Afghan endgame has Pakistan shudderingby Brian M Downing
THE war in Afghanistan has been stalemated for several years now and eyes are turning to a negotiated settlement. In recent weeks, talks between the United States and the Taliban have come and gone, but they will almost assuredly return.
As welcome as these bilateral talks are, they all but ignore the vital interests of regional actors such as Russia, China, India, Iran and perhaps most importantly, Pakistan. All of them will let their interests be known, directly or indirectly, cleverly or clumsily.
The Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence have considerable influence with the Taliban and with many other militant groups along the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having cut off US and International Security Assistance Forces supply lines through their country, these Pakistani security institutions feel they have expertly manoeuvred the US into a corner.
The generals will be in an important position once negotiations restart, but how artfully they use it and what a settlement will bring are up in the air. Negotiations and a settlement could present the generals in their Rawalpindi compounds with major problems.
Generals and mullahs
THE Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s amid the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the collapse of the communist government in 1992 when former Mujahideen groups formed from madrassah students re-gathered to fight warlords and bandits. Their success won support from many war-weary Afghans but also from Pakistani generals. The generals wanted a strategic partner to the north that would expel Indian influence and safeguard commerce between the new Central Asian republics and Pakistani ports.
The generals and the mullahs shared the amalgam of religious and political creeds taught in Deobandi madrassahs (seminaries), which opposed Hindus and Shi’ites alike and endowed Pakistani national security with a religious aura. Indeed, the uprisings against the Soviet-backed government in 1979 were to a considerable extent orchestrated by the Pakistani army in conjunction with the United States Central Intelligence Agency. This led to the Soviet invasion and decades of intermittent war and instability.
The generals are in a position to influence the Taliban by withholding supplies, arresting members of the group's council in Quetta and Karachi, or most drastically giving the whereabouts of principals to US intelligence and awaiting the inevitable. The generals will doubtless seek a settlement that restores Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan and lucrative commerce with Central Asia. They will insist that the Taliban hold fast to the anti-Hindu agenda and see that India is expelled from the north or at least limited to enterprises that benefit Pakistan, such as the export of ores through Karachi.
India has won support from non-Pashtun peoples in the north who loathe the Taliban and see Pakistan as supporting the insurgency and the assassination campaign against northern leaders. India will find support from Russia, which seeks to check Islamic militancy along the Durand Line and Chinese influence in Central Asia. Iran too will support India as it sees the Taliban as a Sunni cult with ties to Saudi Arabia, with which it is vying for dominance in the Persian Gulf.
This could mean that Pakistani interests, as construed and advanced by its generals, will complicate negotiations and possibly even bring them to an impasse. Another complicating if not ruinous matter is the Kashmir question, which is central to Pakistani nationalism. News reports and school teachings assert that India stole the parts of Kashmir now under New Delhi's control and Pakistan must wrest all of Kashmir from Hindu dominance. Few historians outside of Pakistan agree with this position and few Kashmiris wish to trade India's rule for Pakistan's. But no matter, Kashmir is an idée fixe in the Pakistani imagination.
Detaching Kashmir from Indian control is a veritable creed in the Pakistani army. It commingles with notions of institutional honour and national mission, which enhance the ardour devoted to the creed. The army trains several militant groups to operate in Kashmir and conducts diversionary operations to aid their infiltration across the frontier. It has fought two wars over it (1965 and 1971) and lost them both, infusing their creed with the need to avenge humiliation.
The generals almost undoubtedly see their support of the Taliban, their constriction of US supply lines, and their parleys with China as masterful movements that will culminate in settling the Kashmir question in their favour. Failure would bring more dishonour. Further, it would cause the militant groups trained to liberate Kashmir to turn against their state sponsors. So zealous are many in these groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba that when the generals counsel restraint, they demand to be set loose and even vent their wrath by attacking Pakistani generals and politicians.
FOR all their strategic and religious affinities, the Taliban and the generals in Rawalpindi are distinct entities with interests that overlap, at least for a while, but are not identical. Fissures may already have surfaced. Two years ago, Pakistan arrested and detained a handful of Taliban principals thought to be on the verge of unsanctioned talks with the US.
Pakistan’s concern with India's presence in the north may exceed the Taliban's concern, anti-Hindu though they are. This could lead to a harder line than the Taliban shura would want. Pakistan may seek to have the preponderance of Afghan resources shipped from its ports on the Arabian Sea (rather than north into Russia or west into Iran) and to impose hefty transit fees as well.
Further, Pakistani generals see the Taliban-controlled areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan as a redoubt in case of war with India and will seek a presence there. The generals will see those provinces as an autonomous region of sorts strongly influenced from their headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The Taliban have been misjudged by almost all powers as Pashtun bumpkins, unsophisticated in matters of the world around them. Their artful communiqués and effective campaigns indicate otherwise. Pakistan may be the latest power to take them lightly.
The past three decades of fighting foreign armies and non-Pashtun peoples has brought greater interaction and a somewhat stronger Pashtun identity. The Pashtun in Afghanistan have fought Russians, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and now the Americans and their allies, though they have also fought each other.
Some Pashtun tribes served with the Russians against the Mujahideen, later allied with the old Northern Alliance against the Taliban, and are now supportive of the Western-backed Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. Nonetheless, the Taliban have coalesced a sizeable cluster of tribes in the south and east, through parley, force, or apparent inevitability.
The Pashtun across the frontier in Pakistan see their language forcibly supplanted by Urdu in newspapers and schools — a formula for ethnic resentment. Many Pashtun tribes south of the Durand Line have revolted against Islamabad's presence and its alliance with the US. They have formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban — TTP), an umbrella organisation of Pashtun tribes, which has stalemated the Pakistani army and which executes horrific bombing attacks on a regular basis.
The wars have led to tribal parleys and alliances that have brought a measure of common purpose to some of the disparate tribes that compose the Pashtun nation on both sides of the frontier. The Taliban are not at present a Pashtun nationalist movement, though their movement has very little support from non-Pashtun peoples in the north and indeed the Taliban’s staunchest domestic foes are their non-Pashtun ‘countrymen’ — a formula for nationalist sentiment.
The Taliban claim to be an Islamist movement, above the petty claims and mundane prejudices of tribalism and nationalism. A settlement, however, would leave them in official control of at least some Pashtun regions - and force them to contend with the petty claims and mundane prejudices therein. Islamist ideology does not offer meaningful guidance on improving harvests, developing mineralogical resources, or finding export routes.
Pakistan’s territorial integrity
THE border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is an arbitrary creation of the British that is spottily demarcated and rarely respected. Pashtun old-timers and members of the middle classes will remember Afghanistan's vehement but powerless opposition to granting Pashtun lands to Pakistan. They are considered integral parts of Afghanistan unjustly wrested from them by the British army long ago and held today by their sepoys. Many favoured being part of Hindu-dominated India rather than part of a Punjabi-dominated Pakistan. [See also Amin Tarzi, "Political Struggles over the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands," in Shahzad Bashir and Robert D Crews, eds, Under The Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).]
After the Indian partition in 1947, Afghan governments officially supported creation of an independent Pashtun embracing what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously known as North-West Frontier Province), the Federally Administered Tribal Area, and curiously enough, the western Pakistani province of Balochistan. The Balochs are not Pashtun; Kabul was simply playing upon Baloch resentment upon losing its autonomy to the Pakistani state.
Pakistan recognises a double threat in Pashtun and Baloch aspirations. Balochistan already has a low-level insurgency against Pakistani administration, which is oriented around resource extraction and harsh repression. Baloch attacks have been part of China's reluctance to build a naval base in Gwadar and proceed with economic projects - rich though Balochistan may be in gold and hydrocarbons.
Lingering Afghan claims, an ascendant Pashtun movement, and an increasingly hostile and perhaps vengeful US make for anxiety in Pakistan, as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan constitute about 60 per cent of the country’s land mass. And territorial integrity has been of paramount concern since losing East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.
Those concerns may have been behind the Pakistani army’s disapproving response to the US’s deployment of troops into southern Afghan provinces, just north of Balochistan, as part of its 2009 surge. The Pakistani army protested that the surge there would drive Taliban forces into Balochistan, requiring the redeployment of troops from the Indian border into Balochistan.
In that the Pakistani army only fights the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban, the protests reveal concern over US raids into Taliban sanctuaries in Balochistan and potential ties between the US and Baloch separatists — unlikely though it is from outside Rawalpindi.
Paradoxically, yet quite understandably in the context of Pakistan’s security anxieties, the army also fears that the Taliban bands enjoying safe havens in Balochistan will find common elements with Baloch separatists. This concern leads to a further one: the Pashtuns and Balochs will break away and provide their own pathway for Central Asian commerce to reach the Arabian Sea independent of Pakistani controls — by way of a Baloch Gwadar, not a Pakistani Gwadar or Karachi.
Long-standing resentment and hopes may bring about an at least nominally unified Pashtunistan embracing both sides of the Durand Line. Whether it would be an autonomous part of Pakistan as is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or an autonomous part of Afghanistan, or a separate state entirely is of great interest and concern.
More astute members of the Taliban's high council cannot be unaware of conditions in Pakistan and what they portend for their movement's post-settlement future. Pakistan is unstable, thanks in no small part to the Pakistani Taliban, but also due to ethnic antagonisms, immense poverty, and inept Punjabi generals and politicians. Pakistan is not trusted by other countries in the region and even China is stepping back from military and economic cooperation.
Pakistan, then, is of less usefulness to the Taliban once a settlement is reached. The Taliban know that they failed to develop the country during their rule and that it led to discontent, scattered insurgencies, and a lack of public support that revealed itself so well when the US intervened and ousted them in short order. The Taliban will look for broader international support than Pakistan can give — or want them to have.
It is unlikely that the US can take advantage of fissures between the Taliban and Pakistan, welcome though they'd be. Whatever reservations the Taliban have for Pakistan pale in comparison to the enmity they have for the US, which has occupied their lands for over a decade and killed their fighters in large numbers and many civilians also. However, the US can provide economic aid and perhaps could even be, under certain circumstances, helpful in the creation of a Pashtun autonomous region, aloof from the northerners of Afghanistan and alarming to the generals of Pakistan.
Portents of a US withdrawal
PAKISTAN must also be concerned with the consequences of a settlement that ousts the US. The more humiliating the US departure, the more concern for the Pakistani generals.
The US is slated to give its putative ally $1.7 billion in military aid this year, and another $1.5 billion in economic aid. Cuts in military aid and perhaps elimination altogether may be looming, though economic aid and trade advantages would likely continue to help the civilian government in its continuous power struggle with the army. Further, the US could move still closer to India. The two are cooperating in countering Chinese influence along the sea lanes to Persian Gulf oil supplies, and both look warily at Pakistan.
The Rawalpindi generals have long felt that triangulation between China and the US gave leverage over both and that the US would not press them too hard for fear of having the ‘China card’ tossed down triumphantly on the table. The high command in Rawalpindi can no longer have that confidence. China has expressed reluctance to go forward with a naval base in Gwadar, despite its position only 800 kilometres from the Strait of Hormuz.
China has also backed away from funding an Iran-Pakistan pipeline. This was perhaps a reluctant concession to international sanctions on Tehran, but perhaps more importantly a reconsideration of Pakistan's utility. The country is wracked by various forms of instability, not the least of which is the separatism in the western province of Balochistan where Gwadar lies and through which an Iranian-Pakistani pipeline would pass. Baloch separatists often target Chinese engineering teams to limit Pakistani exploitation. Furthermore, China reasons that Pakistan’s untrustworthiness with the US may be repeated with them one day.
An exit from Afghanistan would free the US to press the Pakistani army on its ties to various militant and terrorist groups — a project that many states will support. A less than gracious US exit from Afghanistan would add resolution to the effort. International support for the effort would be substantial. The effort may have been recently signaled.
The US placed a $10 million bounty for assistance in arresting and convicting Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Punjabi militant group behind the deadly 2008 attack in Mumbai. The choice of LeT is significant in that the Mumbai attack might be second only to the September 11 attacks in global significance.
There are two surviving accomplices to the attack, a plotter and a member of the assault team, both of whom have testified that they were funded and trained by Pakistani army officers. Of further international significance is LeT's ties to al-Qaeda and the 2005 attacks in London. The two groups operate alongside one another in eastern Afghanistan, share their deadly skills, and hold the same Salafi beliefs.
Saeed has rallied popular support, openly. He operates freely inside Pakistan, on LeT's well appointed compound. He does not have to hide himself near a remote army base, nor must his followers skulk in the mountains of North Waziristan and Paktia, though some of them do. Saeed’s public posture makes it clear to all that LeT is condoned by Pakistan.
Pakistan may be on its way to being designated a state sponsor of terrorism and enduring international sanctions, though it would take a year or more to build the case before the world. The ruinous consequences of such sanctions can be observed just to the west in Iran, and Pakistan does not have oil resources to attenuate their effects. The generals must fret over what if anything was on the scores of hard drives the US seized on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
The Pakistani army and its client groups
THE threat of sanctions or their actual imposition along with other international pressures will aim at forcing the Pakistani army to break with its militant client groups along the Durand Line and become a professional force geared to national defence and in a manner consistent with international law. This will be Pakistan’s way back into the world order. Though desirable and almost inevitable, breaking from the client groups will be difficult and dangerous.
A settlement in Afghanistan would likely lead to LeT and kindred groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad turning against Pakistan, especially if the Kashmir question isn't ended in a satisfactory manner - and in all likelihood, it will not. Sensing betrayal, militant groups will turn their attention to the army - former mentors now seen as traitors.
Some members of LeT have already sensed flagging commitment to the Kashmiri cause and taken part in assassination attempts on then-president Pervez Musharraf. The full force of LeT, those elements based in eastern Afghanistan and many others in Punjabi cities, would be fearful if launched against the army and state. There are thousands of officers in the Pakistani army, long indoctrinated by the Kashmir creed, who would back them.
Even in the unlikely event of a satisfactory conclusion to the Kashmiri matter, there would still be the problem of trained and zealous fighters, still under the sway of Islamist militancy and indisposed to returning to unappealing civilian occupations. In this respect, they may be similar to the Arab mujahideen after the Afghan war in 1989 or the Tuareg after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow last year in Libya. They will be available for other causes that require their special skills. The world is unlikely to refuse them.
Regardless of Pakistan’s disposition toward its client groups, international pressure will come down upon Islamabad not only to break with them but also to take actions against them. Similarly, any Afghan settlement will insist that the Taliban break with, if not try to crush, the various groups operating in eastern Afghanistan. Win or lose in Afghanistan, the Pakistani army will one day have to fight the deadly groups that it helped to create and was confident it would always control.
Asia Times Online, April 11. Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst.
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