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Turning point

May 22, 2013

ON the eve of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India this week, his aides revealed that he would be requesting assistance “with military needs and shortages” during his sojourn in New Delhi.

This suggests, on the one hand, that he is not exactly complacent about such needs being met by his primary sponsor. On the other, as he must be aware, the request is bound to fuel some angst at the military headquarters in Pakistan.

The rout of the feuding mujahideen by the Taliban in the mid-1990s was considered a success story by the Pakistani army. It came a cropper in the wake of 9/11, but the prospect of pushing the reset button once the international forces withdraw next year has remained in doubt, partly on account of India’s relatively small role in Afghan reconstruction.

The role of subcontinental geopolitics in determining the future of Afghanistan is bound to be crucial in the years ahead, and the Karzai regime can hardly be faulted for its inclination towards increasing cooperation with India, given that sections of Pakistan’s security apparatus are still considered to be complicit with at least some elements among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

It should not have been too hard, were the Pakistani military so inclined, to demolish that impression over the past dozen years. Its signal failure, however, to successfully combat the Taliban on home ground speaks volumes.

An embittered Asfandyar Wali Khan, whose Awami National Party was decimated in this month’s polls, has jibed that Pakistan’s election commission was headed by Hakeemullah Mehsud rather than Fakhruddin Ebrahim; parties routinely described as secular mostly fared abysmally partly because of the Pakistani Taliban intimidation. But the very fact that the Taliban were in a position to influence the outcome of the election serves as an indictment of those tasked with minimising their influence.

The distinction between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban can be nebulous. Kabul routinely complains that insurgents cross the border to escape retribution. The allegation is frequently reciprocated by Islamabad. At other times, lines are drawn between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. But these tags can mean different things to different people. The Taliban believed to be closest to the intelligence agencies are invariably the ones least likely to appeal to the Karzai regime. And vice versa.

Based on opinion polls of dubious veracity, it has been reported that about 30pc of Afghans back the Taliban; the extent to which they do so because of the Taliban’s obscurantist agenda or their resistance to foreign occupation is rarely clarified.

That occupation is scheduled to end next year, although Karzai earlier this month endorsed the idea of US troops remaining indefinitely in situ at nine bases. The suggestion from Washington is that those troops will be dedicated to training Afghan soldiers and combating Al Qaeda, rather than confronting the Taliban.

The Taliban mission in Qatar, meanwhile, is said to have come under pressure from its hosts to formally dissociate itself from Al Qaeda. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem; sections of the Taliban were always uncomfortable with the hospitality Mullah Omar showed towards Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. But there have been other impediments to meaningful negotiations, notably the unfulfilled demand that a bunch of Taliban be freed from Guantanamo Bay.

Following an embarrassing hunger strike among prisoners at Guantanamo, US president Barack Obama has revived his vow to shut down the incarceration facility there, and is expected to address that issue in a speech tomorrow. His rhetoric, though, usually does not match reality.

Afghanistan is bound to be a crucial component of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the years ahead, and it must be hoped the incoming Nawaz Sharif administration will approach it with equanimity. It is not difficult to understand why Karzai would seek military assistance from India rather than Pakistan. He must realise, though, that a stable future for his country will depend on cooperation between all its neighbours.

There’s little question that Pakistan has been a destabilising influence since the 1980s, and that has got to change. Whether Sharif, if he is so inclined, will be able to prevail over the military establishment is one of the primary questions. Failing that, his express wish for improved ties with New Delhi could also be thwarted.

Afghanistan’s multiple woes, however, do not emanate exclusively from the Pakistani side of the border. If the US-led military occupation has served to reinforce armed resistance, the level of corruption Washington has helped to foster is another crucial factor.

On his way to New Delhi this week, Karzai stopped over in Jallandhar to pick up a doctorate proffered by Lovely Professional University. One can only hope that the Mittal family-funded institution’s decision to confer it had been made before Karzai confessed at a press conference in Helsinki last month to receiving regular cash payments from the CIA, describing it as “an easy source of petty cash”.

According to The New York Times, “some of it was used to pay off members of the political elite, a group dominated by warlords”, and the Taliban, too, have ended up with a proportion of the bounty.

The CIA station chief in Kabul assured Karzai last Saturday that the dollars would keep on flowing — just as they once did to the mujahideen. Everyone knows where that led, but Karzai must find it conflicting for his administration to be accused of corruption by the same country that has been facilitating it.

He was reportedly at the receiving end of similar generosity from Iran until 2010, when Tehran was miffed by a strategic deal with the US. Notwithstanding the nature of the Iranian regime, at least it abides by some principles.