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US, Pakistan, and the War on Taliban
Friday, 24 August 2007 23:16
by Dr. Ehsan Azari

The joint cross-border peace Jirga in the Afghan capital, Kabul (August 9-12), lumped together about 700 representatives from the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun tribes. Before anything else, the grand assembly, the first of its kind, was a searing exposé of the dilemma facing Afghanistan and the labyrinth of Pakistan’s partnership in the war on al-Qaida and the Taliban.

While voicing concerns about the functioning of the Taliban’s training centres on Pakistani soil, the Afghan delegates overwhelmingly came out in favour of the notion that the war on terrorism had reached a deadlock largely because of the Taliban violence orchestrated by intelligence quarters in Pakistan.

Pakistani representatives, on the other hand, were divided into two groups with different views. The first pro- Musharraf Islamist group tried to question the presence of international forces in Afghanistan and called for their replacements with troops from Islamic countries. Some even likened the US troops to that of the Russians in the 1980s and asked for similar treatment by the Afghans.

The other group, mainly representing nationalist and secular Pashtun parties from Pakistan disclosed a multi-layered strategy of the military regime in Islamabad vis-à-vis Afghanistan. For example some delegates hinted that they were given the agenda of their speech by the government of Pakistan, limiting them to talk only on the problem of the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

They had gone off-message when speaking about the harsh truths of the Pakistani tribal territories bordering Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) having been turned into a quintessential statelets being controlled by Al-Qaida and Taliban militia. Since the creation of Pakistan sixty years ago, these agencies have been governed by political agents holding a strong bond with the powerful Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the way the British Raj was ruling the tribal colonies in the nineteenth century. The delegates described the political agents as tyrants who could arrest and kill whoever they wanted. While Islamabad says to the international community that it is fighting terrorists in these areas, the ISI is sending peace missionaries to lure local militants into secret peace deals.

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Pakistan, it seems, is still haunted by the ghosts of its past, and is unwilling to give up on the use of the Taliban for its domestic politics as well as strategic regional agenda. Experience of the past three decades indicates that Pakistan’s military intelligence, which has sole charge of power in the country, is good at reading the Afghan psyche, embedded in conservative Islam. It also has the technical know-how on exploitation: If you have a leader of any militant group in Afghanistan as your stooge, the entire movement is your property.

The Taliban’s leadership hasn’t been torn apart. Many relevant commentators believe it is still controlled by the ISI, for the Taliban is largely a hypnotised religious movement with no hard-core ideology of its own. This ISI draws on the Taliban’s religious perversity to kill Pashtun nationalism and counterbalance Indian influence in Kashmir and Afghanistan. This is the casus belli of Pakistan’s double-barrelled strategy in relation to the Taliban. An all out confrontation with the Taliban in Islamabad thinking would thus be a suicide mission. In the mind of Pakistani rulers the Taliban is extraordinary alchemy and the only route to Kabul.

This explains a byzantine complexity of Pakistan’s military symbiosis with the Taliban, and the ambiguities of Washington’s staunch support for the ruling military dictatorship in Pakistan. No one on earth knows how Pakistani rulers play off Washington for its own benefits. Sarah Ghayes in her The Punishment of Virtue, provides one answer for how Pakistani generals grab Washington’s money and support by handing over some al-Qaida and Taliban members to the Americans, as though throwing bones “with well-timed deliveries”: “I remember at the US embassy [Islamabad] once, I was providing details on a training camp on the road from Quetta to Karachi, and on a top Taliban official who was swaggering around Quetta. I had his license plate number plate—an ISI plate—and the addresses of his two government-provided safe house. The US official groaned. “I know, I know, Sarah. But there’s not a thing we can do about it. Pakistan just gave us Khalid Sheikh Muhammad”.

With truly eye-opening revelations, Sarah’s book is one of the few rare books recently published in English speaking countries worth a read. By enlists enlisting hair-raising and immoral dirty dealings of the ISI, she proves that the ISI is an illegal enterprise and if there is any sense of justice in this world this spy agency must be recognised globally as a terrorist organisation. This seems more relevant now that the US is going to put Iran’s revolutionary guard on a list of foreign terrorist organisations. She writes in her book, “If the Afghans and the Americans gets angry, the Pakistanis catch a few Talibs [Taliban] and tell the real ones to stay quite for a month or two. This is the Pakistani strategy: they advance by taking two steps forwards and four steps back”.

A recent George Washington University revelation broke the tale that Pakistan had aided and abetted the Taliban in refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden by “resistance/or duplicity” in the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Mr Daniel Markey reveals Washington’s head-in-sand approach to Pakistan in his article in Foreign Affairs (July-August, 2007): “Even before the dust had settled on 9/11, US policymakers were well aware that Pakistan was at the centre of the world’s worst Islamist terrorist networks”.

However, ignoring media and intelligence reports, think-tanks, commentators, and the experts on Pakistan’s double game, the Bush-Cheney administration sees Pakistan as the major non-NATO ally. Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid recently claimed that Pakistani’s policy comes from Dick Cheney’s desk. Every minute since 9/11 Pakistan has devoured thousand of dollars of American taxpayers’ hard-earned money. This is at a time when the US staunch allies are in need of help: In the UK, one in ten street-homeless persons was a soldier fought outside the country (BBC); and 35% of young Australians are unemployed (New Statesman). Moreover, Pakistan’s spy agency was the main scavenger of the Western aids to the Afghan anti-communist resistance and the Afghan refugees during the Cold War.

Pakistan has artfully persuaded the international community to recognise the country’s North-West tribal belt only the place where the Taliban and al-Qaida are operating. This is not true. Pakistani cities of Quetta, Karachi, and Peshawar house secret offices of the pro-Taliban groups, especially those controlled by the ISI. The Afghan and Indian governments, journalists, and commentators are shouting for years that Pakistani intelligence trains and sends terrorists inside Afghanistan and India. Sara’s book further states, “They [Taliban] were manufactured and maintained, housed, trained, and equipped by stubborn, short-sighted officials in that Pakistani government. Our allies”.

One can see more short-sightedness in the Bush administration that remained blind to see a sharp contradiction between its own and Pakistani strategic agendas. Pakistani national interest concerns keeping and buttressing the most lethal Islamist extremists to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India, whereas Americans want to kill them. The Taliban provides a god-given, and once in a life opportunity for Pakistan and losing the movement would mean the beginning of Pakistan’s disintegration.

President George W. Bush continues to leave all relevant Western as well as Eastern analysts and academics high and dry when it comes to a real assessment of his country’s relationship with Pakistan. Early in August he said about General Musharraf, “He shares the same concern about radicals and extremists as I do and as the American people do”. Where is the West whose name is used by the White House to justify the follies of its foreign policies? How can the world and the Americans trust Mr Bush and his war on terrorism? How can we wait for a win when everything is in a total shambles?

Pakistani religious parties are the other players in the game. They act as a go-between for both leaders in Islamabad and the Taliban. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, known among Pakistanis as “Maulana Diesel” is the supreme collaborator to both sides. He is leading a coalition of religious parties that with the help of the ISI controls Pakistan’s border province. He boycotted the Kabul Jirga to please the Taliban, condemning it as an American Jirga, a waste of time. He also said that a real Jirga will be the one in which Taliban actively takes part. The Maulana is also leader of the opposition and according to Western sources he won votes in an ISI rigged provincial election in 2002. He is the major supporter of the military regime in Islamabad as he was the right hand man of ex-Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, who refused at the last minute to attend the Jirga, hogged the limelight when he unexpectedly swooped on the concluding session, reportedly after a midnight phone call from US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice. Like a vulture among crows and doves, the Pakistani dictator boasted about his macho stand in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Yet, his obfuscating speech reflected indirectly his domestic politics and his strained relations with the US over the issues of al-Qaida’s sanctuary and the Taliban’s training camps across the tribal belt in his country. He admitted that the Taliban are being supported from Pakistan’s side and, in the meantime, pleaded for Afghan trust in Pakistan’s commitment to war on terrorism and the Taliban.

Starting last month with the rebellion in Islamabad’s Red Mosque, General Musharraf’s ongoing battle inside Pakistan is only with those al-Qaida and pro-Taliban factions who have decided to clear things first with Pakistani generals.

The Jirga, to be true to my conscience, was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate for the pro-US warlords, Afghan ex-communist bureaucrats, and the ISI agents. The four day Jirga was an orgy of famous Afghani pilau and American soft drinks. To scale down its significance, Pakistan refused to accept the UN supervision of the Jirga. According to Afghan sources, a sum of about one million dollars had been lavished on the banquet. $700,000 came from the US Development Office, $100.000 from the UN Development Program, and $30,000 from the US embassy in Kabul.

The decisions of the Jirga were made largely behind the closed door, and the joint declaration, Pakistani interests are given more weight than the Afghan interests. It is true that the US gives priority to Pakistani interests at the cost of the Afghan tragedy. It is possible that in future the US will force Afghanistan to recognise the colonial Durant Line—an illusive border line that was drawn by the foreign minister of British India in the nineteenth century. The Durand-line has never been recognised by Afghanistan since the birth of Pakistan.

The Asia Times (online) has just reported that with the mediation of Pakistan, the US has started negotiation with the Taliban. If this report is true then the US is dicing with death. Such mediation will contaminate everything with Pakistani regional interests, allowing this country to gain an illegal upper hand in the regional political balance of power. Though Pakistan will paint it cheap and cheerful, the West will lose a strategic opportunity for winning the war on Islamists terrorism. Pakistan might convince Washington of the honesty of its intention, among other things, by offering the control of its nuclear arsenal as bait. Nevertheless, if there is any willingness to such a negotiation it must include Afghanistan, India, the UN, and EU, for it would prevent familiar Pakistani cruising for bruising in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Apart from its hoopla surrounded it, the Kabul Jirga seems to have done little to persuade Pakistan to put its heart in the war on Islamist terrorism wholly or cut off its umbilical cord with the Taliban. Secretly Pakistan is committed to Taliban victory and if this proves to be impossible the fallback will be a hope for the Nepalese solution to the Taliban through which the Maoists struck a deal to join the peace process after a decade of violence.
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