Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The idea of holding talks to resolve the many competing interests across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – which has most recently focused on whether the Afghan Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table – appears to be catching on.
Now Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the banned Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the Nov. 2008 attacks on Mumbai, says in an interview with Al Jazeera that he sees room for Pakistan to hold talks with India over disputed Kashmir.
“”We’ve never said ‘no’ to a dialogue. To say that we don’t believe in dialogue is propaganda,” he said in a rare interview. “We’ve always talked about a dialogue but the problem is it should be productive and obtain results. India has never been sincere in talks and only holds talks when it is in her interests. If she wants to restore confidence in the talks, she must accept Kashmir as a core dispute.”
Saeed, who runs the Jamaat-ud-Dawa humanitarian wing of the Laskhar-e-Taiba, has been accused by India of masterminding the attacks on Mumbai — an accusation he denies. He is also seen as close to the Pakistan Army, so for him to come out now and talk about talks carries some resonance.
The arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi leaves big unanswered questions about why Pakistan chose to act now against a man credited with giving operational coherence to Afghan Taliban (or Quetta Shura Taliban) operations in Afghanistan.
The answers to those questions depend very much on the assumptions you start out with about what Pakistan is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. But for the sake of of argument, let’s take three of them — that it is pushing the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda and enter negotiations on a political settlement; that it wants a stable Afghanistan, and that it is aiming to keep it free of Indian and Iranian influence.
Perhaps the most striking thing about a speech given by former president Pervez Musharraf in London on Monday was how many people turned out to hear him. There were two overflow rooms for those who wanted to hear his words relayed over closed-circuit television. I can’t think of many former rulers who can pack a crowd like that — although this was also a measure of the intense interest in London in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Musharraf now lives in comparative obscurity in the Edgware Road area of London — a street full of Middle Eastern restaurants where waiters look at you strangely if you try to order beer, and where men sit outside on the pavement smoking shishas even in the middle of winter. Yet he still talks as articulately as he used to with no hint of the self-pity, or criticism, of Pakistan’s existing rulers. He still cracks a joke with confidence, and at the end raises his hand in a military salute to a clapping audience ( a rather more polite response than he might receive if he returned home).
This weekend’s bombing which killed nine people in the Indian city of Pune — the first major attack since the 2008 assault on Mumbai — is unlikely to derail plans for the foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan to hold talks on Feb. 25.
The Hindu newspaper — which is well-informed about the thinking in the prime minister’s office where India’s policy towards Pakistan is decided — says there will be no rethinking about the planned talks.
In “My Life with the Taliban”, Abdul Salam Zaeef — who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later served in the Taliban government before it was ousted in 2001 — writes of how he longed to escape the trappings of office and instead follow in the footsteps of his father as the Imam of a mosque, learning and teaching the Koran.
“It is work that has no connection with the world’s affairs. It is a calling of intellectual dignity away from the dangers and temptations of power. All my life, even as a boy, I was always happiest when studying and learning things. To work in government positions means a life surrounded by corruption and injustice, and therein is found the misery of mankind,” he writes in his memoirs, newly translated and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.
There is a time and a place for everything and back in the days of the Obama election campaign the idea that progress on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan could help turn around the flagging military campaign in Afghanistan looked plausible. The argument, much touted by Washington think-tankers, was that Pakistan would not turn against Afghan Taliban militants on its western border as long as it believed it might need to use them to counter India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, and as long as it felt the need to keep the bulk of its army on its eastern border with India.
Even in the middle of last year, when Pakistan and India made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revive peace talks which had been frozen since the attack on Mumbai at the end of 2008, the possibility of a “grand bargain” from Kashmir to Kabul still carried some resonance.
At last week’s London conference, two of the great truisms of warfare punched their way to the surface. The first is that wars are fought as much on the home front as on the battlefield. With public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing away, the United States and its allies in NATO have shifted from seeking outright victory to looking for an exit strategy that will allow them to start bringing home their troops next year. Rather as the British did after their two failed invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century, they are sending in reinforcements in a display of military might which they hope will secure better terms in an eventual settlement.
The other truism is that if you can’t win outright victory on the battlefield, then you have to negotiate with your enemies. President Hamid Karzai set the ball rolling by announcing he would hold a peace council to which, according to an Afghan government spokesman, the Taliban leadership would be invited. Karzai has made such suggestions before, and it is by no means clear the Taliban leadership will send representatives. What was different this time, however, was the context. Karzai’s suggestion no longer met with the same resistance from war-weary governments, who stressed that it was up to the Afghans themselves to lead the process of reconciliation. He also coupled his call for a peace council with an appeal to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia is a trusted interlocutor between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership; Pakistan is the only country which still has some measure of leverage over them. Thus Karzai’s call for a loya jirga, though not dramatic in itself, became emblematic of a broader shift towards seeking a political settlement to end the war.
Vahid Brown at the CTC Sentinel has a new article (pdf document) out arguing that the relationship between Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden before 9/11 was considerably more fractious than it was made out to be. The main source of argument was between the Taliban’s Afghan nationalist agenda and bin Laden’s view of global jihad, and in particular his determination to attack the United States, he says.
Based on an account by an insider, he challenges the assumption that bin Laden personally swore an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. The account by Egyptian jihadist Mustafa Hamid, better known as Abul-Walid al-Masri, was first published in jihadist forums in 2007 but gained little attention outside specialist websites.
Kamran Shafi has a column up at Dawn mocking Pakistan’s old strategy of seeking “strategic depth” - the idea that in the event of war with India its military would be able to operate from Afghanistan to offset its disadvantage as a small country compared to its much bigger neighbour:
“Let us presume that the Indians are foolish enough to get distracted from educating their people, some of whom go to some of the best centres of learning in the world. Let us assume that they are idiotic enough to opt for war instead of industrialising themselves and meeting their economic growth targets which are among the highest in the world. Let us imagine that they are cretinous enough to go to war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and effectively put an immediate and complete end to their multi-million dollar tourism industry. Let us suppose that they lose all sense, all reason, and actually attack Pakistan and cut our country into half.
The Real News had an interview last week with former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who talks about how U.S. policy is playing out across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. The second part of the interview covers his support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, but here is what he has to say about Pakistan and the regional dynamics:
“We are in Afghanistan because we have been there for 8 years, now getting out is easy to say, but by now if we get out, quickly, the question arises, what follows? Is there going to be again a very sort of militant regime in Afghanistan which might tolerate al Qaeda’s presence and beyond that is now a new issue, namely the conflict in Afghanistan has come to be connected with the conflict in Pakistan. Pakistan is an important country of 170 million people which has nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons, and delivery systems, delivery systems to the entire region around so we have to think much more responsibly on how to deal with this problem … ”