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Indian-Pakistani Conflict over Influence in Afghanistan | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A few hours before Pakistani Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gilani was due to meet US President George W. Bush in Washington last 28 July, a CIA pilotless drone carried out a missile strike on a residential house in South Waziristan, Pakistan. The attack succeeded in killing top-level Al-Qaeda member Midhat Mursi al Sayid Umar (aka Abu Khabab al Masri) who appears on the US State Department’s list of 37 most-wanted terrorists.

The timing was not coincidental since it allowed President Bush to confront Gilani – especially since the assassination confirmed the charges that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have sought refuge in the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan using it as a safe haven and moving without encountering any military obstruction.

However, this information did not prevent President Bush from stressing his support of Pakistan’s sovereignty, thus Gilani, in turn, had to reiterate his country’s commitment to fighting extremists and terrorists who “are wreaking havoc in the world.”

The truth is, Gilani presides over an unharmonious government coalition and does not have the capabilities to fight the Pashtun tribes in the border areas. Since the Pakistani opposition won the elections last February and took over power, President Pervez Musharraf’s role diminished and since then the new government has been following a policy of truce and negotiation with the fighters on the borders, steering clear of military operations.

The tension is escalating in Pakistan and Afghanistan and there is a crisis relating to the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its relationship with the jihadists. Moreover, there is an attempt to find out who really controls the agency.

Following General David Petraeus’s appointment as US Central Command (April 2008), his focus has shifted to Afghanistan. However, he is faced with two challenges: The first is negotiating with Iran and regulating the chaos in Pakistan. However, the problem is that Pakistan is both part of the problem and its solution. At a time when Washington has increased its pressure on Islamabad and explicitly demonstrated through its actions that it would not hesitate to carry out unilateral military operations without coordinating with Pakistan or taking its stability into account, America realizes that it needs a political strategy to complement its military force option. Moreover, indications of a strategy to be adopted by Petraeus have begun to emerge – but this strategy would need to resolve problems on two fronts: Iran and Pakistani intelligence.

The Iranian dimension is linked to the flow of jihadists from Iraq to Afghanistan. With the series of blows that Al-Qaeda has been dealt recently in Iraq, many of the combatants and leaders have decided to move to a place that would allow them to engage in larger-scale battles. Those fighters have sought refuge on Iranian land with the intention of crossing over to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An Afghan newspaper described Iran as a “terrorists’ tunnel” to Waziristan; it is also the easiest route for fighters coming in from the Middle East. With the departure of the enraged Iraqi militants, attacks in Afghanistan have multiplied and the violence has doubled making it increasingly difficult for the US to control the situation.

Two relations that were ‘forged’ by the US in the past have now backfired in its face and the reason behind both is Afghanistan, however under different circumstances. Perhaps Washington now realizes that it has a solution [to curb] the flow of jihadists from Iran since the establishment of a Taliban state in Pakistan is as equally threatening as Iran.

Thus far, Iran is content over the fact that the US has averted two dangers: it ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Prior to the American attack on Afghanistan, Iran fully cooperated with the Americans, providing security information and facilitating the passage of US aircrafts to bombard the Taliban in 2001. Moreover, Tehran would not have objected to allowing the US to use its airports for that purpose. Iran’s cooperation with the United States during its preparations for the invasion of Iraq has allowed Iran to eliminate the Taliban threat whilst gaining a bargaining chip for later.

For the past seven years, the US has tried to ignore the Iranian ‘favor’; however, the two states are presently negotiating over Iraq. Moreover, Iranian officials have publicly stated that any progress on the Iranian nuclear negotiations will be matched by progress in the Afghan, Lebanese, and Iraqi arenas. The mention of Lebanon infuriated the Lebanese officials who do not view the situation within its broad regional context.

The second relation is connected to Pakistani intelligence, which is ‘infiltrated’ by jihadist sympathizers, and moreover, Washington has accused the ISI of assisting Pashto warlord and Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani who is currently spearheading campaigns against the Americans in Afghanistan.

But the Pakistani intelligence’s relationship with the Afghan warlords is not new, particularly the Pashtun warlords – the CIA is well aware of this fact since the agency played a pivotal role in the founding and funding of this relationship during the 1980s. During that time the ISI served as a ‘crossing’ through which American money and weapons were delivered to the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet occupation. Haqqani, in particular, played the most significant role in recruiting the Islamist volunteers from all over the world, including Osama Bin Laden, into Pakistan to fight the Soviets.

During the mujahedeen’s operations to overthrow the Soviet-loyal regime in 1988, Haqqani was constantly in contact with Bin Laden and ISI intelligence officers. These officers and the CIA relied on Haqqani to test the weapons and tactics and both agencies preferred to deal with Haqqani over many others and entrusted him with providing for the Arab volunteers that rushed to join the jihad. The Islamabad-based CIA agents considered Haqqani to be the most capable of recruiting youth for the cause.

Following the Soviet withdrawal, Haqqani’s tribes continued to exist alongside the Pakistani tribes in the region, the latter of which were considered to be part of the ‘support’ in the Taliban government that seized control in 1996. However, since the US toppled the Taliban, Haqqani has turned the fighters against it. His ‘troops’ defeated the Pakistani army that was dispatched by Musharraf to Waziristan and due to the losses that the regime’s army suffered and the discontent that the Pashtun soldiers felt, Musharraf consented to the truce agreement.

So far, the US has not charged the ISI with infiltration so that the new Pakistani government would not lose its credibility; however, fingers were pointed at the role of the intelligence agency in the aftermath of the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, in addition to the series of bombings that followed in which the Kashmiri Islamists were accused. The Indian government appears to have avoided accusing the Pakistani government of being responsible for these attacks and instead accused elements of the Pakistani security agency – despite the violation of the ceasefire in Kashmir and notwithstanding an exchange of fire between the Indian and Pakistani armies that lasted for 13 hours.

There is no doubt that elements in the ISI are concerned about the development of relations between Kabul and New Dehli (Islamabad’s enemy) and this tie will become even stronger with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India to discuss security and economic issues between the two states. However, Pakistan’s chief worry is that India may replace it [its role] in Afghanistan.

But controlling the Pakistani ISI is a difficult and complicated issue. There can only be conjecture as to how Washington can put pressure on the Pakistani government and whether the latter is capable of purging the ISI of its jihadist and fundamentalist elements – especially given the anti-American sentiments that flare up after American air raids.

If Iran can make progress on the level of preventing jihadists from going into Afghanistan, then Pakistan would become General Petraeus’s issue to deal with. No one is ready for civil war against the Pashtun tribes and the rejection of the American unilateral raids within Pakistan is steadily increasing. Also, there are growing concerns that the Pakistani army could suffer divisions again – the Pashtuns who were recruited from the border tribal areas in particular.

If Iraq called for a security military plan to be drafted by General Petraeus, then calming the situation in Afghanistan requires ‘ingenuity’ in dealing with Pakistan, which will not accept India’s influence to exceed its own in Kabul.