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Karzai’s latest charges

April 17, 2013

IN what was termed a routine meeting of the Afghan National Security Council on Sunday President Hamid Karzai instructed his ministers of defence, interior and foreign affairs to take “immediate action” to see to the removal of the border gate, checkpost and other installations built by Pakistan along the Durand Line. He alleged these had been built without coordination.

These instructions followed a verbal protest that had been lodged by Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister with our ambassador in Kabul on April 1.

In issuing these instructions, Karzai had clearly chosen to ignore the rejoinder to the April 1 protest by the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman who said the post in question — Gursal in Mohmand Agency bordering Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province — was well within Pakistan territory. The spokesman said it had existed for many years and was only being renovated, and that an Afghan military delegation visiting Mohmand in January had been briefed on the nature of the renovation work.

While media reports seem to suggest that better sense has prevailed and that the Afghans have conceded that the Pakistan Army was indeed renovating the post and was not involved in the construction of a new one, the incident has been distasteful. With accusations coming from the office of the Afghan president himself, there could have been grim consequences. This only shows how fraught Pak-Afghan relations continue to be, with distrust and suspicions taking precedent over any sincere move to remove tensions. And there are several questions to ponder regarding this latest incident in the saga of bad blood.

Why, for instance, was this verbal attack launched in April when the Afghans had known of the renovation at least since January? Why was there no attempt to counter the statement of facts relating to the post provided by the Pakistani officials and presumably communicated to the Afghans formally by our ambassador in Kabul or the Afghan envoy in Islamabad?

It is difficult to find a logical explanation. Did this serve any purpose other than to further strain Pak-Afghan ties at a time when Pakistan has a caretaker government charged only with ensuring free and fair elections, not with undertaking new initiatives in foreign or domestic policy?

Whatever the purpose of Karzai’s outburst one hopes that our interim government will not respond harshly but confine itself to reiterating the facts and then hold further discussions at the next border coordination meeting or at the ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Process in Almaty on April 26. Hopefully before that time the prime minister would have assigned the foreign affairs portfolio to one of his cabinet colleagues since it is important for us to be represented at that level in Almaty.

But Karzai is not taking on Pakistan alone. Karzai recently issued a statement, based on the report of the team he had sent to Kunar to investigate the air attack by US planes on insurgent houses that resulted apparently in the death of 17 civilians including 12 children.

His statement condemned “the use of civilians and their homes as shields by the Taliban” but added that air strikes on residential areas are not acceptable “under any name and for any purpose whatsoever”. While the investigation team suggested that this was an incident triggered by an Afghan intelligence operation to capture two Taliban insurgents there are plausible reports that this was in fact a CIA operation mounted by irregular Afghan forces led by a CIA operative who was killed while retreating from the area.

Nato has completed its own report on the incident but has not released it since it was still under review.

For the moment though what is important is the disclosure in Karzai’s statement that, in a telephonic conversation with President Obama earlier in the week, he had said that such incidents could jeopardise the conclusion of the US-Afghan security pact that would govern the residual US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

Karzai thus appears to be at loggerheads with both his principal supporter and his most important neighbour. Hopefully, both benefactor and neighbour will avoid an intemperate public response. Today, Afghanistan has only one legitimate leader and therefore only one legitimate enunciator of Afghan policy. He, despite a belief to the contrary, is, at this time, the only person who can carry forward the currently stalled process of reconciliation.

We have to remember that Afghanistan’s descent into chaos will cause enormous damage to US prestige but will be devastating for Pakistan and its own struggle against terrorist elements within the country as is evident from the ongoing campaign in the Khyber Agency.

Other costs to Pakistan have never been computed accurately but I was struck by a recently released report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime which concluded that in 2013 the area in Afghanistan devoted to opium cultivation would increase substantially — especially in Helmand province.

According to a UNODC official, Afghanistan is in danger of becoming “the world’s first true narco-state” because it is poised to once again become the producer of 90 per cent of the world’s opium. Long considered only a producer rather than a consumer of opium, it now has more than a million users. Warlords flourish on the proceeds of opium production and trafficking.

We are not better off. In 1979, we had 30,000 registered addicts and perhaps an equal number of unregistered users. As production increased in Afghanistan so did our user population. Today in Pakistan, according to the US annual report on Narcotics Control Strategy released in March this year, “there are an estimated 500,000 addicts and over five million habitual drug users”.

Pakistan was also the world’s foremost heroin transit country in 2012. UNODC estimates that 40pc of the world supply traversed the country en route to China, the Gulf States, Africa, and Europe.

We need peace in Afghanistan to have peace in Pakistan and, under the circumstances, must work with whoever is in power in Kabul.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.