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Afghan Peace Talks : US bends to Pakistan’s wish

M K Bhadrakumar

The unscheduled visit by United States Vice President Joe Biden to Islamabad last week underscores
Washington’s embarrassment and anxiety that it stands excluded from a regional initiative on Afghan peace
process that could be about to take off. The rapid sequence of events over the past fortnight has taken
Washington by surprise.
There have been so many difficult moments in the US-Pakistani relationship through the past nine years
since the US invasion of Afghanistan. But Biden’s mission can only be compared with the visit to Islamabad
by the then-US secretary of state Colin Powell in mid-October 2001. If the Powell mission was seminal to the
US invasion of Afghanistan, Biden’s mission may well turn out to be formative in sowing the germane seeds
of peace.
The trail leading Biden to Islamabad began in Istanbul on Christmas Eve when, as part of Ankara’s three-
year old initiative, Turkish President Abdullah Gul hosted a fifth summit meeting of the trilateral forum
comprising his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts Asif Zardari and Hamid Karzai. The Turks take their
mediatory role very seriously and have indeed met with some measure of success in bringing Kabul and
Islamabad closer together as neighbours - an endeavour in which the US has repeatedly failed. But then,
Turkey’s credentials cannot be easily matched.

Home for Taliban


Turkey is an “ally” of the US, Russia and Pakistan and a long-lost friend of China; it has “normalized” with
Iran and Saudi Arabia and is an active Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) member; Turkey has a
claim over the “Turkic” heritage of Central Asia; Ankara maintains good equations with various Afghan
groups and kept a line open to Taliban leadership in the late 1990s; Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty
Organization country with an International Security Assistance Force contingent that acquitted itself well; and
Turkey is a generous donor for Afghan reconstruction.
Turkish foreign policy has become extremely innovative and ambitious. Ankara worked hard to bring Kabul
and Islamabad together and it now aspires to scale audacious heights in the Hindu Kush.
Turkey is willing to allow the opening of a “representative office” of the Taliban on its soil. Karzai says the
idea came from “dignitaries close to the Taliban”. At any rate, it figured in the tripartite summit at Istanbul
and Turkey and Pakistan voiced support. Interestingly, Taliban have not so far disowned it either.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutglu later said, “We are ready to meet these expectations at every
level. Turkey is closely following each step to be taken. We are ready to perform in Turkey in any process
sought by the Afghan government and we are also ready to contribute to processes that may be under way
outside Turkey.”
Just before Karzai left Kabul for Istanbul, he deputed the head of the Afghan High Council for Peace (HCP),
Burhanuddin Rabbani, (a former president) to visit Tehran. Within days, Tehran also had another important
Afghan visitor, Mohammed Fahim, key figure in the erstwhile Northern Alliance and currently first vice
president. (Curiously, a veteran “Afghan hand” from Moscow, Viktor Ivanov, former KGB general who heads
the anti-narcotic agency in Russia, also arrived in Tehran at the same time as Fahim.)
Karzai obviously sounded out the Iranians on his project kick-starting the intra-Afghan dialogue. But
Tehran’s stance appears to be ambivalent, though its stated position is consistently that the continued presence
of US troops is aggravating regional tensions. The visit by Fahim suggests that Tehran is keeping its options
open. The recent fracas over Iran’s petroleum supplies to Afghanistan also suggests some friction between
Tehran and Kabul. The powerful speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) Ali Larijani is due to visit Kabul
shortly.
Ahead of his trip to Tehran, Rabbani also addressed a major regional peace jirga (council) at Nangarhar
convened by the government, comprising over 800 delegates drawn from various Pashtun-dominated eastern
provinces where Taliban are active. Rabbani exhorted the Taliban, “This is your country. Afghanistan is your
country. Of course, everyone makes mistakes. We need to work together to fix those mistakes.”
The jirga decided that the Taliban’s reintegration must be in line with Islamic values. “Whatever we do here
will be based on Islam,” Rabbani said. The jirga took a significant decision that in the reconciliation process
Taliban must be given the latitude to “deal with their fellow Afghans rather than with [US-led] coalition
forces”.

Pakistani turnaround
Following Karzai’s return from Istanbul, things have speeded up. Earlier this month, Rabbani led a 25-
member delegation to Islamabad at the invitation of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani. This signified a
turnaround by Pakistan, which (and Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami) had been previously derisive about the HCP.
Quite obviously, there has been some rethink in Islamabad.
In fact, Pakistani army chief General Parvez Kiani received Rabbani in Rawalpindi on the send day. The
official press release said they discussed “matters of mutual interest”. The fact that Kiani personally staked his
prestige becomes very important.
The meeting in Rawalpindi signalled Pakistani military’s endorsement of Rabbani’s leadership role in any
intra-Afghan dialogue. Far more important, however, it contained an unmistakable hint to Washington that
with or without US involvement, a dialogue might well commence in a near future, Pakistan is going ahead
with a regional initiative involving Karzai, as there is little time to lose, and it is in Washington’s interest to be
on the same page.
Pakistan has been critical of David Petraeus’ surge strategy in Afghanistan and has refused to undertake
operations in the North Waziristan tribal area despite repeated US urgings.
Karzai couldn’t have made a better choice than Rabbani to spearhead the peace process as the latter has old
links with the Taliban dating back to the jihad of 1980s. Pakistan’s dealings with Rabbani go even further
back to the mid-1970s predating the communist revolution. Rabbani is an Islamic scholar who has an appeal
among the Islamic circles in Pakistan, especially the leadership of the Islam Pasand parties such as Jamiat
Ulema-e-Islam. Rabbani belonged to the original “Peshawar Seven” during the jihad and had extensive
dealings with Pakistani military and intelligence.
Rabbani is also a key Tajik leader heading the Jamiat-i-Islami and it is important to bring Tajiks on board in
any Afghan settlement. He is a veteran mujahideen leader enjoying wide networking with commanders like
Jalaluddin Haqqani who are with the Taliban. Rabbani can be instrumental to putting up a bridge through
which controversial figures like Jalaluddin could cross over to mainstream Afghan politics some day.
All-in-all, therefore, Kiani’s decision to stake his prestige on Rabbani can be seen as a meaningful shift in
the Pakistani strategy.

US fears ‘exclusion’
The speed with which Kabul and Islamabad are pushing the proposal for intra-Afghan dialogue has taken
the US by surprise. The US maintains that it is still premature to talk to the Taliban. Rabbani’s mission to
Islamabad, in particular, would have made Washington sit up. The US never took a real liking toward
Rabbani due to his staunchly nationalist-Islamist streak, his off-and-on links with Iran and his virulent “anti-
American” outlook, which he never cared to hide.
Washington senses “exclusion”, while so much is happening. Ironically, it finds itself in the same boat as
Tehran. The US acting special representative for Afghanistan Frank Ruggeri’s quick dash to Islamabad last
week aimed at taking stock of the flow of events. Ruggeiro was shown full courtesies, including a meeting
with Kiani, but Pakistan seems to have held the ground that talks must begin with the Taliban.
Swiftly following up on Ruggeri’s trip, President Barack Obama has deputed Biden to forthwith proceed to
Islamabad. Obama’s choice of Biden makes careful study. Put simply, Biden has been arguing that Taliban do
not pose any real threat to the US national security interests as such and a deal with them makes it possible to
bring the war to an end.
Petraeus, on the other hand, hopes to intensify the military operations to degrade the Taliban to a point that
they will crawl on their knees and sue for peace on US’ terms. Petraeus is in it for the long haul whereas
Biden is in great hurry.
There is widespread scepticism within the US security establishment over Petraeus’ claim that his strategy is
beginning to work. By nominating Biden to lead the mission to Islamabad, Obama seems to indicate he keeps
an open mind.
Zardari is visiting Washington this week while Biden is rushing to Islamabad. The strange two-way traffic
highlights the depth of US anxiety over the slide in US-Pakistan ties as also its admission that Kiani is the key
interlocutor. The murder of the governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and its after-
shocks on the Pakistani society and politics has only muddied the waters of the anxiety in the White House
over the slide in US-Pakistan relations in the recent months.
Based on briefings by senior US officials, Washington Post has reported on the main elements of Biden’s
mission. They are:
Biden will seek a “frank exchange of views and priorities” with Kiani in terms of the Afghan endgame and
the “long-term strategy for the region”.
The US may not press for urgent commencement of Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan.
Biden will categorically assure that the US has no intentions of mounting cross-border military operations
into Pakistani territory.
Biden will ascertain what Pakistan’s needs, expectations and demands are in return for extending more
cooperation in the war.
The US will offer a new assistance package with military, intelligence and economic components.
The US will strengthen troop presence on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan and intensify
intelligence-sharing arrangements with Pakistan on India’s activities in Afghanistan.
The report estimated a “significant shift in [US] administration thinking” and Obama’s inclination to join
the peace process and recognize that Pakistan has an important role, “if not a dominant role”, in reconciliation
talks with the Taliban.
Washington is, in essence, making a virtue out of necessity, which is of course good politics almost always.
Ideally, the US would have liked Pakistan to robustly supplement the US war effort. But the heart of the
matter is that if and when intra-Afghan peace talks begin stemming from a regional initiative by Afghanistan,
Pakistan and Turkey (and, perhaps, grudging Iranian acquiescence), the entire US position will cave in and the
Obama administration will find itself in an absurd and untenable position of adamantly insisting on pursuing a
war which neither the Afghan people nor the regional powers want.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments
included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and
Turkey.

US presence in Afghanistan fuels extremism in Pakistan Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Imran Khan

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer has shown only too clearly the growing extremism in Pakistan, the
radicalisation of its society and the polarisation that is taking hold. This is not just between the religious and
the secular, but also the polarisation that the “war on terror” has caused between the various religious sects.
There were no Pakistanis involved in 9/11 and al-Qaida was then based in Afghanistan. The only militancy
we were suffering was among the tribal groups who had fought against the Soviets and whose idea of jihad
was a war against foreign occupation. Yes, there was sectarian violence, but suicide bombers were unheard of.
So after 9/11, when General Musharraf chose to ally with the Americans in the “war on terror”, it was a
fundamental blunder. Overnight he turned the jihadi groups created to fight foreign occupation from
supporters into enemies, people prepared to fight the Pakistani army because of its support for the US
invasion.
Musharraf then made a second mistake in sending the army into the tribal areas. Our own tribespeople
immediately rose up in revolt. Rather than co-opting these people and, remember, every man is armed we
made new enemies. Then along came the American drones to kill more of our people.
Soon, the American “war on terror” was seen as a war on Islam by the majority of Pakistanis and certainly
by the Pashtuns in the tribal areas.
Extremism intensified
Every year extremism gets worse, our society becomes more radicalised and the bloodshed grows. This is
how you must see the context of this assassination. Society is now so polarised that because Taseer criticised
the blasphemy law he was seen as criticising Islam. But that was not what he said. This assassination would
not have happened before the “war on terror”.
Imams of different sects are being killed now, and mosques and churches bombed. The fanaticism keeps
getting worse. As disturbing as Taseer’s assassination is, just as disturbing is the way his assassin has become
a hero. That is why this whole thing is so dangerous, it shows where we are headed.
I have been predicting this from day one. There is no military solution in Afghanistan, only dialogue, so the
supreme irony is that in siding with the Americans all we have done is send the levels of violence up in
Pakistan.
The “war on terror” has weakened the state and then, thanks to the George Bush-sponsored National
Reconciliation Ordinance in 2007, which allowed an amnesty for all the biggest political crooks, we now have
the most corrupt government in our history. The “war on terror” is destroying Pakistan.
Clemenceau once said: “War is too important to be left to the generals.” He was right; for us it has been a
disaster. There is incredible anti-American sentiment here, and the drone attacks only fuel that hatred. We
need a change of strategy, otherwise the worst-case scenario will be achieved here; an unstable nuclear state.
It’s not a question of there being no room for moderates, it’s that moderates are being pushed towards
extremism. Taseer didn’t say anything anti-Islamic, he just questioned the blasphemy law and whether it
should be used to victimise innocent people. His death has caused many moderates to think there is no point
in being a martyr. If it makes people such as myself think twice about what we say, then where does that leave
us? We are all now at risk.
Crime in Pakistan is now at a level that breaks all records. Yet 60% of the elite police forces are now
employed protecting VIPs. Where does that leave ordinary people? Young Pakistanis are being radicalised
and the Taliban grow in strength. The US is no longer fighting just the Taliban, it is fighting the whole
Pashtun population.
The consequences for Pakistan, with its population of 180 million, are enormous. And there is an impact,
too, on Muslim youth in western countries.
Graham Fuller, the CIA chief of staff in Kabul, wrote in 2007 that, if Nato left Afghanistan, Pakistan
security forces could overcome terrorism and extremism. But, as long as the Americans push Pakistan to do
more in the tribal areas, the situation will worsen until Pakistan itself implodes.
Courtesy: Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

As ambassador Munter said "we pay so we intrude", the US policy would always be that there is one way of
doing things and that is the way dictated by the US. So I think it is wishful to ask US to leave the
neighbourhood. Pakistani policymakers have to chart a course which takes account for the overbearing US
approach in order to pull the country out of its catalogue of crises.