are far bigger geo-strategic concerns than any decisions or proposals made by any regional or international parties. By continuously and consistently outsourcing its battle for Afghanistan to an effective insurgency, Pakistan is now geo-politically well placed to gradually start pressing the US “to do more” as the 2014 deadline draws closer.
Despite the apparent war of words, new diplomatic maneuvers are giving Pakistan increased leverage in Afghanistan, under what is being called a revamped approach of “Fight, Talk, Build”. In the run up to the Istanbul Conference, a senior Western official has even called for Afghanistan to lower its ambitions in the face of regional objections, which no doubt, originate from Pakistan.
In any realistic scenario, for the US the cost of losing Pakistan is a cost too great if the benefit is only a half-realized success in Afghanistan. Pakistan is nuclear power; it has a strong military and ballistic missiles, a very large population, strong ties to the Middle East and China and is strategically located. Compared to that, Afghanistan has little to bargain with. Whether it is a proposed project of regional economic integration, energy and trade agreements, security arrangement or more, Pakistan’s role is likely to remain crucial in Istanbul, in Bonn and beyond. Whether the group of retired military officers, ex-diplomats and active officers of the Pakistani military in General Headquarters Rawalpindi will end the double game or change their mind, remains a possibility that is unlikely to materialize.