By G Parthasarathy
21 November 2014
The most significant development that India can ill afford to ignore is that the US no longer regards the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban as an Al-Qaeda “affiliate”. It also does not see the Taliban as a terrorist group
A recent report issued by the Pentagon has, for the first time, alluded to “sanctuaries” in Pakistan for harbouring terrorists on its borders with both Afghanistan and India. This is not the first time that the Pentagon has indicted Pakistan for aiding terrorist violence in Afghanistan. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2011, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen stated: “The fact remains that the Quetta Shura (Taliban) and the Haqqani network operate from Pakistan with impunity. Extremist organisations, serving as proxies of the Government of Pakistan, are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers”. Adm Mullen described how the Haqqani network had attacked the US Embassy in Kabul in September 2011.
Ms Hillary Clinton has consistently not minced her words on Pakistani support for terrorism, warning that Pakistan would pay a high price for its actions. She bitingly told Pakistan: “You cannot nurture snakes in your backyard and expect they will only bite your neighbours”. More recently, she is reported to have asked General Kayani: “How do you envisage Pakistan in 2020 — as South Korea or the Democratic Republic of Congo?” She is said to have left the smug General speechless. It is clear that the US now recognises groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Dawood network as inimical to its security interests. But, while one can realistically expect some intelligence sharing and monitoring of funds of these outfits, India should not believe that the US will take any meaningful action to dismantle or degrade them. Action against ISI backed terrorist groups acting against India cannot be outsourced.
The bulk of Pakistan’s diplomatic and military attention will be focussed on developments across the Durand Line for the foreseeable future. Over 80,000 Pakistani troops are now taking on those of its former ‘assets’ now affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. With nearly a million Pashtun tribals fleeing their homes, the Pakistan military has not destroyed, but dispersed internal terrorism. The attack by the TTP in Wagah was a manifestation of this development. But, given the subterranean links the ISI doubtless retains with the TTP, one should not discount the ISI using the TTP brand name to mount or incite terrorist attacks in India. Amidst these developments, India has to keep a close eye on what is transpiring in Afghanistan, as the new Ashraf Ghani dispensation takes charge in Kabul.
The most significant development that India can ill afford to ignore is that the US no longer regards the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban as an Al-Qaeda “affiliate” and is no longer prepared to regard the Taliban as a terrorist challenge. This, despite the ever increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan over the past year, during which American soldiers have been killed. Despite its professions of supporting “reconciliation” being “Afghan-led”, the US appears keen to give the ISI a major role in the entire process of Afghan “reconciliation”. Moreover, Mr Hamid Karzai’s exit has seen a paradigm shift in Afghan foreign and security policies. Learning from bitter experience, Mr Karzai had little faith in Pakistani professions of good intentions. Mr Ghani obviously intends to experiment with tests of Pakistani ‘sincerity’.
The new formula of the Ghani dispensation, with more than evident American enthusiasm, is to try out China to help facilitate “reconciliation” with the Taliban. Seeking to re-assure the Taliban and Pakistan of Chinese intentions, the Global Times proclaimed: “China will never take on the role played by the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and act as a powerful meddler. China supports peaceful rebuilding and ethnic reconciliation in the war torn country. There is a cost of being a major power and we need to get used to it”. While Mr Ghani insisted on an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” China has long-standing Pakistan-facilitated links, overt and covert, with the Taliban and its Quetta Shura. While Afghanistan needs billions of dollars of foreign aid every year, all that the Chinese offered Mr Ghani was aid amounting to $ 350 million over three years.
Pakistan’s strategy now appears clear, with its all weather friend China guiding the ‘reconciliation’ process. The Taliban will be facilitated to seize full control of parts of south eastern Afghanistan and establish a de facto Government there. The Afghan Army lacks the firepower and airlift capabilities to retain control all across the country. With control of territory in Afghanistan, the Taliban will seek equality, in order to undermine the claims of the Ghani Government as the only legitimate authority in the country. According to Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai, the Taliban is currently active in 18 out of Afghanistan’s 34 Provinces, where the ill equipped Afghan forces can rarely move outside their bases.
Given the ambivalence and indeed some would say duplicity involved in US links with the Taliban, commencing with the incarceration of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, it is questionable if the US will strongly object to such a Taliban strategy. Moreover, given his dependence on the US, President Ghani may well be reluctant to challenge the US. His position and standing within Afghanistan will inevitably be questioned and eroded. Nothing would suit Pakistan and the Taliban better than a political vacuum in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if President Ghani will adopt the same role that his predecessor did, by taking note of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities arising from its suppression of Pashtun tribals, by its military actions in the tribal areas.
All this should not deter India from going ahead with its plans to join Iran in developing the Iranian port of Chabahar. This project strategically guarantees India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, given the ethnic and sectarian tensions that Iran faces internally and externally, New Delhi will have to closely coordinate its strategies in Afghanistan with Iran, Russia and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours. This will no doubt figure prominently during President Putin’s visit to India. It should be remembered that Taliban control of southern Afghanistan was used in the past by Pakistan to train terrorists for “jihad” in Jammu & Kashmir. Taliban control over southern Afghanistan will undermine our security. It will only embolden the ISI belief that it pays to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy. These concerns should be conveyed unambiguously to both the Obama Administration and the Republican-controlled US Congress.