Argument

Heads I Win, Tails I Win

By offering to set up negotiations between Hamid Karzai and insurgent-commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, Pakistan shows it's in control of Afghanistan's Great Game.

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In this 21st-century version of the Great Game in Afghanistan, Pakistan seems to be maneuvering masterfully. Its reported offer to convince one of its most-prized strategic Afghan assets, the powerful insurgent commander Sirajuddin Haqqani and his fearsome al Qaeda-linked network, to negotiate with the Afghan government is just Islamabad’s latest gambit in its grand strategy of securing influence in a post-U.S. and post-NATO Afghanistan. But it might also prove a clever move on the home front: If Haqqani proves to be a good-faith negotiator, it may quell America’s relentless pressure on Pakistan to get tough on its terrorist havens.

Washington has long pressed Islamabad to mount a military offensive in North Waziristan, Haqqani’s border refuge and the only one of Pakistan’s seven tribal areas that has been spared a Pakistani attack. Until now the Pakistanis have resisted, citing an overstretched military busy fighting the Taliban on other fronts and consolidating gains elsewhere. Analysts speculate that Pakistan also wants to shelter its Afghan allies until such time as it can use them to shape the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. That might be precisely what Pakistan has in mind with its suggested outreach to Haqqani.

According to Al Jazeera, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Haqqani have already held Pakistani-brokered discussions, though Karzai, Pakistani military and intelligence officials, and the Haqqanis deny the report. Regardless of whether talks have started, Islamabad’s offer appears real. CIA Director Leon Panetta said he was aware of it, but that he didn’t sense "a real interest" among Afghanistan’s various militant groups to negotiate. "Unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful," Panetta said June 27 on ABC’s This Week talk show.

Even before the issue took center stage at a jirga in Kabul this month, it was no secret that Karzai has been keen to open a dialogue with Afghan militant leaders and their Pakistani backers. But what are Haqqani’s motivations? Unlike other warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis have not shown any public interest in negotiations or breaking with al Qaeda.

Retired Pakistani general and military analyst Talat Masood says that the Haqqanis might be amenable now to negotiations because they perceive themselves to be in a position of strength, especially with the United States’ planned drawdown of troops next year. In the absence of a negotiated settlement in advance of a U.S. withdrawal, Haqqani might be anticipating an extended civil war that would be in nobody’s interest.

"In certain areas of Afghanistan, the Haqqanis are very powerful, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll have a free hand once the Americans leave," Masood says. In the absence of a peace deal, Masood says, the country "will undoubtedly" spiral back to the bad old days after the 1989 Soviet military withdrawal and the ferocious Afghan war of the 1990s.

But even if the Haqqanis do want to talk, can Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency actually deliver them? "Frankly, I don’t think so," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani writer and Taliban expert, adding that there are "no indications whatsoever that Haqqani is actually interested in negotiations." Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s father, may have cooperated with the CIA in the 1980s and have a relationship with the ISI dating back to the mid-1970s, but analysts doubt that the insurgent leader will give up his group’s Al-Qaida ties, or its weapons.

"Sometimes it might be that a common interest brings two sides together," says Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and an expert on extremists. "But it is not yet clear if Pakistan and the Haqqani network will remain on the same page."

For now, Pakistan prefers to give the impression that they are indeed on the same page. But regardless of whether the talks happen or bear fruit, it’s a win-win situation for Pakistan. If Haqqani and Karzai work out a power-sharing agreement, the Pakistanis would have an ally they consider "more loyal than the mainstream Taliban would be," Rashid says. An agreement would also help shore up U.S.-Pakistani ties by relieving incessant U.S. pressure to go into North Waziristan, given that the Haqqanis would likely stop their cross-border attacks. This would have the added bonus of isolating the Pakistani Taliban and stripping them of some of their Afghan supporters. And if the Haqqanis stay in North Waziristan with the blessing of the Afghan and Pakistani governments, they might force the Pakistani Taliban out of their North Waziri sanctuary and into the Pakistani military’s cross hairs.

Even in the worst-case scenario, Islamabad’s offer has already earned itself the good graces of its Washington allies. "Maybe these talks will go nowhere," Rashid says. "Maybe this is just a very clever diversionary tactic to divert pressure away from Pakistan and away from North Waziristan." Whichever way the deal turns out, it will have been a bargain for Pakistan.

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