By Brig Samson S Sharaf
Diplomacy over Afghanistan is like a can of water with too many holes. You plug one and another opens. As the dates of US withdrawal draw near and as President Karzai’s second and last tenure draws to a close, the flux generated by competing interests intensifies. And so it has remained throughout history be it the Imperial Russia, Great Britain, Soviet Union and now USA. According to Helal Pasha, the dynamics of this Great Game date back to 1837. Pakistan became the inheritor to East India Company, the British Raj, and the Punjab of Raja Ranjit Singh in 1947.
In the article ‘The Doha Initiative’, a mention was made of the many firewalls that could disrupt the process for a negotiated US retrograde from Afghanistan. As predicted, the flurry of diplomacy proved a miniscule tip of the proverbial iceberg. Afghan and Pakistani imbroglio loaded with competing and diverse interests, many years of confrontation, mistrust and historic predispositions has begun to surface openly. Within this divergence and brinkmanship are also anchored the interests of the larger actors who wish to retain their leverages through proxies much after all foreign forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Hence whatever happens also reflects the ferocity of competition below the water. The Government of Pakistan has an opportunity to thwart all this.
USA and other NATO countries have always maintained some level of contact with the Afghan Taliban as also other groups fighting inside Pakistan. The fact that Doha has been temporarily suspended indicates that many important and critical issues need to be settled between Pakistan, USA and other countries before uninterrupted diplomacy can shape itself into an agreeable document amongst the Afghan factions including President Karzai. The roving, English speaking Afghan emissary Mullah Tayyab Agha had remained in limelight meeting Pakistani, Saudi, Qatari, American and German officials as far back as 2008. Using negative leverage, President Karzai has managed to hedge his interests and those of his backers for the time being. Chatter emanating from the White House indicates that US options may yet not be exhausted. If true, the progress will move through the many ifs and buts at a snail’s pace, something President Obama does not wish. He has to make a realistic compromise somewhere.
For Hamid Karzai and his backers including Indians, the event was tantamount to pulling the rug from under their feet. With his presidency in twilight, it was expected that he react aggressively to score favourable advantages. He has his supporters in TTP, US establishment, India and even within Pakistan. For the past many years, his logistic support to TTP, sanctuaries in Afghanistan and holding Maulvi Faqir and Fazalullah in Afghan Jails are cards he will use to his advantage. The fact that TTP struck at Nanga Parbat base camp within days of Doha reminds Pakistanis that they live in a highly permeated and manipulated society. Through the TTP, he surely influences some Afghan Taliban groups who tend to look at negotiations with suspicion. There are already sceptics who hold a non-combative Syed Tayyab Ali Agha Populzai, a kinsman of President Karazai in contempt. Most, through these proxies, he will attempt to turn the Pakistani unrest into an insurgency to keep alive the notion of a pre-1837 Pakhtunistan.
The TTP on its part is being counselled and advised effectively. The killing of Wali ur Rehman Mehsud by a US drone strike in the backdrop is meaningful. Of late, Wali had proposed a negotiated settlement of issues with the government of Pakistan through his contacts. Later, to garner support amongst Afghan Taliban groups, TTP spokesman Ehsanullah first issued anti Afghan statements and then was sacked for his irresponsible behaviour on the same count. This indicates fault lines within TTP that either side will exploit through deceit, cleverness and betrayal.
Karzai’s message to Pakistan is clear. ‘Like USA, Pakistan must persuade Afghan Taliban to talk to the Afghan government, or else be ready to pay the price’. The negotiations will go on while each side positions itself to play the maximalist card. Hence whenever the next round of diplomacy begins, many events would have taken place and many new holes perforated in the can, complicating the steps to a calibrated withdrawal.
Concluding the ‘Doha Initiative’, it was also commented that as winter approaches and conflict in Afghanistan hibernates in frigid weather, lawlessness in Balochistan and Karachi could peak to engage Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies on yet another internal front. Many feel that this along with Pakistan’s economic plight could restrict Pakistan’s options on the negotiating table.
With the investigations around the MQM Chief Altaf Hussain rapidly unfolding in London, the events in Karachi could shape for the worse. In case Altaf Hussain is charged by Scotland Yard, he would stand to lose his political grip over his middle class party letting loose factions of violence capable of bring Pakistan’s biggest port city to a standstill. Superimpose the presence of TTP militants, armed political groups and Baloch separatist to formulate an extremely dangerous hypothesis. A stage thereof will arise when the military would have to move lock, stock and barrel against urban militancy. The Ministries of Interior and Defence must start making contingency plans for a worst case scenario against militancy, as also keep exits open for a party that has already lost ground to PTI.
In this backdrop, political parties may not be in a position to immediately bring a negotiated end to militancy inside Pakistan. They need to completely grasp the situation, chronology of events in the correct perspective, be briefed by the military and then move to the next step. Prime Minister’s olive branch overtures to both India and President Karzai appear to be pre mature and in case of Afghanistan, a spanner in the on-going diplomacy. Realising the futility, the Prime Minister took the correct decision to be briefed by ISI and delay the All Parties Conference indefinitely.
The government is well advised that like security, economic viability of the region is also a sellable commodity. China, CARS, India, Iran and Afghanistan could be co-opted into this economic zone. To achieve this, the government will have to take the twin initiative of framing a unanimous National and a Counter Terrorism Policy. The initiative would strengthen Pakistan’s bargaining position on the negotiation table, assist economic revival and ensure national integrity.