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Pakistan eyes Afghanistan once again

Vikram SoodPakistan and the Taliban have their eyes fixed on 2014 when the US packs its bags and leaves Afghanistan. The US now seems disillusioned with Hamid Karzai but have not yet found an obvious successor in his place and this becomes an impediment in their smooth departure. 

Meanwhile, the US-Pakistan relationship continues to lurch from crisis to crisis with periods of extreme bon homie thrown in. The two are currently in the happy phase of their relationship if one goes by the recent announcements on aid and finance for Pakistan.

Pakistan has other worries in the region of threats that emanate from the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan and its growing profile not only in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtun-Khwa but also in Karachi, a city which has the largest concentration of Pakhtuns in the world and is Pakistan’s jugular.

General Zia ul Haq
The Pakistani game in Afghanistan is similar to the one that General Zia ul Haq had followed during the Afghan jihad

The killing of a prominent Taliban leader Mullah Nazir, in a US drone attack, indicates the dichotomy in the US-Pakistan relations. The US is unable to stop itself from being generous with Pakistan, yet there is considerable suspicion about Pakistan’s intentions.

Mullah Nazir fulfilled Pakistan’s definition of a good Taliban, as he concentrated on activity in Afghanistan, fighting both the Karzai government and the US led forces. Pakistan’s argument has been that it was better to have Nazir on their side and fight in Afghanistan than to have him fighting Pakistani forces.

The fact that Pakistan will continue this policy, despite the killing of Nazir, is evident from the fact that Nazir’s successor, Bahawal Khan who had done a ‘tour of duty’ in Kashmir and has been appointed successor to Nazir. Bahawal Khan’s group has been one of the four groups operating into Afghanistan from FATA and had supplied Taliban fighters.

He is therefore an indication of the continuation of the Pak policy of trying to influence Taliban control in Afghanistan and thereby influence Kabul. So while Nazir’s killing might have been a setback to Pakistan, his quick replacement by another surrogate indicates Pakistan’s ability to quickly retrieve the position and also the kind of games two ‘allies’ play against each other.

The Pakistani game in Afghanistan is similar to the one that General Zia ul Haq had followed during the Afghan jihad. Zia had instructed his trusted aide and DG ISI Akhtar Abdul Rehman that he should keep the CIA at arms length and that “The water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature.”

Zia did not want the water to boil over. In this case too, Pakistan has carefully calibrated its strategy to keep the pot boiling to maintain relevance through nuisance and avoid any massive US retaliation through a financial squeeze or closing of essential military supplies.

Even though this policy of harbouring terrorists and using them as a foreign policy weapon has had dubious domestic results, the Pakistan establishment had concluded that it could not give up the option of supporting groups like the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban.

Much is being made out of recent reports that Pakistan has established contacts with the erstwhile Northern Alliance and that this indicated a paradigm shift in Rawalpindi’s thinking. Pakistan had made overtures to Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdur Rashid Dostum in 1992 before backing Gulbuddin Hikmetyar till his failure to deliver Kabul to Pakistan in 1994.

It was then that the Taliban was conjured and the US oil interests, notably Unocal, were keen on links with the Taliban. An aura of reasonableness and being accommodative suits Pakistan as it lulls the US into accepting a self-serving prophecy that they would be leaving behind a reasonable Pakistan.

The US, as of now, seems willing to ignore Pakistan’s hold on the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura and is willing to keep quiet on what is happening in Balochistan as a price for leaving Afghanistan as a ‘victor’ with Mission Accomplished.

Internationally, there will be more players in the field as China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia become more involved in looking at post-2014 Afghanistan. Possibly the US will want to leave Afghanistan with Pakistan the paramount power; never mind how the Afghans feel about this.

Presidents Obama and Karzai will be discussing all these delicate matters of war, peace and departure when they meet on January 11. What happens in Afghanistan or for that matter in Pakistan after 2014 is another story to be told later.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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