Beyond Washington’s Afghanistan Summit

The September 27 trilateral Washington summit on Afghanistan convened by the US President to ensure cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul, the two key US allies in Washington’s ‘war on terror,’ has produced two outputs. One, jirgas on both sides of the Durand Line will be convened and be jointly addressed by Presidents Parvez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai. Two, the two Presidents will refrain from publicly attacking each other. Recently Karzai accused Pakistan of protecting and training "snakes." Musharraf equated Karzai to an ostrich; a man in denial of the problems within Afghanistan.

The Washington summit may have mildly reduced tensions between the two. But the more fundamental issues of bringing back the trust factor in Pakistan-Afghan relations and jointly managing the resurgent Taliban will much greater effort. For this the two Presidents of neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan must ‘read from the same page.’

However concerns of the two sides prevents a common read. Kabul believes that Islamabad needs to do more to control the insurgency. Islamabad’s concern is the anti-Pakistani sentiment within the current Karzai set-up. Islamabad will be more willingly to help a Karzai who increases the Pushtun, the majority in Afghanistan, in his government. A corollary of this would reduced dependability on the Tajiks and the Uzbeks who are a minority and pro-India.

Meanwhile these rising Afghan and ISAF casualties, increased Pakistan-Afghan tensions, mounting internal problems for Karzai, the adjustments and compromises with the traditional power centers that both Musharraf and Karzai are making to ensure internal peace, failure of NATO members to provide ISAF with the additional troops it requires and the cross-Durand line support for the Taliban have all prompted Washington to sit up and notice Afghanistan.

In the last one year the Taliban have regrouped as a formidable insurgency. They are a battle hardened enjoying a degree of local support. They draw their political relevance from Kabul’s blundering incumbents. On September 29 the NATO Chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the BBC that Nato was fighting to stop Afghanistan from returning to a "terror training camp…We have to stay the course and we will stay the course – and we will prevail." There are almost 30,000 troops NATO troops that include 12,000 US troops are stationed in Afghanistan. NATO still does not have the additional 2500 troops he has sought its presence in the south.

Washington’s domestic political compulsions trump all other concerns. The Bush presidency goes into the mid-term congressional elections in November with numerous fiascos on its plate; Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Bush desperately needs a success. And the domestic criticism of George Bush’s Iraq policy is unrelenting. With its fiasco in Iraq Washington desperately needs a success story in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration wants to turn Afghanistan into a domestic political asset; one that can get it votes on November 7th. Interestingly in its search for a way forward, Washington is trying the traditional tribal route that Pakistan has opted for in Waziristan. Washington’s policy institutions are busy seeking expert advice on how to revive the traditional Afghan system to work on the judiciary, the army, the police and narcotics control.

Rising civilian casualties plus hundreds of Taliban deaths will trigger local resentment against Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As an irregular force and one enjoying some degree of peoples’ support the Taliban also battle from peoples’ homes, schools etc. Hence civilians often become directly targeted in armed encounters between Taliban-ISAF forces.

Significantly suicide bombers have been at the core of the resurgence of the talibaan. They routinely target NATO troops. In the last week alone there have been three major suicide bombings killing civilians and ISAF soldiers. This makes conventional security concepts stand on their head. Their effectiveness is after all premised on the adversary’s fear of death, which the massive weaponry evokes.

Hence the deterrent is the fear of death. Once that disappears then the parameters and paradigms of security are radically altered. Then for success over the adversary an ideology and politics that engages the hearts, minds and the soul is required. Force alone proves impotent if not counter-productive. As Israelis discovered in Lebanon, the Soviets found out Afghanistan and the ISAF is discovering in Afghanistan.

Islamabad has tried various approaches to dealing with the support to the Afghan Taliban from its side. None have really worked. Difficulties include the difficult terrain of the tribal areas, the fiercely autonomous local tribesmen. They have cultural, historical and even ideological affinity with the Afghan Taliban with whom they have also jointly battled against other Afghans. Pakistani Taliban, in the bordering areas of NWFP and Baluchistan, would support the Afghan Taliban. Afghan Taliban, formerly supported by the Pakistani State, may also receive support from some former Pakistani intelligence officers who have previously worked them. General Parvez Musharraf recently conceded this on October 1 in a US television program.

The September deal between Pakistan and the local tribal jirga of elders was yet another attempt to control cross-border movement into Afghanistan and to restrict Taliban support is merely another attempt. However already with rocket attacks on the military base in Waziristan the deal is showing more holes than success potential.

Pakistan’s handling of the problem on its side has included deployment of 80,000 soldiers in the Waziristan agency, conducting operations to capture and evict foreign militants and destroy their bases, allowing US predators to shoot at targets inside Pakistan and also conduct on an ongoing basis join CIA-ISI operations inside Pakistani territory.

Like in all intelligence operations there is more to the cooperation that is made public. For example the US military’s direct targeting of al-Qaeda operatives on Pakistani territory, from unmanned Predator aircraft Hellfire missiles using Hell Fire missiles, was taking place.

The Pakistani journalist Hidayatullah publicized this fact in December 25. He published photographs to show that an American missile killed the al-Qaeda operative. This contradicted the Pakistan army’s account of the death. Within days, Hayat Ullah was found dead wearing government issued handcuffs. His family accuses the army for his death. The military denies it.

A more startling revelation has come from a former army General Ali Kuli Khan. He claims that about five Pakistani army officers were court-martialed because they refused to fire on their own people in Waziristan. This of the extent the Musharraf government supported the US war on terrorism despite opposition from within.

But none of this is sufficient. Washington and the others want an immediate victory. Their time-line is unrealistic. It is oblivious of complexities of guerrilla warfare, of wages of global injustice, of double standards in international affairs, of selective application of UNSC resolutions, of issues of marginalization, exclusion and alienation, of the simultaneous attraction to tribalism and nationalism and the incapacity and reconstruction of weak States.

Above all the negative fall-out on the Pakistani State and society of the great international jihad of the eighties that handed the West its decisive cold war victory against the Soviets, is never fully appreciated. If the Soviet intervention triggered external intervention and a vicious civil war in Afghanistan, the international jihad wrecked the State institutions, tilted the internal balance of power towards militarism and the military and on an unprecedented scale enabled sectarianism and militias take root within society. Undoing this will take time, strong State institutions and genuine democracy. Nothing less.

Meanwhile for any successful handling of Afghanistan, it is essential for Islamabad to ‘go the extra mile’ in helping Afghanistan deal with its Taliban problem; as it facilitated Afghan refugee voting for the presidential elections. Clearly on the strategic level, Pakistan has to be confident that by supporting Kabul, its own interests are not undermined. Hence Islamabad’s fears of a dual front, one on its eastern border and the other on the western front with Indian interference in Baluchistan from the Southern Afghanistan, must be addressed.

Afghanistan is tethering at the brink of another bloody conflict; one in which parts of Pakistan will be directly involved. Ultimately only a comprehensive politico-military strategy and close Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation may prevent the return of widespread anarchy and violence in Afghanistan.