Taliban v. Taliban
Pakistan and India have been at war since 1948. There have been occasional flare-ups, pitched battles between the two armies, but mostly the war has taken the form of a guerrilla battle between the Indian army and Pakistani surrogates in Kashmir. In 2004 the two countries began a cautious peace process, but rather than ending, the war has since migrated to Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas on the Afghan border. ‘Safe havens’ for a reinvigorated Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, the tribal areas are seen by the West as the ‘greatest threat’ to its security, as well as being the main cause of Western frustration with Pakistan. The reason is simple: the Pakistan army’s counterinsurgency strategy is not principally directed at the Taliban or even al-Qaida: the main enemy is India.
In the Bajaur tribal area, for example, the army is fighting an insurgency led by Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of one of Pakistan’s three Taliban factions, but it’s not because he is a friend of al-Qaida. What makes him a threat, in the eyes of Pakistan’s army, is that he is believed to be responsible for scores of suicide attacks inside Pakistan (including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto). He is also thought to have recruited hundreds of Afghan fighters, among them ‘agents’ from the Afghan and Indian intelligence services – ‘Pakistan’s enemies’, in the words of a senior officer.
An enemy in Bajaur, the Taliban is a friend of Pakistan in North and South Waziristan. Like Mehsud, the guerrilla commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who directs the Afghan Taliban’s ‘central front’ from bases in Pashtun villages in Pakistan, has ties to al-Qaida. Unlike Mehsud, he’s not attacking Pakistan, and his fight against the US and Nato enjoys the support of the army and of broad sections of the Pakistani public. The same courtesy has been extended to Mullah Omar, whose headquarters are in Quetta, where he’s reportedly sheltered by the ISI. ‘They are our people; they’re not our enemies,’ one ISI officer says. So what does it mean to be ‘anti-Pakistan’? The short answer is pro-India, in practice if not intent. Insurgents in the tribal areas are deemed anti-Pakistani if their actions advance the perceived goals of India in Afghanistan. They are pro-Pakistani as long as they don’t attack the Pakistani state or army, even if they launch attacks against Nato forces in Afghanistan, Islamabad’s supposed allies in the ‘war on terror’. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban is considered an ‘asset’, a hedge against the day when the US and Nato leave, but also a counter to India’s expanding influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been worried by India’s increasing interest in Afghanistan since the Bonn conference in November 2001 at which Afghan factional leaders and UN officials met to discuss the formation of a post-Taliban government. At that conference it became clear that the pro-Pakistani Afghan Taliban would be purged from the new Afghanistan under Karzai and replaced by forces dominated by commanders from the Northern Alliance (NA), which had opposed the Taliban regime before 9/11 and fought with US troops to overthrow it. India, Iran and Russia were the NA’s main supporters while Islamabad was backing the Taliban. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban was invited to Bonn – this was ‘the original sin’, according to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative.
India is one of Karzai’s few remaining champions. Delhi sees the new Afghanistan as a part of its sphere of influence. It has four consulates in Afghanistan and has given its government $1.2 billion in aid: a remarkable sum for it to donate to a country that is 99 per cent Muslim and with which it has no common border. Delhi has also put up the new parliament building and chancery, and has helped to train the army. India’s most ambitious – and, for Pakistan, most alarming – Afghan project is a new highway that will provide a route to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Not only will Afghanistan no longer need to use Pakistani ports, the road’s destination is a clear indication of India’s intention to consolidate an alliance with Iran in western Afghanistan in order to counter Pakistan’s influence in eastern Afghanistan. The road network, as they see it, is a new way to fight an old war. It’s precisely in order to resist the India-Iran bloc – as well as the emerging axis between Delhi and Washington – that the ISI has aligned itself with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani.
Washington has tilted towards Delhi since 2004, lured by the size of India’s markets and its potential as strategic counterweight to China, Pakistan’s closest regional ally. Last year the US signed an agreement that allows India to buy civilian atomic technology, including nuclear fuel, from American firms, even though it is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan, by contrast, has been criticised for developing a nuclear weapon, and of course for the activities of its former top nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan.
Since 9/11 Washington has tended to use Islamabad as a gun for hire: the army was given around $1 billion a year on condition that it secured supplies to US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal areas. In agreeing this condition Pakistan had expected that its interests would be taken into account following the Anglo-American invasion. But unlike India or Iran, and despite its services to Washington, Islamabad was given no say in the formation of the Afghan government. This confirmed Pakistanis in their view that Musharraf and his army were no better than mercenaries fighting ‘America’s war’, and as a result of this humiliation, the Pakistani army has interpreted its commitments selectively, opposing ‘safe havens’ that might be used to launch attacks against other countries, but supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Washington is exasperated by Pakistan’s refusal to fight the Taliban, but it’s been given little incentive to do so.
Fear of India’s influence was heightened by Bush’s decree last July allowing US Special Forces in Afghanistan to pursue al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives into Pakistan’s territory without the approval of its government. There has been one US ground assault and more than 30 drone attacks since then, overwhelmingly in North and South Waziristan. Washington claims to have a tacit agreement about the drone strikes with the Pakistan government. The government denies this. Army officers admit that the strikes may have killed scores of al-Qaida fighters, and that the ISI may have supplied intelligence for the operations, but the missiles have also killed civilians, including pro-government tribal elders.
The Pakistan army believes India is responsible for the CIA’s new belligerence. Some even believe India wants to create such turmoil in the tribal areas that Nato forces and the new Afghan army are compelled to invade, destroy the ‘terrorist havens’, and wrest back Pashtun lands claimed by Kabul. Others think that India wants to dismember Pakistan because of the ‘danger’ it poses as the world’s only Muslim nuclear state. According to another source in the army, ‘the Americans have decided India will be the regional power. And India thinks a fragmented Pakistan would reduce the threat level.’ It’s true that Washington’s nightmare is Pakistan’s nuclear materials falling into the hands of al-Qaida militants. Indeed war games have been staged in the Pentagon to work out what kind of military intervention would be needed to rescue them. The ISI’s charge that there is Indian involvement in the unrest in the tribal areas is unconvincing, and the evidence scant, but it’s safe to assume that India is keeping a close eye on what’s going on there.
After the Mumbai attacks in November a senior Indian military officer told journalists in Delhi that the US-led fight on the Pakistan-Afghan border was ‘also our war’. And a former Indian envoy to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy, told India Today magazine in January that India ‘should not shy away from political destabilisation and inflicting economic damage on Pakistan. The time has come for us to say that Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is disputed.’ It does not bode well. ‘The more I talk to the military establishment, the more I’m convinced fear and hatred of India is growing,’ a Pakistan security analyst told me.
America has just unveiled a strategic review of its policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and the tribal areas. While civilian aid to the Pakistan government will increase, Obama will continue with certain policies from the Bush era. One is the use of military force. There will be more drone attacks in the tribal areas (at least 80 people have been killed by US missiles since January) and perhaps in Balochistan, and a ‘surge’ of 21,000 US troops in Afghanistan, mostly along the border with Pakistan. Obama has also promised that US policy towards India – and Kashmir in particular – will be ‘dehyphenated’ from policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan.
One consequence is that three feuding Taliban factions have now joined forces against ‘Obama, Zardari and Karzai’ in an agreement brokered by Mullah Omar. One of the factions is led by Baitullah Mehsud. The other two are pro-Afghan Taliban factions based in South and North Waziristan, which had largely refrained from attacking the Pakistan state and army but may not do so any longer. The army is also worried that the surge could cause a further flight of Afghan Taliban and other militants into the tribal areas. If the army acts against them, retaliatory strikes may follow across Pakistan. If it doesn’t, US and Afghan soldiers might chase them inside Pakistan – as they did last September, killing 20 tribesmen ‘by mistake’. Any such incursion would unite the Pashtun tribes behind the Taliban, deepen anti-American sentiment in the army and stretch US-Afghan-Pakistani co-operation to breaking point.
The removal of India and Kashmir from the strategic review makes clear Delhi’s growing influence in Washington. During his campaign Obama argued that Pakistan would be more likely to stay focused not on India but on the militants on the Pakistan-Afghan border if there was a concerted effort to resolve the Kashmir crisis. In a lobbying push of near Israeli proportions, however, Obama was told that Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy, would be shunned in Delhi if any link were made between Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by January it was announced that Kashmir would not be part of Holbrooke’s portfolio.
The announcement was met with scorn in Islamabad, but many Pakistani analysts (and military officers) agree that Kashmir is better handled bilaterally. They also agree that the four-year-old Pakistan-India peace process suffered a near mortal blow with the discovery that Pakistanis were behind the attacks in Mumbai. This is particularly troubling because the process had achieved not only quiet but progress, including on Kashmir: an outline for a deal based on demilitarisation, open borders and a form of self-government or autonomy that would unite the divided territory. The Pakistani army attempted to defuse tensions along the Line of Control, closing militant training camps and co-ordinating security with the Indian army.
The process collapsed partly because of the political crisis that engulfed Musharraf after he sacked Pakistan’s chief justice in 2007. But it also fell apart because India did not reciprocate: military rule in Indian-occupied Kashmir remained as entrenched as ever. ‘The army’s recent experience with India is very bitter,’ a Pakistani analyst told me. ‘After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 per cent. And India’s response was to refuse to talk about Kashmir. The army thinks it would be the same in Afghanistan if it abandoned the Afghan Taliban.’ In the last year Indian Kashmir has seen increased penetration by Pakistani militants and skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian armies. The spike seems to have less to do with Kashmir, where violence is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, than with the proxy war in Afghanistan. And it would suggest that – far more than on strategic reviews – peace in Afghanistan rests on peace between India and Pakistan. The road out of Kabul goes through Kashmir.