Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The Jihadica website has just posted an item about an apparent rift between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura led by Mullah Omar.
“Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders have been issuing some very mixed messages of late, and the online jihadi community is in an uproar, with some calling these developments ‘the beginning of the end of relations’ between the two movements,” it says.
“Beginning with a statement from Mullah Omar in September, the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership has been emphasizing the ‘nationalist’ character of their movement, and has sent several communications to Afghanistan’s neighbors expressing an intent to establish positive international relations. In what are increasingly being viewed by the forums as direct rejoinders to these sentiments, recent messages from al-Qa’ida have pointedly rejected the ‘national’ model of revolutionary Islamism and reiterated calls for jihad against Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and China.”
Reports of rifts between different militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have surfaced before, particularly between Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), over the latter’s insistence on targetting Pakistan. Mullah Omar, according to media reports earlier this year, wanted the TTP – which is believed to be close to al Qaeda – to focus instead on fighting western troops in Afghanistan.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have questioned before the value of the “AfPak” label, which implies that an incredibly complicated situation involving many different countries can be reduced to a five-letter word.
Having spent the last couple of days trying to make sense of the suicide bomb attack in Iran which Tehran blamed on Jundollah, an ethnic Baluchi, Sunni insurgent group it says has bases in Pakistan, I’m more inclined than ever to believe the “AfPak” label blinds us to the broader regional context. Analysts argue that Jundollah has been heavily influenced by hardline Sunni sectarian Islamist thinking within Pakistan which is itself the product of 30 years of proxy wars in the region dating back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan towards the end of the same year.
A week after suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents attacked the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, a suicide bomber killed six senior Revolutionary Guards commanders and 25 other people in Shi’ite Iran in one of the deadliest attacks in years on the country’s most powerful military institution.
Were these two events connected only by the loose network of Sunni insurgent groups based in and around Pakistan? Or are there other common threads that link the two?
Back in 2008, even before Barack Obama was elected, Washington pundits were urging him to adopt a new regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan involving Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. The basic argument was that more troops alone would not solve the problems, and that the new U.S administration needed to subsume other foreign policy goals to the interests of winning a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans to build a missile-shield in eastern Europe was motivated purely — or even primarily — by a need to seek Russian help in Afghanistan. But it certainly serves as a powerful reminder about how far that need to seek a “grand bargain” on Afghanistan may be reshaping and influencing policy decisions around the world.
When President Barack Obama unveiled his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, he promised to involve other countries with a stake in the region, including the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. But a major sticking point in enlisting regional support has been distrust over the United States’ long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Washington has never been able to shake off suspicions that it is using its battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda to establish a permanent military presence in the region.
In that context, Obama’s statement during his speech in Cairo that the United States is not seeking to set up permanent military bases in Afghanistan is rather interesting:
Pakistan is already under intense pressure from the United States and India to crack down on militant groups inside its borders. Now Iran has added its own pressure after 25 people were killed last week in the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Zahedan, in the southeast of the country towards the Pakistan border.
According to the Tehran Times, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran to protest about the bombing, which it blamed on militants on Pakistan’s side of the border.
Iran looks like it will come out swinging at a global conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opening in New York on Monday, and in the process take a swipe at Israel as well as India.
And that is a bit of a shift, for India and Iran have ties going back into history, but which have in recent years come under pressure and play in the tangled relationship between India and Pakistan.
Afghanistan sits on one of the largest mineral deposits in the region, the country’s mines minister told Reuters in an interview this month.
And the Chinese are already there, braving the Taliban upsurge and a slowing economy at home to invest in the vast Aynak copper field south of Kabul, reputed to hold one of the largest deposits of the metal in the world.
Keeping track of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan — and the shifting alliances between them — is beginning to feel awfully like one of those school history lessons when you were supposed to understand the complex and tenuous balance of power whose breakdown led to World War One.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the latest to call for a regional solution to Afghanistan when he said this week that the United States and its NATO allies must directly engage with Iran if they are to win the war there. “If we are going to succeed in this game, we need to be playing on the right field,” he said. “And that means a more regional approach. To my mind we need a discussion that brings in all the relevant regional players: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, yes, Iran.”
While the firepower and consequently all the media attention has been focused on Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province, violence in Baluchistan province to the south has worsened.
The year gone by was the bloodiest in a decade for Baluchistan, the country’s largest but most impoverished province where a low key insurgency has raged for decades, the Daily Times said. Official data showed a steadily rising level of violence, up from 303 people killed in 2005 to 433 in 2008, the first time killings crossed the 400-mark.
There were 120 bomb blasts, 208 rocket attacks, 141 landmine blasts and 32 hand grenade attacks in the past year, and it could have been worse if the three main Baluch nationalist insurgent groups operating in the area – the BLA, the Baloch Republic Army and Baloch Liberation Front – had not declared ceasefire, the newspaper said. One of them, the BRA, has announced the end of the ceasefire from the New Year accusing the government of of kiling tribesmen.The other two groups may well follow suit, the Daily Times said, warning of a difficult year ahead in the vast sparsely populated desert region that straddles Afghanistan and Iran.