Afghanistan USA & Pakistan- Endgame

"There is broad thinking that the US cannot afford to walk away like they’ve done twice” — Riaz Mohammad Khan

Pakistan is an important ally for the US in this region but the relationship is periodically fractured and mired in distrust. How has this changed for the worse?

This downturn in relations needs to be arrested. Here basically the government has asked parliament to review relations because this has become an emotive issue and Pakistan is close to an election. After the Salala incident last year, the government said that all stakeholders should share responsibility for whatever policy is chalked out.

Any sensible ruling government would want normal relations with the US. It is not about receiving aid but we need American goodwill, especially when it comes to trade and economic matters. There are specific issues precipitated by events in 2011, the Raymond Davis case, Osama bin Laden and Salala. Some of these should have been anticipated and prevented like in the Davis case when CIA contractors were given visas and allowed to enter the country in large numbers. There was already the experience of Blackwater in Iraq in 2006. If CIA contractors were given visas by the foreign office, then this kind of incident was bound to happen because the Americans don’t always understand local culture. Where the OBL issue is concerned, the Americans also overreached in many ways and there was need for better sensitivity on their part. Then if you look at the history of drone attacks, these strikes escalated in 2010 compared to 2007-08. There was pressure from Pakistan that these strikes should be coordinated.
Drone attacks escalated with the Obama government despite Pakistan’s objections. Also intelligence sharing between both
governments also continues.

The first drone attack targeted Nek Mohammad in 2004 in South Waziristan and he was more of a nuisance for us than the Americans. In 2010 these strikes escalated. There is controversy that a large number of people have been killed and very few were targets and so the net result was anger that feeds militancy rather than helping the situation.
After the recent parliamentary review on relations between the US and Pakistan, will drone attacks increase?

There has been a considerable reduction and I don’t think there will be another escalation. We have every right to ask the US not to fly drones over Pakistani territory and that they respect our sovereignty. However, that also calls for certain responsibility on our part. That Pakistani territory must not be used for militant activities and if Pakistan fails to exercise that responsibility then we should expect an escalation of drone strikes or other forms of retaliation.

How vital will Pakistan remain to US interests in the region after the drawdown begins in Afghanistan? In the future, how will cross-border militancy be reduced at a time when Nato and Afghan forces end joint-operations?

There is talk of a counterterrorism force based in Afghanistan on special bases but there’s a question mark about the Status of Force Agreement that will not be negotiated this year. These kinds of issues will be negotiated in 2013 because there is an election next year. So far there is no final agreement on how many US forces will stay back after 2014. There have been negotiations about night raids and Afghan prisons to be handed over to the government. What we expect next month at the Nato summit is firm commitment on funding Afghan security. So far there is indication that the US will certainly continue with substantial aid assistance. And we know the Afghan economy today is sustained by a war economy. There is broad thinking that the US cannot afford to walk away like they’ve done twice. The consequence of the first was 9/11 and of the second, the revival of the Taliban insurgency after the US was distracted with Iraq.

What scenario do you see for a post-Karzai term?

Let’s not talk about the politics of the region because there are surprises. We are not talking about settled democratic institutions but conflict situations, fluid situations. So for anyone to give an answer to what could happen during the post-Karzai transition is difficult. Even if Karzai remained, my guess would be that economic assistance will continue.

In, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity, you explain that backing the Afghan Taliban is not a viable option because it would threaten Pakistan’s internal security. How can we counter growing extremism and an overtly religious narrative in Pakistan?
If we talk about the local extremists, obscurantists, we have to deal with it as a society, as a country, as a people. And my thesis says there is an intellectual crisis. Today you will find educated people sympathising with the Taliban’s worldview and praising them.
Is this a new phenomenon?

This kind of religious extremism has grown over a period of years. This crisis of thought and confusion is not just restricted to the Taliban and their sympathizers. Take the example of how madrassas have gained support. I have seen educated and progressive people who believe these are the best charitable institutions. Now the confusion in this kind of thinking, as I see it, is that you leave two and a half million of the country’s young people and children to these institutions and have no concept of what they study, how useful they will become as citizens after their studies and what they will adopt as professions if at all. Are they getting vocational training, studying the sciences and can they get into colleges after? Can they opt to become doctors, engineers after a madrassah education? Those who say that these are the best institutions are confused about contemporary challenges to a modern society. This pattern of thought has become more pronounced in society today permeating into public discourse on policy and politics.

Should Pakistan play a role in the Afghan reconciliation process, especially when it’s about bringing certain factions of the Taliban’s older leadership to negotiate?

Reconciliation itself is validation of Pakistan’s position on the Taliban which it took at the time of the first Bonn process. At the time Pakistan suggested to the Americans that they bring the Taliban into the fold because they were part of the political landscape. Then the US had grouped the Taliban together with al Qaeda under one militant umbrella organisation. Once the Americans turned around on their policy, it was a validation of Pakistan’s position. They could afford to change their position as a superpower. There are others who have a role apart from the Afghans when negotiations happen: the US as the occupying force and Pakistan due to its peculiar geographic position. Pakistan must not thrust its position and demand a seat on the table but play a positive role to persuade the Taliban. We have never been able to convince the Afghans in the past even when they were eating out of our hands because of our ‘soft’ culture. My book brings out this point about the mujahedeen before the Taliban that Pakistan failed to convince.

How important are the Haqqani’s to Pakistan as strategic assets?

It is not that Pakistan gives sanctuary because then we would consider them assets. I have strongly contested this point. They are not assets because they cannot go into Kabul as part of a future set-up. If you look at the history of the Haqqani’s, they are part of the Zarghan tribe in North Waziristan, Khost, Paktia and Paktika. They are the strongest tribe with influence. Now, how do you tackle this situation as Pakistan? It’s a historically embedded situation that you can’t take head-on because your own countrymen will say that Pakistan is fighting someone else’s war against its own people. You see the complexity. It is important to recognise this because in Swat it was not until public opinion turned against the Pakistani Taliban that the army went in and two million people were displaced. But that is a separate theatre.

On reconciliation with the Taliban I don’t feel the Americans are clear. They called off the Qatar process and they now feel that the Afghans should work it out themselves. They are also trying to weaken the Taliban in many other ways. They are spending about $10 billion per month only on the army which will be reduced.
What choices do the Americans have?

Things are changing in Afghanistan. The Taliban will not return. Mullah Omar won’t go back to capture Kabul. There is economic vibrancy in the country. The old Taliban leadership might want to reconcile and are trying to go back and Gulbadin Hekmatyar is trying to negotiate a position. But local influences should be accommodated and that is a process that the Afghans will determine. It’s not something that the Americans or Pakistan can determine.

Should Pakistan know better than to demand a role in the endgame given its own internal crisis?

If anyone is looking for a neat cut off, that won’t happen. The best solution is that the violence decreases. It’s an amorphous situation and a neat strategic plan would be simply academic. In that overall view, Pakistan should look out for two variables.

We must hold back because if we are pro-active, it is will create problems within Afghanistan and we should not interfere and sponsor any groups. Secondly, we must have confidence that the nature of Pak-Afghan relations is such that Pakistan has an indispensable importance for Afghanistan and in a reverse way that holds true for Afghanistan. Turmoil in Afghanistan would impact Pakistan and vice versa.

How do Afghanistan’s historic regional neighbours react to this situation?

Central Asia is concerned about northern Afghanistan, which is quite stable because of the warlords. There is no factionalism, and as long as there’s no violence, then it’s an acceptable situation. The sensible thing would be to let the Afghan’s deal with their problems. They are past masters at playing with outside influences and if these are reduced then they are pragmatic enough to progress.

Does Pakistan’s objection to Indian economic influence make sense?

Pakistan cannot and must not object to India giving assistance. When it comes to other areas such as training the forces, then there are many questions: if they are trained by India then one questions the overall mind-set of these troops. Why shouldn’t Turkey train the army or Nato continue training the Afghan forces. The Afghan government should be sensitive to this aspect and Pakistan should have no reservation on the economic and reconstruction aspects.

After the recent Kabul attacks, would you say the Afghan national forces are capable of taking control of security post-2014?

What has emerged from these attacks is that the national army was able to cope with it in a city like Kabul with minimum casualties within a sufficient time period. If we were to go by that then I think such incidents should be a source of confidence to the new army. In this transition period, one of the more important aspects is whether the army is ready to control such incidents. If you look at the entirety of the country, the warlords keep their own areas somewhat protected in a situation of calm even though they keep the central authority at bay. What is left is basically Kabul and the southern provinces. The situation is now transiting towards the containment of violence and if there is success, then we might see the curtailing of a 30-year-old conflict.

The interviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald

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