For the past few days, Pakistan has been so concerned about its neighbour to the east that it hasn’t glanced in the other direction to see what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Up to now, the global conversation about terrorism has emphasised that the key to crushing the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is eradicating militant safe havens in Pakistan.
However, as Afghanistan gears up for its second-ever presidential election on Aug 20, our government should attempt to reframe this discussion. After all, the ultimate success of our ongoing military operation depends on how things work out across the Durand Line. Without clear thinking on Afghanistan, there is a danger that Pakistan will end up right where it started with regard to militancy.
Pakistan currently finds itself with (almost) national consensus against militancy and some understanding at the official level about the importance of sustained involvement — in terms of military presence and economic development — in Fata and Malakand. Across the border, however, there seems to be some confusion about how best to proceed.
This year, the US deployed extra military personnel in Afghanistan and plans to have at least 60,000 soldiers on the ground by election day. Overall, too, the US army recently announced that it would temporarily expand by 22,000 troops to accommodate for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, the US Central Command dispatched another dozen drones to Afghanistan with the aim of targeting Taliban militants in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan.
At the same time, the governments of the US, UK and Afghanistan are going blue in the face insisting that a political strategy — and not a military surge — is the only thing that can bring peace to Afghanistan.
At a recent talk at the Nato headquarters, British foreign secretary David Miliband stressed the need for an ‘inclusive political statement.’ According to his outline, the plan is for the new Afghan government to distinguish between hard-line terrorists who want to wage global jihad and Taliban foot soldiers who want local Islamic rule and can thus be reintegrated into society and invited to join the government.
For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is likely to win a second term in office, has long been advocating for talks with the Taliban, and even encouraged militants to vote in the upcoming elections.
The new policy to engage with the Taliban is off to a bad start. Recently, the Afghan government struck a ceasefire with Taliban leaders in Badghis. But within hours, clashes erupted as insurgents attacked local police. Since then, reports have also emerged suggesting that the Afghan government ‘bought’ the ceasefire by paying £20,000 to the Taliban leaders. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, the Taliban have called for an election boycott and plan to block all roads and prevent voters from going to polling centres.
The fallout of the conflicting efforts in Afghanistan can have a major impact on the precarious struggle against militancy in Pakistan. Firstly, the US army’s military push in the region threatens to drive more Afghan Taliban into Pakistan, particularly during the current lull in fighting to allow for the repatriation of the internally displaced.
More problematic is the renewed international excitement about engaging in talks with the Afghan Taliban. A controversy erupted over a CNN interview with military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas when an impression was created that the intelligence maintained links with militant commanders. Not surprisingly, the ISPR denied these claims.
This much is true, however, that if the US and Afghan governments want to talk to the Taliban, Pakistan will certainly be involved. And even if we are to believe that the ISI is no longer in touch with the militant leadership, there can be no doubt that multilateral engagement will be just the fillip our agencies need to revive old friendships.
Renewed interaction with militant groups in exchange for the US addressing Islamabad’s concerns about India — doesn’t that sound familiar? The Pakistani public should demand that a new security policy in Afghanistan does not cause Pakistan to return to where it started: nurturing militants while maintaining the perception that India poses the greatest threat to our national integrity.
On a side note, if the Afghan government succeeds in its goal of having ‘moderate’ Taliban participate in the political process, there is a high likelihood that the hard-line terrorists no one is willing to negotiate with will end up in Pakistan. From here, they may launch attacks against the Taliban-inclusive government in Kabul, since militants are not known to forgive and forget defectors (take the example of Malakand, where local informers and supporters of the government forces have been killed by lingering militants). The return of Afghan militants to our soil would also signal a complete regression of Pakistan’s war against terror.
Finally, political developments in Afghanistan will do little to interrupt the flow of terror-financing in Pakistan. US special envoy Richard Holbrooke recently discussed the fact that the majority of funds for terrorism come from the Gulf states. But he also pointed out that about $60-100m from the drug trade are used to finance militant operations in the Pakhtun belt, which includes Pakistan’s tribal and northwest areas. In other words, clamping down on Afghanistan’s drug trade would help choke funding for Pakistani terrorists.
But it seems unlikely that the new Afghan government will address the narcotics trade. Many provincial-level politicians in Afghanistan have pointed out that people running for the elections at the local level are backed by drug money. Significantly, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, has also been repeatedly accused of drug trafficking, though he denies the charge. Even if Afghanistan’s elected officials are not personally benefiting from the sale of narcotics, they will be hard-pressed to shut down a trade that generates one-third of the country’s gross domestic product. That means terrorists based in Pakistan can count on uninterrupted finances.
In this context, our government should take a break from India-related fretting to ensure that elections and post-polling policy in Afghanistan are not detrimental to security and development in Pakistan.