Sleeping with the enemy

It has been evident that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is moving closer to Pakistan. Yet the announcement of an MOU between the two countries’ intelligence agencies was a surprise to many, including his own deputy, Dr Abdullah Abdullah who learnt of this from former President Hamid Karzai. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) signed a memorandum of understanding (May 18) to “jointly fight terrorism” and “enemy espionage agencies”. The agreement would allow ISI to probe terrorist suspects in Afghan detention.

Afghan firefighters respond to a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. An all-night siege in an upscale neighbourhood of Afghanistan’s capital ended in the early hours yesterday morning. Pic/AP
Afghan firefighters respond to a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. An all-night siege in an upscale neighbourhood of Afghanistan’s capital ended in the early hours yesterday morning. Pic/AP

The definition of terrorism is different for the two countries. For Afghanistan, the terrorists are the Taliban, the Haqqani Networks and other Pakistan-based terror groups operating into Afghanistan. Pakistan is interested in neutralising the TTP and strengthening the Afghan Taliban. Inexplicably, Sartaj Aziz, Nawaz Sharif’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Policy said in Islamabad on May 25 that Afghanistan’s enemies were Pakistan’s enemies. Now this is confusing as Pakistan has nursed the Taliban and others for two decades.

Afghanistan has long considered ISI as the enemy espionage agency; for Pakistan, it is the R&AW (India’s Research and Analysis Wing). The ISI would train and equip NDS personnel, and the two agencies would mould public opinion and narrative about Pakistan in Afghanistan. Both the houses of Afghan parliament reacted sharply. The Senate chairman, Fazl Muslimyar described Pakistan as Afghanistan’s enemy which would continue to plot to destroy Afghanistan. The ferocity of this and other reactions has probably surprised Ghani and led to backtracking on this issue in Kabul.

Pakistan’s singular goal has been to dominate Afghanistan and keep India out. It now seeks to keep that country’s intelligence agency under its control. It sees a vacuum in Afghanistan with the Americans leaving and preoccupied with the turmoil in West Asia, the Taliban on the ascendant with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) unable to handle the situation, and with China now increasingly involved in the dialogue with the Taliban.

A high-level Afghan delegation comprising Minister of Defence Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai and Dr Abdullah Abdullah met Taliban leaders Mullahs Abdul Jalil, Hassan Rahmani and Abdul Razaq. All three are Pakistan-based and close to the Quetta Shura. The meeting was held in Urumqi and both Chinese and ISI representatives participated.

The US-inspired Qatar process of Taliban negotiations seems to be over and the Chinese-Pakistani process has taken over.

Pakistan sees this as its best opportunity. Writing in the Dawn newspaper, former Pakistan Ambassador Munir Akram hoped there would be international recognition through the UNSC for Mullah Omar as the legitimate representative of the Taliban in the negotiations. Also, that the Afghan government should acknowledge legitimacy of the Taliban and agree to power sharing with them. In return Pakistan would use its powers to bring all Taliban to the table. Finally, the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan could talk to the Taliban to help solve issues and China should help the peace process. There is no room for India in these calculations.

The Taliban-led summer offensive has gained momentum with six terrorist attacks in Kabul this month and more attacks were threatened. There were attacks in Zabul, Kandahar and Helmand with numerous soldiers and police personnel killed. The Taliban were also making headway in the Kunduz and Badakshan provinces in the north. Facing this Taliban onslaught in the north, it appears that the government has sought the help of old warlords to form local militias in order to stop the Taliban. It could be said that the Kabul government is bolstering its limited counter insurgency capability through its own version of Blackwater.

Pakistani authorities are not even remotely embarrassed about their linkages with the Taliban or the Haqqanis. On the other hand, they maintain that the next time they would do it better, whatever that means. Pakistan has used religious elements to curb nationalist sentiments in Balochistan and Sindh. The Taliban were to serve two purposes — curb Pushtun nationalism through their extreme religiosity and help provide strategic depth in Afghanistan. Unexpectedly for Pakistan, the Taliban became a political force with trans-border connections and refused to recognise the Durand Line: They have adhered to their own ideology close to the Al Qaeda. In the process, religious extremists in Pakistan have succeeded in making space for themselves inside Pakistan.

Pakistan is certainly not going to let the gains of the last two decades be wasted.

There are now three strands to Pakistan’s strategy. One, to keep the pressure on Afghanistan through increased Taliban terrorist attacks; two, take over the dialogue process with the help of China, and; three, tie all this up with an ISI-NDS deal.

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

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