The South Asia Channel

Stopping regional interference in Afghanistan

Stopping regional interference in Afghanistan

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, then-U.S. President George W. Bush gave "non-negotiable demands" to his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf, telling the general that he "had to decide whose side he was on" and the former dictator revealed in 2006 (if he can be believed) that he was also given the threat that Pakistan would be bombed "back to the Stone Age" in the absence of cooperation.

The Bush administration, under immense pressure from the American public and coping with the sense of loss at the death and destruction caused by the 9/11 attacks, wanted Pakistan, the long time player on the Afghan turf and alleged creator and financier of the hardliner Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to clarify its position on the militant organizations that it had for so long abetted or sheltered.

Then and now, the United States is attempting to figure out how to defeat al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan, a country not known for suffering occupiers gladly, while the country’s insurgent groups can still claim shelter in Pakistan’s border regions. With the administration’s the Afghanistan Strategy Review scheduled for next month and the looming (and self-imposed) 2011 date for the initial withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, this calculation is complicated by Washington’s political cycles.

While General David H. Petraeus is struggling to prevail over the Taliban, and the U.S. administration is struggling to pave the way for a second Obama term in office – particularly in face of recent losses against Republicans in the Congress during the mid-term polls – it is time for the president and his cabinet to go back to the Bush years for a while and borrow a question: "Whose side are you on?"

These few words communicated in black-and-white can reduce the immense pressure if not fully help winning the war with its branches and roots now spread into the region.

Since late 2001, the war against international terrorism has been fought mainly by the United States, with over 1,300 young men and women dead and billions of tax-payers’ money spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is the regional powers who are struggling hard to have a finger in the Afghan pie.

With arch rivals Pakistan and India on top of the list, the involvement on various levels from Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and some Central Asian states is no longer a secret in the ongoing tug of war in Afghanistan. The recent revelation by President Hamid Karzai himself about receiving bags of money from Iran and the ensuing debate can rightly be quoted as a sign of this involvement.

But it is Pakistan and India who are overtly playing politics at the expense of U.S. blood and treasure.

For Pakistan, the "disputed" Kashmir territory, and though not mentioned in open, the "disputed" Durand Line with Afghanistan are the key motivators behind its obsession with the existence of "more-than-needed" Indian consulates in the southern and eastern zones of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s need for strategic depth and a weak central authority in Afghanistan is mainly focused on an eventual war scenario with India, along with vows from the Afghan leadership to accept the British-era Durand Line, which splits in two the region’s Pashtun-dominated territories. But meanwhile, Pakistan takes in huge resources profiting from control of NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, while at the same time NATO forces hemorrhage troops and money, all with no change in Pakistan’s strategic calculations or focus on India.

Even if Pakistan’s military leaders opt to alter their strategic calculation and move publicly against militant groups holed up in North Waziristan (recently suggested, and now delayed indefinitely), such a move will not tame the insurgency on either side of the Durand Line. One source familiar with the situation in the tribal areas has told the author that militants in North Waziristan are shifting their bases to Orakzai agency, and that any eventual offensive will not take place until the militants have finished moving.

India, on the other hand, is still working hard to install a government of its own liking in Afghanistan, or at least one having little or no deep-rooted ties with Pakistan, particularly the previous Taliban-style regime, and thus pours men and money into Afghanistan as part of its future planning for the region.

In this regard, the presence of Indian consulates in Afghan cities and provinces bordering Pakistan is presented as a proof of Indian involvement in the tribal areas and especially the restive province of Balochistan by the Pakistani authorities during their meetings with Afghan and U.S. officials.

Whatever the number of troops sent to Afghanistan or whatever strategy adopted there, this regional bickering will persist or even grow more serious unless and until the regional players are stopped from meddling in the Afghan mess; the situation needs political pressure and a political deal, rather than just more soldiers.

Although a large number of analysts and think-tanks are pessimistic about complete victory against Taliban in the near future, there is still time for the U.S. policy makers to turn the tide by asking the neighbors of Afghanistan to lay off their own regional agendas and squabbles, for the more important purpose of stability in Afghanistan.

To conclude the Afghan war successfully, the U.S. needs to stop both Pakistan and India from using the Afghan war as a tool to carry forward their own agendas. One terse warning, if possible, that forced a Pakistani dictator to take U-turn need to be issued once again not only to Pakistan, but also to India, Iran and other regional players.

A surge of troops in Afghanistan and increase in the number of missile attacks by unmanned aircraft in the Pakistani tribal areas may be among the best available tactical options for U.S. leaders, but these changes will not block the channels and external actors fueling the insurgency, and thus will not help U.S. forces stabilize Afghanistan, and eventually leave. Instead, the U.S. must cut its dependence on Pakistan, and instead create a framework for a political arrangement that ensures all regional players have a stake in Afghanistan’s stability, rather than its weakness and internal strife.

And for this, "with us or against us" has to be borrowed from the Bush-era by the existing president who desperately needs a positive change on the Afghan front to rebuild his pre-election image before the American public.

Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.