Friendless in Afghanistan

India has enormous stakes in the Afghan peace process, but limited influence on the Taliban & none with the Pakistani military

It is widely acknowledged that as the date for the American troop pullout in 2014 approaches, Pakistan’s concerns with securing Afghanistan as an area of “strategic depth” against India is intensifying and acquiring urgency. Support for their proxy allies, the Taliban, is being stepped up to “shape the battlefield environment” inside Afghanistan to Pakistan’s advantage prior to and during the run-up to the multi-lateral negotiations, so as to exercise maximum pressure in the hiatus that will precede and follow the withdrawal of American and other international forces.

As part of this campaign, Pakistan’s ISI is focusing its Taliban proxies on targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan, particularly the infrastructural and socio-economic network being developed in that country with Indian assistance. These will include roads, hospitals, schools and power transmission lines.
Prominent in this “shaping” process is the Haqqani family based in North Waziristan inside Pakistan. The Haqqanis can justifiably lay claim to be amongst the leading families of that country, as prominent in their own field as the Bhutto family is in politics, or the Ispahanis in trade and commerce, but with one major and fundamental difference. The Haqqani family, more widely known as the Haqqani Group or the Haqqani Network, constitute the major militant element amongst the Taliban, credited with undertaking some of the deadliest and most devastating terrorist attacks on Nato, ISAF and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan.
The clan takes its name from the Madrasa Hakkaniya near Peshawar, which many of the senior Taliban leaders have attended. They are Zadran Pashtuns, headed by the family patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani, who made his name as a leading mujahid commander in the fight against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan from 1979-89.
The Haqqani group had been extensively supported against the Soviets by the ISI-CIA nexus with weapons and money, and Jalaluddin himself is said to have been received by late US President Ronald Reagan as an honoured guest in the White House. The Taliban emerged out of the ruins of post-Soviet chaos. The Haqqani group joined them but maintained their own distinct identity and command structure. Subsequently, when America entered Afghanistan against the Taliban post 9/11, the Haqqani group became amongst the most fierce opponents of the US and Nato presence in Afghanistan, and unrelentingly opposed the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is seen by them as a creature of the Americans. Age has forced the veteran Jalaluddin to step aside and the reins of power now rest with his son Sirajuddin Haqqani and nephew Badruddin.
Now, as the wheel has turned full circle and America again seeks to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, but under very different circumstances, the Haqqani group has become an enemy, snapping at their heels from sanctuaries in the tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province inside Pakistan. Any meaningful counter-response by America on the Taliban base areas is not possible due to factors of territorial sovereignty of an “ally”.
The United States has nevertheless resorted to a “war of drones”, operating freely against suspected Taliban locations inside Pakistan, but the results have been insignificant. Now, as the American ground troops close in towards the Pak-Afghan border in the eastern and south-eastern regions of Afghanistan, reports indicate that they are often targeted by hostile fire emanating from inside Pakistani territory. American soldiers and commanders are only too aware of Pakistan’s double role in Afghanistan.
Without any military presence, India has been prominent in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan and its efforts have been well received by the local population, which has benefited from it. Pakistan has maintained its efforts to neutralise the Indian presence in which the Haqqani group has been prominent.
They have carried out multiple attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul as well as the Serena Hotel where Indian and other foreign embassy staff are housed. India has nevertheless firmly declared its determination to maintain its presence and interests in that country even after the American withdrawal, no matter how adverse the situation may become. Mr Karzai is personally friendly to India but is conscious of ground realities and his own precarious position in a post-war situation dominated by the Taliban, under the guidance of the Pakistan Army. He has to bargain from a position of weakness and the fate of one of his predecessors, Dr Najibullah, after the capture of Kabul by the anti-Soviet mujahideen in 1996, is a grim and constant reminder of his likely fate in the event of a Taliban victory.
The assassination by a suicide bomber of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former President and leader of the High Peace Council, has sent out its own strong deterrent message to those seeking a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, unless the terms completely deny India any presence or role in an independent Afghanistan. India has enormous stakes in the Afghan peace process, but limited influence on the Taliban and none whatsoever with the
Pakistani military hierarchy. Mr Karzai, too, has very few strong cards to place on the table, unless he agrees to conform to the Pakistani strategic agenda as presented by the Taliban. His survival is important to Indian interests.
Mr Karzai faces difficult choices and India will have to work out its own to preserve its long-term interests in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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