Afghanistan’s ire

By Huma Yusuf

Karzai appeared in Islamabad in March to announce that Pakistan would handle future negotiations with the Taliban. He added, “Pakistan is a twin brother of Afghanistan. We are more than twins — we are conjoined twins.” —AFP/File Photo

PAKISTAN ‘irritates’ Afghan President Hamid Karzai, says an official of his government quoted in The Washington Post. Fair enough.

In the midst of a decade-old war with no favourable outcome and mounting civilian casualties, an incorrigible neighbour with ‘safe havens’ for militants is bound to feel like a major irritant. But that does not justify Kabul’s call for sanctions against Pakistan.

Indeed, there is something desperate about Afghan national security adviser Rangin Spanta’s recommendation that the US impose economic sanctions and deny Pakistani generals visas. Spanta’s call says more about the contradictions rife in the Afghan capital than the Pakistani state’s alleged policy to sponsor militancy. It also undermines recent overtures towards regional cooperation.

No doubt, the Afghans have the right to highlight Pakistan’s role in their country’s ongoing insurgency. Given the persistence of terrorist attacks within Pakistan it is clear that a double game is no longer tenable, and that Islamabad must crack down on militant safe havens within Pakistan’s borders.

Pakistan’s policy for a post-2011 Afghanistan — shaping Afghan politics, engaging with the Taliban and keeping Indian investment at bay, all in the name of strategic depth — no longer fits with reality. The fact is, Kabul is now empowered enough to determine its own agenda. And for a country that keeps on about the integrity of its national sovereignty, Pakistan has done a shoddy job of respecting that of its neighbours.

But sanctions will not eliminate sanctuaries or force Pakistan to stop meddling in Kabul’s affairs. Dismantling training camps and militant hideouts along the Durand Line will require close Af-Pak cooperation, joint security action, intelligence-sharing, and perhaps new agreements regarding transit, trade and cartography along the porous border. To rid the war of ‘international jihadis’ who enjoy the support of some sections and sanctuary in Pakistan, Kabul will have to work with Islamabad, not against it.

Knowing this, why did Spanta call for sanctions? Obviously, this was a clumsy attempt to deflect attention from the towering corruption charges that have compromised Kabul’s credibility, and blame Afghanistan’s ills on Pakistan. Mention of sanctions follows a trip by US Senator John Kerry to Kabul, where he warned Karzai that US taxpayers were wearying of funding a corrupt government. It also follows reports in the international press that corrupt governance threatens to destabilise Afghanistan more than the Taliban.

Spanta’s flare-up comes on the heels of a corruption investigation into the activities of Mohammed Zia Salehi, a senior national security adviser. Salehi was arrested in July for taking a bribe to impede a US-backed, anti-corruption initiative. He was released seven hours later when Karzai intervened on his behalf. It was revealed recently that Salehi has been on the CIA’s payroll for several years.

Rather than distract from allegations of corruption, though, Spanta’s anti-Pakistan jibe focuses attention on the mêlée that is politics in Kabul. The extent of confusion in the Afghan capital was highlighted by a revelation in The Washington Post on Friday that the CIA makes secret payments to multiple members of the Karzai administration. Defending this practice, a former agency official explained that the payments yielded a steady flow of information, which was necessary because Karzai was not fully aware of all the goings-on in his own government.

Even without the CIA revelation, Kabul’s erratic relationship with Islamabad indicates just how deeply entrenched palace intrigue is in the Afghan capital. Though flawed, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has been consistent. The same cannot be said about Afghanistan’s dealings with Pakistan — competing actors with competing agendas in Kabul have led to on-again, off-again diplomatic ties with Islamabad.

Days before Spanta lashed out against Pakistan, Karzai was hobnobbing with President Asif Zardari in Russia, brainstorming ways in which to boost regional economic cooperation. Earlier this year too, in June, Pakistan was led to believe that Afghanistan was committed to working together against terrorism when Karzai accepted the resignations of his interior minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. The latter had openly critiqued Pakistan’s ISI for facilitating Taliban attacks within Afghanistan, and was thus seen as an impediment to good relations between the neighbours. His dismissal suggested that all was well in Af-Pak-land.

Notably, this summer of cooperation followed a spring of discontent. At the start of this year, Afghanistan decided to elbow Pakistan out of initial peace talks with the Taliban. The New York Times confirmed that the arrest in February of second-ranking Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader as well as 22 other Taliban leaders was an attempt by Pakistan’s security forces to stall direct negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. By taking militants into custody, Pakistan was trying to force its way to a negotiating table that Kabul made clear it was not welcome at.

Rather than expose the Pakistani government’s machinations, however, Karzai appeared in Islamabad in March to announce that Pakistan would handle future negotiations with the Taliban. He added, “Pakistan is a twin brother of Afghanistan. We are more than twins — we are conjoined twins.”

That description seems apt in hindsight, since Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to act like squabbling siblings. Given how much is at stake in terms of regional security and development, capricious relations between Islamabad and Kabul must be stabilised. For the moment, it is up to Karzai to get his house in order and devise a clear policy regarding Pakistan. After that, the onus will be on Pakistan to respect Afghanistan’s parameters for engagement.

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