While this article the last in the series will deal with the post 9/11 relationship in the US Pak relationship, it would appear appropriate to bring readers up to date on the developments with regard to what I had identified in my first article as the immediate causes of tensions between the two countries in the recent past. Following the offering of what was accepted as an apology by Secretary Clinton on 3rd July for the Salala tragedy (the key phrase from Pakistan’s perspective in the Clinton statement was “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”) the transit routes through Pakistan for NATO supplies going into Afghanistan have been opened.
While there will be no transit fee charged there are indications even though this has not been mentioned in the public statements that the USA has undertaken to provide the funding for the repair and upgrading of the road network that has been damaged by the NATO tankers and container laden trucks. Reports also indicate that the entire claim that Pakistan has made for reimbursements of expenses incurred in the deployment of troops for the war on terror will be reimbursed from CSF by the end of the year and a substantial part will be released within the next few weeks. This will be a welcome relief to Pakistan’s beleaguered financial managers, who have been unable to curb inflation or to reduce budgetary deficits, and will enable them to make a bid for further IMF assistance to bring the dormant economy back to life.
There have also been some talks between US military commander visiting Pakistan and the military leadership in Pakistan which if press reports are to be believed may have advanced somewhat the prospects for addressing Pakistan’s concerns about attacks that the TTP has launched from Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces on Pakistani territory and US concerns about attacks launched on NATO and Afghan forces from Pakistan’s North Waziristan.
It has apparently been agreed also that the “core” group of countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States – for promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan will meet at ministerial level in Tokyo on the sidelines of the Tokyo Donor Conference at which all participating countries are expected to announce the economic aid they would be offering to Afghanistan for the next decade.
It is important in this context to see where the efforts at reconciliation stand because as I will argue later in this article differing perceptions on this issue more than anything else sowed the seeds of discord between Pakistan and the USA even when both had the convergent and common interest of working for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and for the elimination of extremism and terrorism from the region.
Clinton in her 3rd July statement mentioned that “Foreign Minister Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan’s security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation” and emphasised that “Our countries should have a relationship that is enduring, strategic, and carefully defined, and that enhances the security and prosperity of both our nations and the region”. More recently during the surprise visit to Kabul where she announced that Afghanistan would henceforth be a Major Non-NATO ally Clinton also referred to Pakistan saying “We will continue, of course, to protect Afghanistan from any efforts by insurgents and outsiders to destabilize Afghanistan. And we were struck by the recent call from Pakistan’s parliament that Pakistani territory shall not be used for any kind of attacks on other countries. And all foreign fighters, if found, shall be expelled from Pakistani soil. So we want to deepen our security cooperation with Pakistan.”
In the meanwhile, much has been made of the presence in a conference on Afghan reconciliation in Kyoto’s Doshisha University, of Qari Din Mohammed Hanif, an ethnic Tajik who was a minister during the Taliban rule. The Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told reporters that Qari Hanif took part in the conference “to explain the policies of the Islamic Emirate,” Whether or not he had any private discussions with Mr. Masoom Stanekzai the representative of the Afghan High Peace Council charged with the task of advancing the reconciliation process is not known. The conference organisers merely said that no concrete agreements had been reached in the Conference.
Earlier another conference in Paris of Afghans in which some former Taliban leaders were present attracted less attention but this too was important because of the nature of the discussions. These focused on what changes would need to be made in the constitution and the election laws and what powers needed to be devolved from the centre to the local authorities.
Separately, the new head of the High Peace Council, Salahuddin Rabbani the son of the assassinated ex-President Rabbani in an interview on 27th June, called upon Pakistan to help the reconciliation process maintaining that "Pakistan can do a lot in bringing (the Taliban leadership) to the negotiating table," They have influence," "Pakistan is the key to the whole process." Specifically he requested that “Pakistan should free Taliban prisoners such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar”, a co-founder of the movement who is described as No. 2 to its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar. "By releasing them or giving them to Afghan custody, that would help the process," He suggested that he would redouble previous Afghan pleas to release Baradar and other Taliban who have supported peace talks with Kabul when he visited Pakistan.
Speaking about reconciliation efforts and Pakistan’s part in promoting the process Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, said his government had allowed some Taliban to travel to the Gulf for that purpose. As was to be expected, the Taliban responded by posting a statement on a Taliban website, emphasising that the militant group made “decisions of its own likings in all matters and affairs in light of Islamic principles and national interests”. And that “We would like to once again categorically state that the representatives of Islamic Emirate did not go to Qatar with the permission of Pakistan, “The Islamic Emirate is completely free and independent in all of its affairs.” Striking a note of independence from Pakistan has been the hallmark of the Taliban and indicates the difficulty that Pakistan faces in seeking to positively influence the process
On the American front, report indicate that the proposal for the exchange of 5 Taliban prisoners, who would be placed under the protective custody of the Qatar authorities, for the release of an American soldier that the Taliban were holding was the starting point for the Taliban-America talks in Qatar but this foundered because of Congressional opposition. The Taliban then suspended the talks. Now reports indicate that another proposal is being considered. Under the new proposal Guantanamo prisoners would go to a detention facility adjacent to Bagram air field, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has implicitly confirmed that such proposals are being considered saying that “There are no specific commitments that have been made with regard to prisoner exchanges at this point," and "One thing I will assure you is that any prisoner exchanges that I have to certify are going to abide by the law and require that those individuals do not return back into the battle." The Afghans are more optimistic and say that their proposal to the Americans is that this proposal for the release of 17 prisoners should include the prominent five that were first talked about and that Afghanistan would be able to guarantee that these returnees did not appear on the battlefield. There are as yet no indications that this proposal is moving forward.
To my mind much of the ferment on reconciliation is associated with the decision of the United States to change its position from demanding that the Taliban “renounce al-Qaeda, respect the Afghan constitution and cease insurgent operations targeting Afghan government officials and security forces” as a precondition for reconciliation talks to the famous Clinton announcement that these would be the “desired outcomes” of talks with the Taliban. This change was heralded in her speech at the Asia Society on Feb-14 where in the words of one commentator Clinton clearly stated, “that they were the desired end point of negotiations, not the price of entry”.
There are many naysayers both in the Taliban camp and in the United States. The assassinations of the head of the High Peace Council, the respected President Burhanuddin Rabbani and of another respected member of the High Peace Council Abdul Rahman Arsalan were attributed to Taliban opposed to reconciliation. In the American camp there are those who oppose the release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo and perhaps continue to believe that reconciliation must only be attempted when the Taliban have been militarily weakened to the point where reconciliation terms can be dictated. There are many in Afghanistan particularly among the loyal opposition who fear that such reconciliation may endanger the power and influence they enjoy in the present setup. Most importantly perhaps there are the spoilers, the warlords, the drug mafia heads and the influence peddlers that would not wish to see reconciliation and the return of a modicum of peace to Afghanistan because it would jeopardise the many profitable operations they are now running.
Differences between Pakistan and the USA on the position of the Pushtuns in a post Taliban Afghanistan are the main sources of discord. Pakistan’s position was often said to be determined by its desire to be the kingmaker in Afghanistan and this more than any other consideration drove Pakistan’s policy. This may well have been so in the minds of western observers but perhaps a more realistic view would be to recognise that absent a fair share of power for the Pushtuns in any power structure in Kabul there would be turbulence in Pakistan’s Pushtun areas. History had shown that regime change was brought about in Afghanistan by tribal Lashkars from Pakistan’s tribal areas. History showed that resistance to a foreign presence in Afghanistan received sustenance from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan argued long and hard that the Pushtuns must have a fair share in the division of power in a multi ethnic Afghanistan in which the Pushtuns were a majority.
And that was an element that the Americans appeared willing to overlook. In my view the “original sin” was the absence of representative Pushtuns from the first Bonn conference. The Pakistan representative’s pleas for greater Pushtun representation were brusquely set aside. Instead much was made of the cooperation Iran offered in persuading the Northern Alliance to accept a figurehead Pushtun President while retaining all the levers of power. This started the process of Pushtun alienation.
The American policy of focusing exclusively on the elimination of the Al-Qaeda led them to resurrect the warlords of all stripes including the Pushtuns whose depredations had initially led the Afghans to accept the rise of the Taliban. An Afghan minister told me that in early 2002, the Americans dismissed out of hand offers by many Taliban who wanted to return to Afghanistan peacefully and only sought an amnesty. The Americans kept the ISAF forces confined to Kabul and did little or nothing to help repair the damage done by years of conflict. They then diverted attention and resources to Iraq, triggering a revulsion that engulfed all the Muslim countries including Afghanistan and spawned new connections between the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was little wonder then that the Taliban, a spent and discredited force in 2001, gradually became the force that represented Pushtun nationalism. Their record of ensuring security and providing rough and ready but quick justice rather than their policies of repression became what the Pushtuns, particularly in the South and East, remembered of their reign in Afghanistan.
The inevitable then happened. Perceived denial of rights to the Pushtuns as much as the foreign occupation triggered turbulence in Pakistan’s Pushtun areas- areas that more than others in Pakistan had been affected by the Islamisation policies of Ziaul Haque and by the use of these areas as staging points for the Jihad against the Soviets. It is true that Pakistan’s interest demanded that such unrest be quelled in its own interest but it proved unable to do so and so came the period when “sanctuaries” in Pakistan rather than the misdoings both of the Afghan administration and of the occupation forces began to be held responsible for the growth of the insurgency in Afghanistan and the disillusionment of the ordinary Afghan.
Now Pakistan has said that it does not want the Taliban to return to Afghanistan as the dominant power as this would make more difficult the battle Pakistan is waging against the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan.
Mullah Omar has said in his Eid message that the Taliban recognise that there are other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and implied that he is prepared for power sharing. He it seems to me would be prepared were he convinced of American sincerity to publicly renounce ties with the Al-Qaeda with whom during the last days of his regime he was clearly disillusioned.
What Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USA now need is an agreement on the fact that reconciliation is the way forward and to agree – this is the difficult part – on how it is to be pursued. Given the restoration of some level of trust and a clearer understanding of the Taliban leadership and its motivations this is not impossible but it will take time.