It’s clear for some time now that India and Pakistan are on the cusp of the kind of open trade relationship they had until the 1965 war when all business links were snapped, border trading posts shut and overland Indian access to Afghanistan blocked. It was never to be the same again, despite fitful progress over the years.
On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has invested a great deal of personal credibility in a rapprochement with Pakistan, inaugurates a $4 billion refinery in the northern state of Punjab , not far from the border with Pakistan. While the bulk of the refinery, which is a joint venture between billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and an Indian state oil company will feed the hungry energy markets of India’s booming northern triangle, it stands to reason that some of the fuel sales will flow westwards, to Pakistan. The distance from Bhatinda where the 9 million tonne refinery is located to Pakistan’s heartland city of Lahore is about 100 miles. If you don’t sell it to the market next door where else would you begin from ? Pakistan’s refining capacity is half the domestic demand and last year it opened up diesel imports from India, although petrol and other petroleum products are still on a rapidly dwindling negative list.
Arrive in Kabul and you know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic on its crumbling roads. Whole streets are blocked off by concertina wire and sandbags, while a zig-zag series of blast walls are designed to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber. Indeed, the walls seem to get higher and more neighbourhoods disappear behind this concrete curtain each time you go back. And yet insurgents have repeatedly breached the layer-upon-layer of security, as happened in September when the vast U.S. embassy compound came under attack, and now on Sunday when the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic district was again targeted along with parliament.
The one feature common to the multiple attacks on Sunday and the daring September operation was that the attackers sneaked into half-finished or empty buildings, took positions half-way up the building and were able to hold off an armada of helicopters and Special Operations forces for up to 20 hours. Kabul has been in the midst of a construction boom that has slowed only recently as the Western pullout looms in 2014. The result is that you have a number of these high rise buildings in the centre of town which offer vantage views of the city – especially the sealed-off parts where the diplomatic and political elite live in virtual bunkers, and which an ordinary Afghan can hardly ever see, much less gain access to. From the reports so far, the attackers didn’t have to do much to get into these lightly guarded blocks, many of them just empty shells. Once in, it was easy to hide behind a concrete pillar on a sixth-floor landing and fire rocket propelled grenades at the western installations below while holding off the choppers. The question is why are these buildings left unguarded even after the U.S. embassy was attacked from another one in the vicinity last September. What about the measures that were set in place to monitor such high-rises?
The dusty streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, restaurants selling American fast food are bustling and there is a crowd of students and parents outside a girls’ school in the centre of town trying to slip through the shuttered gates at the start of the school year.
Returning to Kabul for the first time since December, there was no sense that the mood on the ground had changed significantly. But I couldn’t help wondering how all this might change once foreign troops who have propped up the Afghan state for more than a decade leave in 2014. There is talk of a return to chaos and civil war, although admittedly you hear more of those grim warnings abroad and in the foreign circles of Kabul than from the people themselves who will be in the middle of it.
As in any conflict, the prisoners that the players in Afghanistan hold are a key part of their political and military strategy as they head into 2014. For the United States, the more Taliban fighters or even potential Taliban are kept off the battlefield, the better it is. For years it has been running a regime of administrative detentions under which it can hold not only suspected combatants but even people it thinks could be a potential threat for an indefinite period.
For the Taliban, getting its commanders out has been a top priority and indeed its officials say securing the release of some of them held in Guantanamo is the starting point of the talks that it has had with the United States for more than a year now. A former frontline commander and cousin of the Taliban’s main negotiator in the talks with the United States told me in an interview that the Taliban would resume the negotiations only when the United States carried out its promise to release five senior Taliban figures held in the U.S. military prison in Cuba. A prison committee is ready with the names of more comrades that it wants freed.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan named a three star general to take over Bagram prison from the U.S. military and with him, final say over which prisoners are released, an issue with the potential to open another rift in relations between Washington and Kabul.
The issue of the release of any of the 3,200 people held in the prison at the sprawling American base, north of Kabul, is sensitive to both countries as Afghanistan assumes full security responsibilities ahead of departure of most NATO combat forces in 2014.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan wants the United States to clearly spell out what sort of military presence it will leave behind once most of its combat troops leave by the end of 2014, a senior Afghan official said.
It is also pressing Washington in talks over future cooperation to detail to be more forthcoming on what will be on offer for Afghan forces as they ready to take over responsibility security in the country that is still at war.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan strongly rejected reports that some soldiers working at the defense ministry were involved in a bomb plot, saying no arrests had been made nor were any vests used for suicide bomb attacks found on the premises.
On Wednesday there was no sign of a hard clamp down on personnel movements at the sprawling ministry with soldiers checking scores of visitors as usual. However, the fast spread of reports of a cache of suicide vests found at the defense ministry on Tuesday illustrates the tense atmosphere in Kabul following a spike in attacks on foreign soldiers by rogue Afghan security forces.
KABUL (Reuters) – Want to know why the Afghan Taliban opened talks with the United States even though they have fought the world’s most advanced military to a virtual stalemate or prospects for girls’ schools if they regain power? Go online and post your question.
The Taliban have opened an online forum on their website, called “Your questions and Zabihullah Mujahid’s answers” where readers are invited to leave queries for their spokesman to answer.
KABUL (Reuters) – Three foreign soldiers, including two Britons, were shot dead by Afghan security forces personnel on Monday in the latest round of insider killings which have raised deep concerns about the reliability of NATO’s local allies and their ability to keep the peace.
So-called insider attacks have mounted recently as tension between Afghanistan and its foreign backers rises over a series of incidents, including the burning of Korans at a NATO base and a massacre of 17 villagers for which a U.S. soldier has been charged.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban will eventually resume talks with the United States, a former commander said, but it will depend on how Washington repairs trust damaged by a string of incidents, notably the killing of 16 Afghans blamed on a U.S. soldier.
The Taliban have suspended the nascent dialogue, blaming the United States for failing to deliver on a promise to transfer five of its leaders held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay.