Thursday, October 06, 2011

Afghanistan: Afghans Sceptical of Pakistan's Will to Curb Insurgents

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Afghans Sceptical of Pakistan's Will to Curb Insurgents

American army commander’s claim that Pakistani intelligence sponsors attacks in Afghanistan will not lead to policy changes, analysts say.

Following public allegations by a top United States commander that Pakistani intelligence is backing a feared insurgent group, some Afghan analysts say they doubt Washington has the will to sustain the pressure on Islamabad to curb extremism.

The diplomatic storm broke out on September 22, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing that the armed group founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency”.

Mullen said there was evidence that the insurgent group, “with ISI support”, mounted a September 13 attack on the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul on that lasted several hours and left some 24 dead, as well as a truck bomb attack two days earlier which killed four Afghans and injured 77 American soldiers in Wardak province. He also said the Haqqani group was believed to be behind an assault on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel in late June and a number of other operations.

Allegations that sections of the Pakistani administration, especially the ISI, have covertly backed the Afghan Taleban or at least tolerated their presence in the country, have circulated for many years. But Mullen’s statement was much more explosive, since he accused the ISI of sponsoring devastating attacks specifically targeting US forces as well as their Afghan allies.

Pakistani officials expressed outrage at the suggestion.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani said the government was shocked at the US commander’s allegations and totally rejected them. The charges “negate our sacrifices and successes in the ongoing war against terror", he said.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Al-Jazeera television the allegations were “unsubstantiated – no evidence has been shared with us”.

On the impact this would have on Pakistani-US relations, she said, “Looking for scapegoats – blame games – will not help.”

Without spelling out the ISI’s relationship with the Haqqani group, the foreign minister pointed out that in the past, the organisation had been “the blue-eyed boy of the CIA itself for many years; I mean it was created by the CIA, it could be said.”

Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani was commander of a mujehidin force regarded as particularly effective during the western-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s, and went on to ally himself with both the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

The force has played an important role in the insurgency since 2001, allied with but distinct from the Taleban. Haqqani seems to have taken a back seat and handed over command to his son Sirajuddin.

The group operates out of North Waziristan in northwest Pakistan, just over the border from Paktia, Khosta and Paktika, the Afghan provinces where the elder Haqqani has strong tribal connections and operated in the 1980s.

The “Haqqani network”, as the group is now known, has gained notoriety for its ability to mount complicated, daring and devastating attacks in urban areas, such as the incidents in Kabul mentioned by Admiral Mullen.

It has also been blamed for the recent assassination of Burhannudin Rabbani, the former Afghan president tasked with negotiating with the insurgents, although Sirajuddin Haqqani has denied this in a BBC interview.

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly suggested that Pakistan rather than Afghanistan is now the prime source of terrorism, and the international focus should switch there.

Afghan analysts interviewed by IWPR felt Mullen’s comments vindicated their long-held suspicions of Pakistan’s true intentions.

Abdol Wahed Taqat, a former general and now a political and defence analyst, believes there is now a deep schism between the US and Pakistan, and the latter country may be on the brink of meltdown.

"Fundamentalism has got out of control in Pakistan. And that situation does not favour the Americans," he said.

But many question whether Washington will sustain the pressure on Islamabad to break off ties with insurgent groups, as they suspect the bigger strategic relationship is too important to be put at risk.

Another political commentator, Ajmal Sohail, says tensions of this kind are a recurrent feature of US-Pakistani relations, but they are always overcome as both countries need each other so much. As an example, he cited the recent row over the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, which the Americans did not warn Islamabad about in advance.

“The relationship between the US and Pakistan is like that between husband and wife – they frequently fight, but then they reconcile," he said. "These conflicts are sporadic and temporary."

Jamshid, a student at Kabul University, argued that Islamabad had the upper hand in the relationship.

“In fact, Pakistan has blackmailed America. The US friendship with Pakistan is based on what America needs from Pakistan. And Pakistan understands this very well, so the US cannot say anything to it.”

Others pointed to ways in which Islamabad could exert indirect pressure on Washington. A recent flurry of diplomatic visits to or from Russia, China and Iran – none of them close friends of the US – was intended to show that ultimately, Pakistan had other foreign policy options.

Jamshid predicted that Washington would back down in the row over Admiral Mullen’s remarks.

“I am sure the US will once again apologise, the terror networks in Pakistan will remain untouched, America will pay Pakistan another billion dollars for the privilege, and the war pursued by Pakistan will continue in Afghanistan,” he said.

There are some signs that Washington is indeed taking a gentler line with Islamabad. While White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Haqqani group’s safe haven in Pakistan and links to the security forces there were “troubling”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised the security cooperation and common interests of the two countries

“While it's not always easy, the United States and Pakistan have vital strategic interests that converge in the fight against terrorism, and Pakistan faces a very real threat," she said. "They have suffered far more casualities, civilian and military alike."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quoted an anonymous Pentagon official as saying Mullen had overstated the ISI-Haqqani connection.

Despite several efforts to contact US embassy officials, IWPR’s Afghan reporters were unable to get a comment on these issues.

In Afghanistan, one of the side-effects of US-Pakistani diplomacy is to strengthen the widely-held perception that the Afghan conflict is not only engineered by Pakistan, but is deliberately tolerated by Washington for the sake of bigger interests in the region.

“Afghans will no longer be deceived by the cat-and- mouse games played by America and Pakistan. Both of them are enemies of the Afghans,” Kabul shopkeeper Abdul Shokur said. “Israel and Pakistan are America’s pampered children. No matter what those pampered children want, America will accept it.

“The Americans are prepared to lose Afghanistan but they will never lose Pakistan. If America exerted real pressure on Pakistan, I am sure the war in Afghanistan would end within two days.”

Khan Mohammad Danishju and Mina Habib are IWPR-trained reporters in Kabul.