A sea change in the approach to Afghan conflict is coming to the fore. From primarily a military method, matters evolved to a strategy that involved fighting and talking at the same time. Now, NATO and US have thanked Pakistan for letting go of some high profile Taliban in detention, and for facilitating the Afghan-led peace process. Previously, Pakistan was blamed for not doing enough to crack down on Afghan Taliban residing in FATA.
On the other hand, the Taliban have claimed that the released prisoners are no longer important to the movement. Moreover, they declared, the peace process cannot move forward until the NATO forces withdraw. Meanwhile, after being labeled a terrorist outfit, Haqqani network recently asserted if Mullah Omar approves to move forward with the peace process, it would also follow suit.
The change in NATO strategy does not mean it is without options. While Pakistan has remained the focus of attention, recent events have pointed to the suspicious regional role Karzai government is increasingly playing, especially in FATA and Balochistan. However, while speaking at the Center for a New American Security, Leon Panetta reiterated the US position on November 20,
“Look, in many ways, the success in Afghanistan is dependent on having a Pakistan that is willing to confront terrorism on its side of the border and prevent (militant) safe havens,” the secretary commented.
Afghanistan, Tribal Areas And Balochistan
During the US election campaign, President Obama stayed away from discussing Afghanistan in detail. Ever since Pakistan declared its acquiesce towards a terrorist label for Haqqani network, the harsher criticism from the American side has ceased. There is another noteworthy change in the region that came about in the aftermath of Malala incident. The US acknowledged that the perpetrator of the attack, Mowlana Fazlullah, was indeed hiding in the North East Afghanistan as claimed by Pakistan. Reportedly, an unnamed US official told The Washington Post “Finding Fazlullah is not a priority because he is not affiliated with al Qaeda or with insurgents targeting the US and Afghan interests.”
In other words, the US conveyed it is concerned about the Haqqanis, not the Fazlullahs. The Americans reciprocated Pakistan in kind. The major reason cited by Pakistan for not acting against Afghan Taliban is that it does not target them.
Earlier in August, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik had alleged that elements within the Afghan government were likely supporting Fazlullah. He told Reuters “I think some of the elements (of the Afghan government) there are supporters. Maybe state actors, maybe non-state actors.” The logic in the accusation is that same as that leveled against Pakistan for its role in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, the point being that Pakistan is being destabilized from Afghanistan with the active support of Karzai government while NATO forces have intentionally decided to look the other way. This obviously does not bode well for Pak-Afghan relations and the envisioned economic integration of the region.
The Afghan role in the deteriorating situation of Balochistan has also come under focus. In March, Pakistan’s Interior Minister claimed that President Karzai had admitted some inference in Balochistan was taking place from Afghanistan. “President Karzai has promised to stop infiltration of militants from Afghanistan into Pakistan,” Rehman Malik told reporters.
Speaking to Pakistan’s Senate in August, Malik presented the recruitment and training process for those conducting terror-related activities in Balochistan. He elaborated that after receiving basic training in about 45 training camps, brainwashed youngsters are sent to Afghanistan to obtain advance training. For proof, he showed official letters written by the Afghan government to fund and support the activities of Brahmdagh Bugti and his followers.
Afghanistan And India
Another aspect of Pakistan’s concern with Afghanistan has to do with the nature of its ties with India.
President Karzai visited India for five days in mid-November. The two countries previously signed a strategic agreement in 2011 and India has already committed 2 billion in assistance for Afghanistan. During the visit, Karzai was not just seeking more investments, but also testing Indian limits in enhancing the capacity of Afghan security forces. As far as Pakistan is concerned, training of Afghan military forces by India is an extremely sensitive matter.
It is not clear what the US intentions are in regards to India’s military role in Afghanistan. Although India itself is wary of its military involvement, US has encouraged it to take on a more active role once NATO’s begins to limit its military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. There is obviously a risk that in addition to the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan may also become a theater for tussles between India and Pakistan. In the wider politics of Middle East, the NATO and US tilt has thus far been in favor of Sunni groups. This stance is unlikely to change as long as Iran remains a bone of contention.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, And Iran
Although India has abided with western sanctions on Iran and in restricting economic affairs with the country, Afghanistan and Pakistan have continued to deal with it. The insistence of Afghanistan and Pakistan on diversifying economic and energy relations with Iran are few of the other complicating factors when it comes to US-Pakistan relations and the future of Afghanistan. While talking to a private TV channel at the D8 Summit in Islamabad, Ahmedinejad emphasized how Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan can solve many of the regional problems themselves, and foreign presence was the reason for the perpetuating conflict. While Afghanistan has signed an agreement with US allowing it’s military to remain there beyond 2014, Iran has alleged that US bases are being used to destabilize Iran and Pakistan.
(Iranian President also noted that Iran was ready to assist Pakistan in building the infrastructure for the controversial gas pipeline project.)
The Durand Line
Afghanistan also continues to play with Pakistan’s sensitivities when it comes to the Durand Line. The country went in to an uproar when Mark Grossman presented the US position on the issue. In an interview on Afghan TV on October 21, he stated: “Our policy is that border is the international border.”
While talking to reporters in Kandahar on October 23, the new US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham reiterated “The United States, as many other countries, have long recognized the Durand Line as the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Other commentary that surrounded the debate pointed to the fact that Pakistan’s alarm about Afghan intentions is not that out of place. In all three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, there are those who want to undo history.
While Pakistan is blamed for the cross-border attacks emanating from Waziristan, what has emerged is that the Afghans and NATO forces are equally at fault for the out of control provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. The security forces of Pakistan have repeatedly suffered under deadly attacks in Bajuar, Swat and Dir, from militants linked to Fazlullah faction. There are fears Taliban resurgence may once again be occurring in the area.
In response to inaction by NATO and Afghan forces, Pakistan is carrying out shelling across the border against the militants. However, Afghans claim the bombardment is causing civilian causalities.
A Senator from Kunar, Rafullah Haidari, commented in September “On the fourth day of Eid, tribal elders held a meeting at the provincial governor’s office and decided to declare Jihad against Pakistan’s invasion into Kunar province. The residents of Kunar are registering their names to defend their soil.”
While millions of Afghans are still in Pakistan, and while it has ruthlessly blamed the country for all that ails it, recent events shed light on the contagious role Afghanistan is willing to play in the region, including in FATA and Balochistan. As the Afghan led peace process moves forward, the nation is likely to use this leverage more and more against Pakistan.