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Strategic visit

Print edition : Nov 04, 2011 T+T-
U.S. soldiers in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, on August 26.-NIKOLA SOLIC /REUTERS

U.S. soldiers in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, on August 26.-NIKOLA SOLIC /REUTERS

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while visiting Delhi, avoids making any statement linking Pakistan with the recent terror attacks.

A FEW days before the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai paid an official visit to India. October 8, 2001, was the day the United States military ousted the Taliban government in Kabul and began its occupation, the longest so far in America's recent history. Though Karzai's visit had been planned much in advance, it came in the wake of the assassination of Burhannudin Rabbani and the worsening of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, and hence elicited a lot of international attention.

Rabbani, a former President of Afghanistan, was heading the Afghan High Peace Council which was trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The killing of Rabbani by a suicide bomber in Kabul in the last week of September had triggered a war of words between Kabul and Islamabad. The Afghan government has said that the murder plan was hatched in Pakistan and the suicide bombing was carried out by a Pakistani national.

The Barack Obama administration has used the suicide attack on Rabbani to pressure Islamabad to take military action against the Taliban forces operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, especially in northern Waziristan. President Obama said in early October that the Pakistan Army was not doing enough to support the war effort in Afghanistan. Obama said that there were some connections between the Pakistani security agencies and the Taliban. His remarks were not as strongly worded as those of the former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Mullen had described the Haqqani network as a veritable arm of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The White House and the U.S. State Department had tried to distance itself a little from the harsh statement Mullen made to the U.S. Congress. A White House spokesman said in the first week of October that though Pakistan had been a strong partner in counterterrorism, the two countries shared a complex relationship. Since the Rabbani assassination, the Afghan President has on several occasions demanded that Washington increase its pressure on Islamabad to act against the Haqqani group, which, he alleged, operated from Pakistani territory. Islamabad has strenuously denied any links between its intelligence services and the Haqqani group.

However, President Karzai, during his two-day trip to India, carefully avoided making statements that directly implicated Islamabad in the recent spate of terror attacks. This was his second trip to the Indian capital this year. He said that after the assassination of Rabbani his government would rather talk to the Pakistani government directly rather than trying to talk to the Taliban. The peace process will now be focussed on bilateral relations, he said on October 5. Karzai added that he hoped the proposed talks with Islamabad would focus on the need to end the menace of terrorism and could help in clarifying certain dark areas in the bilateral ties between the two countries. Karzai conceded that in recent years Pakistan had suffered more casualties from terror attacks than Afghanistan. He emphasised that ending terror attacks, especially suicide bombing, was a priority so that future generations in the region could live in peace.

However, soon after departing from New Delhi, Karzai took the gloves off and accused Islamabad of being complicit in the recent terror attacks. On the overall policy of Pakistan towards Afghanistan and towards the Taliban definitely, the Taliban will not be able to move a finger without Pakistan's support, Karzai told the BBC.

The Pakistani side has been wary for some time about the growing strategic and security ties between Kabul and New Delhi. In Delhi, Karzai tried to allay the fears of the Pakistani establishment by declaring that Pakistan was a twin brother while India was a great friend. He added that there was nothing new or significant about the strategic partnership agreements the two countries had signed during his visit. He pointed out that India had helped his country in building strategic roads, hospitals and other important infrastructure projects.

India has already disbursed more than $2 billion in aid to the war-ravaged country. The agreements signed during Karzai's latest visit also talks of India providing military training and arms to the Afghan security forces, which will number more than 3,00,000 when the Americans leave the country. The agreements that we signed with our friend will not affect our brother. The signing of the strategic agreement with India is not directed against any country, the Afghan President emphasised.

All the same, this is the first strategic agreement that Afghanistan has inked with any country. Though the military component in the agreement may be minimal, Pakistan continues to be suspicious of the deepening of bilateral relations between Kabul and New Delhi, especially in the context of the projected withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Pakistani officials and strategic thinkers have said that while they have no objection to India providing developmental aid to Afghanistan, they are against any tie-up between the two governments if the cooperation extends to the military domain and intelligence sharing.

The threat of strategic encirclement by Pakistan's traditional enemy is a fear that continues to haunt the corridors of power in Islamabad. Pakistani officials claim that the Afghan army is under the influence of the former leaders of the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. The group, supported by an assortment of powers that included Russia, India and Iran, had waged a war against the Pakistani-supported Taliban government that was in power in Kabul in the mid-1990s.

The Pakistan government may be under severe pressure from Washington for its alleged sympathies with the Afghan Taliban, but those in charge of policy in Islamabad may have calculated that time is on their side. And they may not be far off the mark. Reports coming in from the Afghan battlefield all tell the same story. Ten years after the American invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban is far from being defeated. It seems to have reasserted its influence over many towns in half of the country's provinces though it is not physically holding much territory. The Taliban has been avoiding frontal conflicts with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces and is instead focussing on dramatic assaults such as the September 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. A recent report in The New York Times has highlighted its resilience. On the Taliban's orders, cellphone services are discontinued every day at 8 p.m. in many cities and towns. A Taliban spokesman said that this was being done to prevent NATO forces from intercepting calls and finding the locations of Taliban fighters.

Ten years after the George W. Bush administration launched its Operation Enduring Freedom to show the oppressed people of Afghanistan the generosity of America, the country still bears all the hallmarks of a failed state. The United Nations has said that more than 10,000 civilians were killed in the past five years alone. More than 2,500 soldiers, most of them Americans, have also perished in Afghanistan in the past 10 years. The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $500 billion so far on its war effort in Afghanistan. Every day, Washington spends $2 billion for the upkeep of its soldiers in Afghanistan at a time when the American public has got deeply disillusioned about the war. A recent opinion poll showed that a clear majority of the American people thought that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. President Karzai himself has admitted that 10 years after the Taliban government was overthrown, his government together with NATO have failed to provide security to the Afghan people. In an interview to the BBC, he blamed the NATO forces for allowing the Taliban to find sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Writing on the 10th anniversary of the American invasion, Malalai Joya, the courageous Afghan activist, said that the U.S. and NATO had invaded her country under the fake banners of women's rights, human rights and democracy. But after a decade, Afghanistan still remains the most uncivil, the most corrupt, and the most war-torn country in the world. The consequences of the so-called war on terror have only been more bloodshed, crimes, barbarism, human rights and women's rights violations, which have doubled the miseries and sorrows of our people. Malalai Joya observed that more misery was heaped on the Afghan people after Obama took over. She wrote that the civilian toll in the past three years had risen by 24 per cent. She blamed the troop surge ordered by Obama for this.

Malalai Joya, like many well-meaning Afghans, feels that it is the continuing U.S. troop presence in her country that is strengthening the Taliban resistance. She also shares the widespread suspicion that the U.S. has no intentions of withdrawing completely from Afghanistan. General John Allen, the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently told an American television channel that the troops would not be leaving Afghanistan any time soon. He said that the news about complete troop withdrawal by 2014 was not accurate. We're actually going to be here for a long time, he asserted.

According to reports, the American intention to hold on to the military bases has won the approval of the Karzai government. Not that Karzai had much of a choice in the matter, though he claimed while in New Delhi that Afghanistan would be entirely responsible for its own security after 2014. An American withdrawal on the scheduled date would leave the gates of Kabul open for the Taliban to march in. The Indian government also seems to be tacitly supporting the American move to stay on, hoping that it will forestall the installation of a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.

The continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has got more to do with the securing of the oil and gas pipeline routes from Central Asia and surrounding Iran and China with bases than with fighting terror. Al Qaeda had ceased to be a serious threat, with its numbers reduced to double digits within Afghanistan. Both Washington and New Delhi are still betting heavily on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. There are credible reports of huge oil and gas deposits in northern Afghanistan. The Karzai government has privatised the hydrocarbon sector and has called for tenders from foreign companies to exploit the untapped resources.