Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan: finding the devil in the detail

June 28, 2010

petraeus kayaniIn the increasingly frenetic debate about what to do about Afghanistan, Antonio Giustozzi has a must-read report on prospects for negotiating with the Taliban. In particular, he offers a rare window into Pakistan’s often opaque policy towards Afghanistan by providing the context within which Pakistan might be able to bring the Taliban into a political settlement .

Giustozzi presents a far more nuanced picture than the one commonly assumed, describing significant overlaps between various militant groups - the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP),  the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Muhammad Omar,  the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with only the latter seen as an independent entity.  (These overlaps are crucial to establishing whether Afghan insurgents could be weakened through a policy of “divide and rule” or whether any negotiations on a settlement would need to involve the Taliban movement, and its leadership, as a whole.) 

“The different networks that comprise the Taliban have somewhat different ideological leanings and allegiances, with some groups being more radical than others, or closer to the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services, or again closer to trans-national jihadist networks such as al Qaeda,” he says.  While the Haqqani network had close ties with the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, “this closeness is not appreciated by most other Taliban networks, who are either hostile to the Pakistani authorities … or at the very least are unwilling to be controlled by the Pakistanis.

“In turn, the Haqqani network in particular has been trying to contain the antagonistic attitude of some of the more radical Pakistani Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud (who was killed last year) and his successors toward the Pakistani armed forces; Mullah Omar himself has made efforts to rein them in, although not as proactively.”

But it would be wrong, Giustozzi argues, to assume these different ideological leanings suggested the Taliban movement was fragmented; rather among the different militant groups, only the Hizb-e-Islami could be described as organisationally distinguished. And while there had been some tension between the Haqqani group and Mullah Omar, there was no formal split. Nor indeed was there any evidence that an expansion of operations by the Haqqani group in Afghanistan had created tensions with fighters loyal to Mullah Omar. “This is clearly not the reaction one would expect if the Haqqani network was seen by the Taliban leadership in Quetta as a separate, competing organisation.”

The Haqqani network is believed to be based in North Waziristan, a stronghold of the TTP, or Pakistani Taliban. Unlike the TTP, blamed for a string of bomb attacks inside Pakistan, the Haqqani network has focused exclusively on fighting in Afghanistan.  Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military operation against militants in North Waziristan, saying it must first consolidate gains made elsewhere in its tribal areas. According to some media reports, including this one in Dawn newspaper, it has also offered to help broker a rapprochement between the Haqqani group and the government in Kabul.  The implication of Giustozzi’s assessment, however, would suggest the Haqqani group would follow Mullah Omar’s lead in any negotiations, or at the very least move in tandem.

Giustozzi also highlights the ambivalence towards Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban.  ”The Taliban relationship with Pakistan also is difficult to define with precision, despite being undeniable. The Pakistani army clearly sees the Taliban as a useful tool for its geopolitical ambitions in Afghanistan, but among the Taliban, the Pakistani patron is far from being popular. Apart from Haqqani and his network (always the closest to the Pakistanis), the other networks more tolerate Pakistani influence than appreciate it.”

Pakistan flexed its muscles earlier this year by arresting Taliban commander  Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar outside Karachi, signalling to other insurgent  leaders, including Mullah Omar, that they could not take for granted the safe haven that they had sought in Pakistani territory after the Taliban government in Kabul was toppled in 2001. This in turn raised expectations that Pakistan could force Mullah Omar to the negotiating table – provided its interests in Afghanistan were accommodated, notably in regards to Indian influence there.

Giustozzi however notes that the Afghan Taliban are also in a position to put pressure on Pakistan via the Pakistani Taliban if it pushes them too hard. “To some extent, the distinction between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban is arbitrary,” he writes, noting that different sub-groups and affiliations operated on both sides of the Durand Line – the poorly demarcated border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While the Haqqani network had been influential on the Pakistani side of the border for years, there was also evidence that the TTP acknowledged Mullah Omar as a leader and saw itself as an integral part of the Taliban movement.

“Mullah Omar, as the leader of the movement as a whole, avoids siding too closely with any particular network. So although Mullah Omar is against confronting the Pakistani armed forces … he has exercised pressure on fellow leaders only within certain limits.  He clearly does not want to alienate important components of the movement, and might even have seen some use in using the more radical wing … (the TTP) … to increase his leverage vis-a-vis the Pakistani security establishment.”

If you take Giustozzi’s analysis to be correct – and he has a long track record of studying the Taliban – Pakistan is therefore faced with a delicate balancing act of trying to nudge the Taliban into talks, ensuring there is no backlash on its own territory, fighting the Pakistani Taliban in its tribal areas and maintaining an alliance with the United States. At the same time it is seeking to secure its own interests in Afghanistan, while also maintaining – according to most analysts – a level of plausible deniability about its links with insurgents.

Giustozzi says that the Taliban are trying to coordinate any moves towards a settlement with other insurgent groups, particularly with the Hizb-e-Islami (whose representatives have already held exploratory talks with Kabul). “Pakistani army sources indicate that the Pakistani authorities also are putting pressure on the two groups to move toward negotiations in a coordinated way,” he writes.  Pakistani diplomats and intelligence services were also actively trying to bridge the gap between different Islamist fundamentalist groups, including not only the Taliban but also former members of the mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The ultimate aim, he says, would be for the Taliban to form a coalition government incorporating other like-minded Islamist groups. “This also seems to be the desire of the Pakistani army and the ISI.”  (an objective unlikely to go down well with the non-Pashtun elements of the former Northern Alliance).

There’s far more in the report, including explanations as to how the Taliban have recruited and expanded; and its likely demands in any negotiations – all of which are more directly relevant to Afghanistan than Pakistan.  Do read the whole thing  - the full report (pdf) is here.

(File photo: Pakistan army chief General Kayani with General Petraeus)


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