Saturday, October 16, 2004

Pakistan: Karzai, Musharraf new regional equations

[ Karzai also has to deal with the stepped up rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Islamabad accuses New Delhi of using its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad to train Balochi insurgents who are active in Pakistani Balochistan. Pakistani officials claim there are as many as 42 RAW agents based in Kandahar and another 12 in Jalalabad.“There have no business being there unless they are undermining Pakistan,’’ says a Pakistani official. Both India and Afghanistan deny the claim. ‘’Should Pakistan show us any evidence of an Indian hand using Afghan soil to work against our neighbours we will take it very seriously,” says Amrullah Saleh the head of Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate. ]

Karzai, Musharraf new regional equations


KABUL: For the past 25 years landlocked Afghanistan has suffered from constant interference from its neighbours - Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republics - and regional powers -Russia and India. The neighbours are still interfering, but there are signs that rather than undermining Afghanistan’s stability they may now be trying to strengthen it.

“The elections should be a reassurance to all our neighbours that a stable Afghanistan, a peaceful Afghanistan is good for all. Nobody should feel a looser in Afghanistan,’’ President Hamid Karzai told Pakistan’s English daily The Nation.

All the regional countries have publicly backed the Karzai government and supported the electoral process, but serious undercurrents remain as they all have their favourite contenders in Afghanistan.

Since September 11, Pakistan has been repeatedly accused by Afghan and Western leaders of harbouring Taliban extremists who had pledged to disrupt the elections, but at the highest level the US has avoided criticising President Pervaiz Musharraf on the grounds that he is helping the US catch Al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan. That changed on September 22 when President George W. Bush, Musharraf and Karzai held a three way meeting in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The meeting was pushed together by the CIA and the US Defence Department who were desperately anxious to secure a peaceful election in Afghanistan and the non-interference of alleged Pakistani backed Taliban.

Western and Afghan diplomats intimately involved with the meeting, said Bush pushed Musharraf hard on reigning in the Taliban so the elections could take place peacefully. ‘’Where are Mullah Omar, Mullah Usmani and Gulbuddin Hikmetar?’’ Bush is reported to have asked a flustered Musharraf. All three are extremist Taliban or their allies and known to be living in Pakistan. (Mullah Omar is leader of the Taliban, Usmani is the former corps commander of Kandahar under the Taliban regime and now a commander of Taliban forces while Hikmetyar heads the extremist Hizb-e-Islami.)

‘’It was the first time that Bush totally focused on the Taliban threat rather than Al Qaeda with the Pakistanis,’’ says a Western diplomat. ‘’Bush was very well briefed before the meeting,’’ the diplomat said. An Afghan official at the meeting added, ‘’The Americans now realise that the Taliban are a bigger threat to our security than Al Qaeda.’’ Karzai was clearly pleased at the results. ‘’President Musharraf promised to help us and cooperate with us on curbing terrorist activity by the Taliban,’’ says Karzai.

The next day an angry Musharraf categorically said that Pakistan would not send Pakistani troops to Iraq, a clear snub to the Americans. Until then he had said Pakistan’s options were open. However Pakistani officials insist that the decision was unconnected to the tripartite meeting.

US and NATO military officers in Kabul say it is too early to say whether Bush’s tough message was instrumental in persuading Musharraf and the ISI to pressure the Taliban to restrain from disrupting the elections. However there were visible signs of a crackdown on the Pakistan side. ‘’Pakistan now has a large force deployed in Baluchistan which was not there before,’’ says Lt. General David Barno. ‘’There is much better tactical cooperation between our forces on both sides of the border, but the movement of Taliban still goes on both ways,’’ he adds. Also several days before the elections Pakistan closed the border crossing point at Chaman in Baluchistan which is a key entry point for the Taliban into Afghanistan.

However US military officers say regular army officers - many of them Pashtun - leading units of the Frontier Corps who are on the border remain deeply sympathetic to the Taliban and the mullahs of the JUI. At the same time the US remains oblivious of the serious problems and political fallout which the army is facing in its operations in Waziristan. Not only is the army facing serious political fallout, growing anti-Americanism and anti-army feeling in the tribal areas but it is also taking heavy casualties -between 400-500 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the region since March.

Musharraf has always maintained that the US has never provided actionable intelligence about Taliban leaders hiding in Baluchistan. That too may change. US and Afghan intelligence will shortly be presenting the ISI with a list of Taliban extremists and their suspected whereabouts. Moreover there are now major covert attempts under way to try and bring back to Kabul leading Taliban commanders, who have been living quietly in Pakistan and have taken no part in the Taliban insurgency.

With the Taliban failure to disrupt the Afghan elections, the militants are even more isolated from the mainstream Taliban who want to return home. Until now Pakistan has not facilitated such a return and clearly it cannot happen until there is both a pull from Kabul and a push from Islamabad. With President Karzai certain to win the elections and the demotion of key former Northern Alliance figures such as General Fahim and warlord Ismail Khan, there is now little reason for moderate Taliban leaders to fear reprisals from former Northern Alliance figures if they return home. Their removal should also provide increased motivation for Pakistan to help the return of moderate Taliban.

Afghan officials welcomed the appointment on October 3 of Lt. General Ashfaq Kiyani as the new ISI chief. Kayani is well known and liked in Kabul as during the last year he led the Pakistani delegation in the tripartite military meetings with the Afghan and US military on issues related to border issues.

Karzai also has to deal with the stepped up rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Islamabad accuses New Delhi of using its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad to train Balochi insurgents who are active in Pakistani Balochistan. Pakistani officials claim there are as many as 42 RAW agents based in Kandahar and another 12 in Jalalabad.

“There have no business being there unless they are undermining Pakistan,’’ says a Pakistani official. Both India and Afghanistan deny the claim. ‘’Should Pakistan show us any evidence of an Indian hand using Afghan soil to work against our neighbours we will take it very seriously,” says Amrullah Saleh the head of Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate.

Karzai categorically said that he has assured Musharraf repeatedly that any adverse action against Pakistan taken by Indian diplomats inside Afghanistan would be acted upon swiftly. Senior US diplomats and military officials have warned India also.

In a major regional shift reflecting the newly strengthened position of Karzai, Iran, Russia and India which have traditionally backed the Tajik dominated former Northern Alliance made strenuous efforts to convince presidential candidate Younis Qanooni to strike a deal with Karzai before the elections and not to oppose Karzai. Iran in particular feared that Qanooni would loose and then be politically isolated from the mainstream. Qanooni refused to accept the Iranian advice as his fellow Panjsheri Tajiks urged him to stand against Karzai. However since the elections Iranian influence has proved critical in convincing the Hazara Shia candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq to accept the results of the elections and later convincing Qanooni to do the same.

With the US military presence posing a threat on their borders in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s moderate leadership is keen to help stabilise Karzai so that the US presence in Afghanistan is reduced. However powerful hardliners in Tehran may be trying to undermine that strategy and a new issue is likely to deepen the rift with the moderates. Iranian officials are deeply concerned about the US occupation of Shindand, a massive Soviet-era airbase just 30 kilometres from Iran’s border. The enhanced US presence in western Afghanistan was only made possible after the ousting of Ismail Khan, the warlord and Governor of Herat province last month, who was a close ally of Iranian hardliners. Iranian officials say they made no objections to Khan’s ouster because they want to strengthen Karzai’s campaign against warlords.

At a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and calls by neo-conservatives in Washington that a second Bush term should deal with Iran aggressively, the Iranians fear that Shindand could be used as a listening post, spying facility and even a launching pad for any future US actions against Iran. Afghan officials say the Americans have moved over 100 Special Forces and helicopters to Shindand. However General Barno insists the US presence poses no threat to Iran. ‘’We have a very small number of forces in Shindand with a few helicopters,’’ says Barno.

Nevertheless this places Karzai in a difficult and sensitive situation because he has to maintain excellent relations with both the US and Iran. ‘’Afghanistan has had the benefit of cooperation from both the US and Iran. So far what they have done together has been good for us and that’s how we would like to keep it’’, says Karzai. Nobody can claim that the interference of Afghanistan’s neighbours is over, but the elections will do much to strengthen Karzai and deal more firmly with neighbours’ interference. In the post election scenario it is becoming abundantly clear that the Taliban do not have the support of the Afghan people nor the Afghan Pashtuns.

In a highly significant move Afghan Pashtun tribes along the Pakistan border warned the Taliban in Quetta and Chaman that if they try and disrupt the elections, they would be resisted. Many Taliban living in Afghanistan voted for President Karzai. It is now abundantly clear that with the rapidly changing face of Afghanistan, the demise of key Northern Alliance figures and the fluid political situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan should reconsider its policy of giving unlimited sanctuary to Taliban extremists living on Pakistani soil.

Pakistan Link 16/10/2004