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Pak-Afghan Relations


ZAHID HUSSAIN/ 26.02.2020

HE sounds more like a statesman and a peacenik than one of the most wanted ‘terrorists’ with a bounty of millions of dollars on his head. The most feared militant commander who haunted American forces in Afghanistan for almost two decades, Sirajuddin Haqqani now appears the biggest proponent of peace, with the insurgents and the US on the threshold of a peace agreement. 

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command envisions “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”. He wants the US, whose forces he had been fighting, to “play a constructive role in the postwar development and reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

Undoubtedly, it is a well-crafted statement meant to allay the fears of the Afghans as well as the international community of the Taliban returning to their old ways and attempting to re-establish a tyrannical rule once the foreign forces withdraw. The op-ed was published on the eve of the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban. The two sides are expected to sign the deal on Feb 29. 

Lamenting that the Afghans had suffered enough in the relentless conflict, the Taliban leader has tried to assure the international community that the militia would “take all measures in partnership with other Afghans to make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability and that nobody feels threatened...” 

Four decades of conflict have polarised Afghan society and now there is a need for reconciliation.

Whether or not the solemn declaration will satisfy the detractors, it does reflect a tangible shift in the thinking of the Islamist militia that had in the past rejected a pluralistic political process. The Taliban have agreed to be part of intra-Afghan negotiations following the peace agreement that would pave the way for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. 

Perhaps the most significant point in the write-up is the recognition of the rights of women to education and to work. The issue has been a major concern for Afghan women and rights groups who fear that the Taliban would try to reverse the progress made in the field of female education in Afghanistan over the past 18 years. 

In the past, the Taliban regime had completely banned women’s education and rejected their right to work. However, it remains to be seen whether the militia sticks to its promise once the foreign forces have left Afghanistan. The declaration may help improve the environment for intra-Afghan talks for decisions regarding a post-US-exit scenario. 

But this is not enough. The future political stability of Afghanistan will depend on the cessation of violence and how the intra-Afghan dialogue is organised. Four decades of conflict have polarised Afghan society and now there is a need for reconciliation among all warring Afghan factions. 

It is quite significant that a militant leader who is still on the US terrorist list has been given space in what is arguably America’s most influential newspaper. It is certainly not just to do with the policy of allowing differing views on the opinion pages; the development marks yet another irony of America’s longest war. 

Sirajuddin heads the Haqqani network, the most violent faction of the Taliban that has been responsible for causing the biggest damage to the American forces inside Afghanistan. The State Department officially listed the network as a terrorist group in 2012, and had placed a reward of $5m dollars on Sirajuddin’s head. 

Interestingly, the man who was once the scourge of the occupation forces is now seen as a critical peg in US efforts to end the two-decade-long war. It seems that a four-decade, friend-to-foe relationship in a conflict that started in the 1980s during the anti-Soviet struggle is now coming full circle. 

Founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most powerful Afghan Mujahideen commanders, the network traces its origin to the 1980s’ CIA-backed guerrilla war against the Soviets. Having been described by the former US President Ronald Reagan as a freedom fighter, Jalaluddin was later labelled as Osama bin Laden’s cohort in terrorism — thereby ending up on America’s most-wanted list. 

Charlie Wilson, the late US congressman, who played a critical role in mobilising American support for the ‘Afghan jihad’, described Jalaluddin as “goodness personified”. According to a report, the CIA would deliver suitcases full of US dollars to Haqqani regularly. 

Both the CIA and ISI had pivoted on the Haqqanis to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, though their links with members of the Arab brigade involved in the so-called jihad were well known. Initially, the Haqqanis were not part of the Taliban movement when the militia established themselves in Kabul in 1996. But they joined the ‘Islamic emirate’ later. 

Jalaluddin was appointed commander-in-chief of the militia after the fall of the conservative Islamist regime. Operating from eastern Afghanistan known as Paktia Loya and across the border in Waziristan, the network soon became the most lethal insurgent group fighting the US-led foreign forces. 

Sirajuddin Haqqani took over the command of the outfit after his father’s ill health forced him to step down. He proved a more effective commander, expanding the activities of the network to the capital Kabul. All major attacks in the Afghan capital over the past decade are blamed on the group. 

Pakistan’s reluctance to take action against the network had remained a major cause of tension with the US. During a US Senate Armed Services hearing in 2011, the then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI. 

He accused elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency of providing operational support and resources to the Haqqani network to wage their insurgency against the US and Afghan forces. But the situation has dramatically changed after the start of the peace talks of which the Haqqanis are also a part. 

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020




Updated February 26, 2020

 NO one in their right mind could frown upon the prospect of peace breaking out in Afghanistan after a relentless 40-year conflict straddling the 20th and 21st centuries. Nor can there be any serious doubt that a negotiated settlement is the only way out.

Whether the tentative understanding reached between Afghan Taliban and US representatives in Doha last week represents a meaningful step down that path is less clear. 

Read: [US, Taliban to sign peace deal in Doha on 29th][3]

‘Reduced violence’ through this week is supposed to lead to a ‘deal’ whereby the US will begin withdrawing some of its troops. The Taliban have reportedly vowed not to entertain foreign guests such as Al Qaeda and agreed to enter into talks with the government in Kabul, which has not been a party to the Qatar negotiations.

The latter condition could pose immediate problems, and not just because of the antipathy between the two sides. When the results of last September’s electoral exercise were finally released this month, giving President Ashraf Ghani a fraction more than 50pc of the vote, the outcome was challenged by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who threatened to set up a rival government.

The prospects of real Afghan democracy are poor.

One of the latter’s chief allies declared: “Even if they put a knife on my throat, even if they hang me, I will not accept an announcement based on fraud.” His identity should clang a few bells: Abdul Rashid Dostum, a crusty old warlord, has shifted allegiances so often since the Khalq/Parcham days that it’s a wonder he can even remember which side he is currently on.

Notwithstanding Dostum’s hyperbole, even the election commission’s statistics suggest that less than a third of Afghanistan’s 9.6 million registered voters cast their ballots, and nearly a million of those were discarded. Of the 1.8m that were deemed valid, 300,000 have been called into question by the Abdullah faction. Ghani’s official tally anyhow adds up to less than a million votes in an overall population of about 37m.

Taliban threats no doubt contributed to the lowest turnout this century, but it may also have had something to do with the fact that allegations of corruption have swirled around both the leading contenders, who played the same roles in the last election.

The chances of meaningful democracy gaining a foothold in Afghanistan are more than likely to diminish once the Taliban join the administration in one form or another. An opinion column published in The New York Times last week under the byline of Sirajuddin Haqqani, described as the deputy leader of the Taliban, says that the future form of government will “depend on a consensus among Afghans”. 

If that means nothing in particular, the declaration about building “an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected” should provide pause for thought to anyone who recalls the practices of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001). 

Competing interpretations of religious precepts have abounded for centuries. The Taliban were schooled in and implemented the least enlightened doctrines during their years in power. Who can say whether they have overcome that intellectual debility? 

Afghan women may not exactly have been liberated in the aftermath of 2001, but at least some of them have regained certain rights and freedoms, and they rightly fear losing them all over again.

The Taliban were effectively the offspring of an insidious ménage à trois involving Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US, which lost interest in the region once the Red Army beat a retreat and the Soviet Union subsequently crumbled. In the mid-1990s, many Afghans looked upon the Taliban infiltrated by Pakistan as potential saviours after the mujahideen predictably chose internecine warfare over any attempt at competent govern­ance.

Some of them aligned themselves with the Taliban, including CIA-ISI favourites Gulb­uddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani (father of the NYT contributor), the latter at one time described as “goodness personified” by US officials. The Americans changed their minds after 9/11. The ISI didn’t.

The hubristic folly of the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 more or less equalled the sheer idiocy of the Soviet aggression in December 1979. Documents published by The Washington Post last December revealed that many senior US personnel were aware they were launching an unwinnable war. Douglas Lute, a three-star general who served under the Bush and Obama administrations, was quoted as saying in 2015: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

Overall, it’s not hard to empathise with the Taliban demand for an American withdrawal. It would be far better, though, if Afghanistan could also be free of the Taliban and Pakistani interference. But don’t hold your breath. 


Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020


Updated February 23, 2020

 THE results of the 2019 Afghan presidential elections have further complicated the prospects for achieving intra-Afghan political reconciliation. They have pushed down the hope that the newly elected regime would be able to form an inclusive team to talk to the Afghan Taliban. While the election authorities have declared the incumbent president Ashraf Ghani as the winner, runner-up Dr Abdullah Abdullah has not only rejected the results but also announced he will form his own parallel government.

Read: A long way to Afghan peace

The persisting political turmoil in Kabul has increased just a week before the announcement of a deal is expected between the US negotiation team and the Taliban. Many anticipate that the much-awaited deal will bring to the fore the crucial process of nation-building in a war-torn country, where all Afghan stakeholders will not only have to build consensus on a permanent, comprehensive ceasefire, but also reconstruct a new social contract for their country. However, the deepening political crisis in Afghanistan can slacken the peace process, causing a delay in the announcement of the deal. It will increase frustration among the external stakeholders and facilitators (mainly the US) who want to end the decades-old conflict, which is consuming their financial resources and political capital.

The Afghan Taliban deputy and Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani hinted at the Taliban’s internal difference over the peace process in an opinion piece published in The New York Times. However, their differences are not as severe as the trust deficit among their opponents including Afghan and international stakeholders. Political chaos in Kabul is an advantage for the Taliban, which they will use to bolster their bargaining position while dealing with the US and fellow Afghan stakeholders. It is not yet certain how Washington will respond to the simmering controversy over election results.

For Pakistan, this is a delicate situation as it has played a critical role in facilitating US-Taliban talks, hoping that the process would help reduce pressure from its western border. Facilitating the peace process was also essential for Pakistan to put its economy back on the road including through earning the confidence of Washington and European capitals. However, protracted political turmoil in Afghanistan could shatter many of Pakistan’s hopes.

In the current environment, what are the options left for Pakistan?

Even if US intervention resolves election-related controversies, building consensus for a broad-based negotiation team will be an uphill task. The formation phase of the negotiation team may take longer than expected, as it is also not clear whether or not it will be conditioned on the US troops’ withdrawal. However, a prolonged process could increase internal pressure on the Taliban leadership to adopt an alternative approach and declare their parallel government, or emirate, which is already functioning in the peripheries and rural areas of the country. In such a situation, much of the pressure will be put on Pakistan both by the international community and the factionalised political Afghan elite.

A couple of years earlier, a scenario-building exercise was carried out to get a picture of Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in 2030. One scenario was that if foreign troops left Afghanistan without accomplishing their mission, the Afghan power elites and Taliban would not be able to bring stability to the country. In that case, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours would have little leverage over Afghan stakeholders to force them to build consensus.

Bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan would further deteriorate, thus increasing the animosity between the two nations to India’s advantage. It would be a nightmare for Pakistan as it would increase border tensions and insecurity, and negatively impact trade and people-to-people contact between the two nations. The nightmare for the international community mainly the US, China and Russia would be that the Taliban’s power would grow and international terrorist groups become influential. In such a scenario, China and Russia would prefer to put their weight behind the most definite contender(s) of power.

That was a pessimistic scenario and indicated that the political compulsions had become so strong that imagining a scenario where the Afghans as a state and society could overcome their differences was difficult.

In the current environment, what are the options left for Pakistan? Complete detachment from the emerging situation in Afghanistan is one option. This can be interpreted as maintaining a neutral position before and during the complicated process of intra-Afghan talks. This would be an ideal but awkward position because of complications that could emerge during the withdrawal of foreign forces and the dialogue process. The US would have to rely on Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban and a few other political actors in Afghanistan.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that Russia, Iran, and particularly India, would maintain a neutral position. India and Iran have their proxies and favourites in Afghanistan, whom they will not abandon. Pakistan will be an easy target of such ‘favourites’ if the dialogue is deadlocked. Pakistan will have to maintain and further diversify its relations with Afghan stakeholders other than the Taliban.

If the exit process is caught in complications, the US can review its approach. But for the global community, the most critical aspect would be long-term economic assistance pledges to help Afghan power elites develop viable economic growth structures. This factor will also dominate the intra-Afghan dialogue. It remains to be seen how Afghan stakeholders, who have divergent interests, will deal with this challenge. It is expected they will build pressure on Pakistan regarding the transit trade agreement and could demand easy access to ports. If Pakistan-India relations remain tense, it would not be easy for Pakistan to make any concession.

The processes of withdrawal and dialogue will be lengthy with all their complexities, but their completion will see the real test for Pak-Afghan ties. Pakistan should have a blueprint for the future and prepare the ground for a long-term strategic and economic cooperation treaty with Afghanistan. This is important in order for both countries to emerge from the Indian-centric strategic hangover and develop their independent bilateral relationship.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2020


The growing wall of distrust

Zahid Hussain December 20, 2017

IT is not just about the hostility of the government in Kabul; more troubling is the fact that the adverse sentiments in Afghanistan towards Pakis­tan are deeply entrenched in the public. The indignation has heightened over the past years, with most people in Kabul blaming Pakistan for their suffering. Those feelings are especially evident in urban and educated sections of Afghan society. There are very few who see Pakistan in a positive light. 

This was very clear during my interaction last week with young students at a private university in Kabul. Education is one area that has seen massive progress over the last one decade in this country, despite worsening political instability and the spreading insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in more than one dozen universities in the city — a marked transformation from the days of the retrogressive Afghan Taliban rule. 

Most students I interacted with in a seminar shared similar views about Pakistan being a villain that is responsible for many of Afghanistan’s problems. Among the audience, there were many who were either born in Pakistan or whose parents had lived there as refugees for decades. Many complained about Pakistan supporting the insurgents responsible for the death of thousands of Afghans. Distrust of Pakistan is palpable. It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.

It is hard to find anyone in the Afghan capital willing to speak in favour of Pakistan.

Ironically, there are many in the cabinet and several high-ranking officials in the Afghan government who spent a large part of their lives in Pakistan and benefited from its hospitality. The resentment is not restricted to any particular ethnic group — it is across the board. Even former Taliban officials who now live in Kabul have little empathy for the country which once patronised them. One is not sure, however, about public sentiments in other parts of the country. 

Of course, it is expedient for our civilian and military leadership to dismiss these growing anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan as merely inspired by ‘enemy forces’. This state of denial is, however, not helpful in improving our image. Surely, one cannot deny that there has been a concerted campaign to slander Pakistan and make it a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in the war-torn country across the border. Yet one must not gloss over our flawed policies and attitude that are stoking public scepticism inside Afghanistan. 

One of the major reasons for Pakistan’s growing isolation is that our entire Afghan policy is built around a skewed security paradigm while diplomacy has taken a back seat. Understandably, four decades of conflict in the region and Pakistan’s position as a front-line state has enhanced the role of the security agencies. But the formulation and implementation of policy should not be left entirely to the security establishment. 

In fact, there is a great need for diplomacy to take charge in times of conflict. Our foreign policy has suffered hugely because of its direction being determined solely by a national security paradigm that must be corrected in light of the fast-changing geopolitics of the region. Indeed, past baggage and Afghanistan being turned into a centre of a new Great Game does not make it easy for our policymakers to tread the tricky path. 

But sticking to the old ways may not help deal with the challenges. Irrespective of whichever government is in power in Kabul we need to work with it and to respect its sovereignty. Our obsession with a ‘friendly’ Pakhtun-dominated government in the past has hugely contributed to public resentment against Pakistan. 

One understands the concerns of our security establishment regarding India’s growing presence in Afghanistan, but the issue must not be exaggerated so that it clouds our entire decision-making process. What irritates the Afghans most is our insistence on curtailing India’s role in their country. Its very mention is seen as meddling in their internal matters. 

Indeed, Pakistani militant groups having been granted sanctuaries across the border and the alleged Indian connection with these terrorist networks has become a major source of tension between Islamabad and Kabul. But there are also allegations of Afghan insurgent groups operating from inside Pakistani territory. 

The question regarding Pakistan’s alleged support for the Taliban insurgents is not only regularly raised at official meetings but also questioned by the public. The rise of Taliban insurgents is seen by the younger generation as the most serious threat to the gains made in the field of education. The number of female students reportedly surpasses that of males in most universities and they want this trend to be protected. 

It is not only important to improve relations with the Kabul government, but also to bridge the widening gap with the Afghan people. We have failed to take advantage of our geographical and cultural proximity to win public goodwill and strengthen our economic and trade ties in order to neutralise the antagonists. It is not just geopolitics but also geo-economics that should be driving our Afghan policy. 

The recent measures taken by Pakistani authorities to send back Afghan refugees and put restrictions on cross-border travel have added to the indignation. Many complain about long queues for visa and difficulties in travelling to Peshawar for medical treatment. 

Now many of them are flying to India that is providing a subsidised air travel facility for those requiring medical help. Unnecessary travel restrictions under the pretext of border management have further alienated the Afghans. The move has also affected trade, with Pakistani exporters suffering greater losses. 

Although Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner, the situation may change soon with Iran and Central Asia making significant inroads into the Afghan markets. The move to close down the border for over a month early this year has dealt an irreversible blow to our exports to Afghanistan that had reached between $2 billion and $5bn in 2014. 

Such short-sighted and reactive actions have hugely affected our interests in Afghanistan. Hence it is not surprising to see how young Afghans feel about us. 

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2017

The Saudi factor

 January 03, 2018
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.


THE sudden dash by the Sharif brothers to Saudi Arabia and their reported audience with the crown prince gives a new twist to the ongoing political soap opera. It was certainly not a routine official visit; it is then unsurprising that it has generated intense speculation. Whatever transpired at the meeting is likely to have an extremely significant impact on the Sharif family’s future political course. 

It will be particularly interesting to see whether Nawaz Sharif continues with his politics of confrontation or takes a moderate path following his visit to the holy land. There may not be any NRO in the offing that is being widely speculated. Yet the possibility of some kind of deal being negotiated cannot be ruled out. There is strong speculation regarding Saudi pressure on Nawaz Sharif to step aside and hand over the party leadership to his younger brother thus ensuring the unity of the ruling party. 

One is, however, not sure about the disgraced former prime minister’s accepting any enforced abdication of his leadership role while facing trial on corruption charges. It will certainly not be easy for him to back down after throwing down the gauntlet and promising to take the fight to the end. It is hard to envisage him quietly fading away from the political scene. But a hard-line position may have serious consequences for his party and his family’s dynastic politics. 

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif.

It was neither a courtesy call, nor were the brothers invited to the kingdom to discuss regional security issues. The very fact that the two leaders were summoned gives credence to reports about Saudi concerns over growing political instability in Pakistan, one of the kingdom’s most critical allies in the region. It sounds plausible that the meeting was solely linked to the prevailing crisis in Pakistan emanating from the judicial ouster of Nawaz Sharif and his politics of confrontation. 

While the Saudi involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics is not new, there is no precedence for political leaders being summoned to the kingdom for negotiations on a purely internal political matter in this way. It has surely more to do with the abrasive manner of the young Saudi crown prince who is now effectively the ruler of the kingdom. The sequence of events too has added to the curiosity over the matter. 

Interestingly, the Saudi government sent a special plane to fly Shahbaz Sharif to Riyadh where he reportedly held a series of meetings with senior Saudi officials before the arrival of his elder brother. Strangely, Nawaz Sharif was not given the same protocol, and, reportedly, had to wait for an audience with the crown prince. The plot thickens given the conflicting statements from the party leaders. 

It appears that the Saudi rulers have put their weight behind Shahbaz Sharif. But one is not sure that the Saudi involvement even at the highest level could tilt the balance in Pakistani politics. Of course, such a proposition may have the support of some senior PML-N leaders as well as the security establishment. But the situation is much more complicated. 

Despite his disqualification and being charged on various counts of financial misdeeds, Nawaz Sharif remains perhaps the most formidable political force in the country. Any deal to keep him completely out of the political scene may not be that easy. Surely, one must not underestimate the Saudi factor in Pakistani politics, particularly the kingdom’s influence over the Sharif family. But it cannot enforce any deal.

Indeed, the Sharif family owed much to the Saudis for getting them out from Gen Musharraf’s prison and hosting them during their exile. But that close relationship came under strain after the Sharif government declined the Saudi request to send Pakistani troops to Yemen. The change of leadership in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah and the rise to power of Salman bin Abdul Aziz and his son Mohammad bin Salman had also affected that close relationship. 

That cooling of relations was reflected in the reported refusal of the Saudi government to come to the rescue of the Sharif family during the JIT probe into the money trail leading to the Sharifs’ London properties. The funds from the sale of a steel mill set up by the family during their exile in Saudi Arabia were supposed to be one of the sources of financing for their foreign properties. But the Saudi authorities could not endorse the record of the sale. 

It is also evident that the monarchy has traditionally maintained a much closer relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. All the military rulers had very close ties with the kingdom. Retired Gen Musharraf has publicly acknowledged receiving millions of dollars from King Abdullah, after he stepped down from power, to buy his properties in London and Dubai. 

Despite the strained relationship between the two countries in the past year, the Saudi government’s ties with the Pakistani military have not weakened. The appointment of retired Gen Raheel Sharif as head of the so-called Islamic alliance force is an example of the close bond. Some reports suggest that the main purpose of summoning the Sharif brothers was to persuade them to adopt a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. It is obvious that the PML-N under Shahbaz Sharif is still the best bet for Riyadh. 

Such deep involvement of a foreign country, however close, in our domestic politics is cause for serious concern. Unfortunately, it has become an acceptable phenomenon in this country to allow outsiders to mediate in our internal political disputes. 

It is not just Saudi Arabia but other foreign nations too that have been using their clout over different political parties to influence politics in this country. Such foreign involvement adversely affects the democratic process. Any political deal brokered by the Saudis must be rejected. Instead of looking towards Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs should decide about their political future themselves. 

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2018

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