The military’s Afghan goals are clear but with at least one part of the Taliban now attacking Pakistan, questions are being raised as to whether the military’s goals are good for the country. This is coming increasingly to the fore as the stage is set for the long awaited Afghan peace talks. The Afghan policy has become all the more entangled as Pakistan’s relations with the US deteriorate sharply. Again, so many of the contentious elements to the Pakistan-US relationship eventually go back to the priorities of the generals.
US drone attacks, which have angered the Pakistani public deeply, were tolerated as a quid pro quo for “large amounts of US military assistance. Now that the US relationship has soured, post Abbottabad, the drone attacks are a virtual fait accompli. The open battling between the ISI and the Central Intelligence Agency is an intra-agency squabble that is having repercussions against the national interest. Poor relations with Washington, some fear, could cost Pakistan in the all important Afghan talks.
Insofar as reconciliation process is concerned Pakistan wants a stranglehold on this issue. It has done its best to sabotage any direct talks between Afghanistan government and the Taliban
In Pakistan itself, there is a growing debate on not just its proposed role in Afghanistan but the obsession with issues abroad. “This excessive focus outside is becoming a fatal distraction for the urgency of addressing pressing internal problems,” says Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US. Lodhi makes the point that Pakistan’s foreign policy needs to be turned on its head. “The fixation with overseas engagements is of course not new. It reflects legacy, historical factors, the country’s geostrategic location, intrusion of big power politics in the region and Islamabad’s proclivity to leverage geography to enhance its strategic relevance.” Ultimately all these foreign policy strands come together over the question of what role Pakistan will play in the region in the coming years. There is confusion here, again because of the military versus civilian divide. All are in agreement over better relations with India; any effort on the part of the political leadership to move ahead is thwarted by the military high command. As things stand, expecting the political leadership to stop military interference in civilian matters would be expecting too much.
Violence against civilians has reached a record high in Afghanistan this year, with more than 1,400 civilians killed in the conflict till June 2011, according to a recently released UN report. The Taliban insurgency is responsible for 80 per cent of civilian casualties, with 14 per cent caused by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and Afghan forces. On 29 July 2011, a roadside bomb killed 18 civilians in southern Helmand province. The minivan carrying the civilians hit an explosive device in Nahri Saraji district.
In the month of July 2011, insurgents managed to carry out three major assassinations, employing suicide attackers to eliminate Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother of President Hamid Karzai and Presidential aide Jan Mohammad Khan. Both Ahmed Wali and Jan Mohammad were influential power brokers in southern Afghanistan. The third person killed was Ghulam Haider Hamidi, mayor of the restive Kandahar province. While the killing of Ahmed Wali and Hamidi took place in the restive Kandahar city, Jan Mohammad’s killing occurred in the outskirts of the national capital Kabul.
On 28 July, 2011, the Taliban added another successful attack to their list of achievements. A daredevil and well-coordinated bomb and suicide attack involving multiple attackers in Uruzgan province killed 21 people. Some of the areas like Lashkar Gah in the southern Helmand province have witnessed a series of violent incidents.
The three major assassinations in less than a month have created a power vacuum in southern Afghanistan and have consequently eroded President Karzai’s support base among the Pashtuns, particularly among the Popalzai tribe he belongs to. Another important potential implication for the south would be the intra-ethno-tribal rivalry and power struggle that is likely to ensue. The Afghans are quick to point out the role of former warlord Gul Agha Sherzai in these killings. If Sherzai, belonging to the Barakzai tribe, gets appointed as governor of Kandahar, it would be an indication of dwindling support and influence of the Karzai clan.
Seen in the context of the ongoing reconciliation process with the Taliban, these targeted killings both in the south and north also represent marginalisation of those who have either opposed the reconciliation process or have gained significant clout of their own. Following the killing of police commander Gen Mohammed Daud Daud in northern Takhar province in May 2011, there have been apprehensions that those opposed to the reconciliation process or have been effective in neutralising the Taliban are being targeted and eliminated. The community elders and officials in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern province of Balkh, indicate that the targeted killings have been intended to marginalise them in the future power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. As a result, revival plans for the now defunct Northern Alliance as a hedge against such marginalisation is gaining ground. Is Pakistan playing an overambitious zero-sum game. The recent assassination of Rabbani and the Haqqani group’s attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul almost point to a game plan where Pakistan will go to the extent of trying to turn the US retreat in Afghanistan into a rout. That certainly is overreach.
Pakistan has been advocating the necessity of strategic depth in Afghanistan to mask its territorial ambitions and its aim of expanding its strategic frontiers towards West and Central Asian regions. Secure western borders and a subservient Afghanistan will enable Pakistan to deploy most of its armed forces against India. Pakistan’s policy of gaining strategic space in Afghanistan is not new but probably is directly related to their ambition for carving out a larger Islamic entity in the South Asian region jointly with the global Islamic jihad movement, to emerge as a dominant power in South Asia
About the Author
Lt Gen R K Sawhney PVSM, AVSM (retd) — The writer retired as the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff. He is a post graduate in Defence and Security Planning from the Royal College of Defence Studies, London. He has commanded an Infantry Battalion, Division and Corps during his military career and subsequently served as the Director General of Military Intelligence. He is presently a Distinguished Fellow of Vivekananda International Foundation, a ‘think tank’ in New Delhi, comprising retired senior officers of Armed Forces, diplomats, intelligence officers and civil servants.
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