Afghanistan: seeking succour in duplicity

In recent months, and even more after the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, there has been a spate of analyses from Western think-tanks and academia trying to ensure a peaceful and negotiated political transition in that country. Unfortunately, almost all of these analyses have a common theme running through them : an apologia for Pakistan’s perfidy on Taliban; they accept at face value all the pious statements emanating from Islamabad on supporting the peace process in Afghanistan and being opposed to Taliban monopoly over power; despite having experienced two decades of Pakistani deceit and deception, they still believe that Islamabad is not the problem but a solution to the problem in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

A new analysis by the international Crisis Group (ICG) titled “Pakistan : Shoring up Afghanistan’s Peace Process”, follows the theme outlined above. Right at the outset, the ICG analysis claims that “rising insurgent violence in Afghanistan threatens to undermine Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate Taliban’s return to Kabul through power-sharing arrangements that have international backing”. The basic premise of the ICG is faulty because for the last 20 years, Pakistan has fuelled the war in Afghanistan by providing support and sanctuary to the Taliban, not to get a power-sharing arrangement but to have the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. Pakistan might pretend that a Taliban monopoly over power in Afghanistan is not its preferred option, but this is purely for Western consumption.

On ground is that there is not a shred of evidence that Pakistan has done anything to restrict, obstruct or prevent the Taliban from upping its military onslaught and undermining the lawful and internationally accepted government of Afghanistan. Even as Pakistani leaders – the President, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, Foreign Minister – press all the right buttons in their interactions with the international community and pretend that they oppose a Taliban military takeover of Afghanistan, within their country the same leaders laud the Taliban and openly profess that the Taliban capture of Afghanistan is a guarantee of Pakistan’s security along its western flank. In fact, officially sponsored troll armies in Pakistan have been trending the hashtag# TalibanOurGuardians.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Pakistan celebrating (perhaps prematurely) a Taliban victory, the ICG insists that Pakistan is concerned about the Taliban establishing their dominance over Afghanistan because it “could embolden Pakistani militants aligned with their Afghan counterparts”? In reality, Pakistan looks to be caught in its own fake narrative. For over a decade, after the emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamabad has maintained that these militants are backed by India and Afghanistan to attack Pakistan. But within Pakistan, any number of genuine (i.e. non-military) experts have pointed out that TTP was nothing but the Pakistani section of the Afghan Taliban. The ICG report itself quotes a Pakistani security official as saying that Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are “two faces of the same coin”. And yet, Pakistan never lumped the Afghan Taliban with the Pakistani Taliban, projecting the latter as an Indian proxy. The reason for this was simple. Pakistan needed to invent a casus belli against the TTP without affecting its support for the Afghan Taliban. The easiest way to develop a consensus against something in Pakistan is to attach an Indian label to it, which is precisely what Pakistani did with the TTP. While Pakistan now acknowledges that TTP and Afghan Taliban are joined at the hip, they are confident that they have the leverages to ensure that the Taliban to rein in their Pakistani subsidiary. Both Afghan and Indian officials are aware of the deep linkages between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and therefore were never tempted to flirt with the Pakistani Taliban as that would only strengthen the Afghan Taliban.

Similarly, the Pakistanis have been trying to manufacture a narrative that the ISKP is being supported by India. The evidence proffered is the joining of about two dozen Indian Muslims, mostly from Kerala, the ranks of ISKP. There is like saying that ISIS was being supported by US and European countries because many of their Muslims citizens had joined the ISIS. The Pakistani allegation against India flew in the face of logic and facts because the handful of Indians was far outnumbered by the numbers of Pakistani citizens who had joined the ISKP. Most of these elements were former Taliban who had split away either on account of difference with their parent body – the Taliban or had been seduced by the attractiveness of the ISIS propaganda. Many Afghan officials believe that the ISKP is actually a Pakistani ISI project to try and showcase Taliban as ‘Moderate’ Islamists. In this they have been partly successful because countries like Russia and China, even Iran, saw Taliban as a potent force to counter the ISIS.

The ICG, almost as if caught in a time warp, recommends that “Islamabad should reach out to Kabul to reduce mistrust”. Who reaches out to someone who is facing decimation? Throughout the report, ICG refers to the familiar tropes that Pakistani spin doctors are churning out to present themselves not as villains of what is transpiring in Afghanistan but as potential victims. In doing so it imagines things about which there is no evidence at all. For instance the report says “An unravelling Afghanistan could embolden Pakistani militant groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban, and threaten yet another massive influx of Afghan refugees. Islamabad has been trying to persuade its Afghan Taliban allies to opt for a peacefully negotiated political settlement. Its failure in that endeavour would strain its ties with Washington and Kabul” and goes on to add that “Pakistan has supported the Afghan peace process” and that its “preferred option” is “the Taliban’s inclusion in power-sharing arrangements”. On Pakistani terrorist groups getting emboldened, it does not appear as though the Pakistanis are really worried about this happening. Perhaps they are confident that they can manage the situation if indeed Pakistanis groups try to revive themselves. There is absolutely no action that Pakistan has taken to rein in the Taliban. This says a lot about how much of a threat Pakistan perceives from a Taliban ruled Afghanistan. If indeed there was a serious threat perception, top ministers and officials would not be delighted in anticipation of the Taliban capturing Afghanistan. The influx of refugee is a possibility but Pakistanis don’t think the magnitude of this crisis will be anything like it was during the Soviet invasion and subsequently during the 1990s.

What is quite unreasonable is the ICG predicting strains in Pakistan’s ties with Washington and Kabul. The basic premise that Kabul will be able to hold off the Taliban is now proving to be off the mark. As for Washington, there is as yet nothing to suggest that the Americans are going to either punish Pakistan or squeeze it. In fact, the Pakistani generals have gamed the Americans and are convinced that the US will take no hostile political, economic or military action against Pakistan. For ICG to claim that Pakistan has supported the peace process is at best a half truth. While publicly Pakistan is seen to be keen on a peace process, behind the scenes and on the ground, Pakistan has done everything to undermine this process. And about Pakistan seeking Taliban inclusion in a power sharing arrangement is such a load of wishful thinking. Pakistan is not interested in an equitable power sharing arrangement, and the Taliban even less so. The Pakistanis have tried to do everything possible to force a military solution. All the talk of power sharing has been deliberately encouraged by Pakistan to throw a bone to the West desperate to exit Afghanistan but in a somewhat dignified way by showing that they left behind a peace deal. Once they are out of Afghanistan and the deal collapses, the West can shift the blame to the Taliban, their masters (Pakistan Army) and whichever other scapegoat it can find.

The ICG paper has fallen hook, line and sinker for the Pakistani line that its “clout with the insurgents has declined as they continue to make military gains in Afghanistan”. The Pakistanis actually encourage everyone to believe that they don’t have much influence on Taliban because that way they ward off any untoward pressure to ‘do more’, and at the same time the Taliban who brook no pressure from anyone carry on with their war effort. What will the West in general, and the US in particular, do? Declare war on Taliban? Send the armies back into Afghanistan? The ICG, however, believes that if Pakistan can’t persuade or pressure the Taliban then it “might harm Islamabad’s relations with Washington”. The problem is that so far there is no indication whatsoever that the US has any intention, much less any plan, to punish Pakistan for its duplicity and exact retribution from it. Quite to the contrary, Pakistan expects the Americans will not take any hostile action – economic, military or political – but also ‘sublet’ Afghanistan to Pakistan to maintain some semblance of order there. Moreover, Islamabad believes the US will be dependent on it for counter-terrorism operations. So the talk of Pakistan attracting US ire just does not add up. In the last two decades, even when US soldiers were dying at the hands of Pakistani proxies, the US did nothing more than ask Islamabad to ‘do more’ and stopped some economic and military assistance. Therefore, what are the chances that now when the US has abandoned Afghanistan and left it to its own devices; they will take any action against Pakistan.

In many ways, the ICG report is an example of the intellectual vacuity that is in large part responsible for the debacle that the US and its allies have faced in Afghanistan. Nothing exemplifies this more than the compliments that US officials have heaped on Pakistan for supporting its efforts to press Taliban to reduce violence, to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government and become an active participant in peace negotiations. Clearly, the Americans thought that heaping such undeserved praise on Pakistan will encourage, even pressure it, to play a positive role in Afghanistan. But the Pakistanis saw it differently. They used the US praises as evidence of their innocence. Far from pressuring or persuading Pakistan, these praises worked in the opposite direction and gave Pakistan a virtual license to keep supporting the Taliban, which they could now do because the Americans had certified that they were helping in bringing the Taliban on to the talks table. Instead of praises, what might have worked better are real, credible threats and the consequences that would follow if Pakistan did not play ball according to US rules. The problem has been that that the US had no intention, or appetite, of playing hardball with Pakistan, and the latter knew that. Reports like that of the ICG have done more damage than any good. Unfortunately, Western analysts continue to repeat the same, old, tired and meaningless recommendations that have little or no relation to ground reality. Their understanding of the games Pakistan is adept at playing is also superficial, in large part because the analytical tools and assumption they base their analysis on are fallacious; little surprise that the Afghan theatre has proved to be a disaster.