Growing contradictions

Print edition : December 08, 2001

As the war enters the eighth week, the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. on the operations and their goals become increasingly apparent.

EVEN as the Afghan groups squabbled in Bonn for their share in the new arrangement in Kabul and the United States-led military operations entered the eighth week, for Afghanistan there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. For all the pronouncements about being a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition, Pakistan's discomfort over the U.S. objectives in Afghanistan is growing.-RICHARD DREW/AP

The post-Taliban era has raised more questions than it has answered. There is perhaps greater instability within Afghanistan and in the region now than when the fundamentalist and oppressive Taliban militia ruled the roost. There is a greater sense of insecurity among all sections of Afghan society. The elation over the collapse of the Taliban was short-lived. Proof, if any was needed, was provided in the candid presentation made in Visakhapatnam by the representative of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) at the national conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association in India.

As for the action of Afghanistan's neighbours, the less said the better. Each of them is engaged in a game of one-upmanship in its bid to gain the most from the chaotic situation. Everyone mouths the same cliche: "There is an urgent need for a broad-based and multi-ethnic government." No one seems to have a clue as to how it can be achieved.

Pakistan is clearly at its wits' end. With no friends left in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban, Islamabad is desperately in search of a strategy to regain its hold on the country. What it needs at the moment is a foothold, and the military government's overtures to Teheran have not gone unnoticed.

The much-publicised visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was watched with great interest by all the players concerned. Iran, with its close links to the Northern Alliance, can play a major role in bringing together Pakistan and the Northern Alliance commanders. The visit did provide some comfort to Islamabad. So elated was Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar that he declared at the joint press conference with Kharrazi that Pakistan and Iran had entered a new era in bilateral ties. "We have now got rid of the shadow of the Taliban, the sun is shining," Sattar said.

Both sides agreed to set up a joint commission to work towards the reconciliation of the various groups in Afghanistan and the reconstruction of the strife-torn nation. They also announced the establishment of a joint technical committee for the multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline project, which will ultimately reach India. It is no mean achievement, considering that Pakistan and Iran had fundamental differences over Afghanistan as long as the Taliban was at the helm of affairs.

Iran perceived Pakistan as the friend, philosopher and guide of the militia, which was hell bent on creating problems on its borders. Pakistan, on its part, never took kindly to the overt and covert support provided by Teheran to the Northern Alliance. Islamabad also had reasons to believe that Iran was aiding and abetting the sectarian violence in Pakistan.

Only time will tell how long the camaraderie between the two neighbours will last. But there is a message in it for Washington. Unlike Pakistan, Iran is opposed to a pro-active role by the U.S. in Afghanistan and in the region. Iran refused to join the U.S.-led coalition against Afghanistan, though reports suggest that it did covertly help in the operations.

For all the pronouncements about being a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition, Pakistan's discomfort over the U.S. objectives in Afghanistan is growing. There is a sense of 'betrayal' by Washington after it enlisted the services of the military government in the war against Afghanistan. The U.S. looked the other way as the Northern Alliance forces marched into Kabul much against the wishes of the Musharraf government. Since then the problems between Washington and Islamabad have multiplied. The death of hundreds of Afghan and non-Afghan fighters, who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance, has added to the tension.

THE growing contradictions between Pakistan and the U.S. on the operations and goals in Afghanistan become apparent in the press briefing by the U.S.-led coalition's spokesman in Islamabad. Since November 20 the coalition has been having its own briefing at the American Centre by its spokesman Kenton Keith, a retired Ambassador. He announced on the first day of the briefing that there was great enthusiasm among coalition partners to send their envoys to Kabul even as Islamabad was pleading with the world not to do so before the interim arrangement was finalised.

Briefing the media on his interaction with U.S. Ambassador James F. Dobbins, the spokesman disclosed that he has discussed with the Northern Alliance the possibility of establishing a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul pending the outcome of security assessments.

The massacre of prisoners of war at Mazar-i-Sharif was another matter of concern to Pakistan. There were reports that Pakistani regulars were among them and some reports even suggested that Pakistani helicopters had rescued a few of them. The killings took place despite pleas by Pakistan and international human rights organisations for a humanitarian approach.

As Michael Griffin, author of the book Reaping the Whirlwind (on the Taliban phenomenon) and Project Director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting based in London noted a day before the incident:

"It came even as Northern Alliance political leaders prepared to descend on Bonn... to discuss the future government of Afghanistan.

"Just how and when Kunduz falls will be critical to those international negotiations in Bonn, because the manner and timing will say much about the Northern Alliance's intentions and its credibility as a responsible governing force. Kunduz has emerged as a poisoned chalice, both for the Northern Alliance and for the U.S. and the U.N. Alliance leaders understand only too well that the fall of the city to their forces could lead to the massacre of non-Afghan fighters, loyal to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, even if they instruct commanders to take them prisoner.

"The hatred of foreign forces is particularly strong among the Uzbek and Hazara members of the alliance, whose communities in Mazar-i-Sharif and the Hazarajat were the victims of excessive brutality under Taliban rule in which Al Qaeda fighters collaborated." But his words fell on deaf ears.

THE killing formed the backdrop to the World Bank-sponsored international conference in Islamabad in the last week of November on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The gathering was naturally cautiously optimistic about a road map for recovery. The three-day conference concluded with what conference spokeswoman Dale Lautenbach said was a rich basis for a multi-sectoral needs assessment for the country. "Delegates were urged throughout to 'see Afghanistan through the eyes of Afghans', and when international participants blinked, there were enough Afghan colleagues to open their eyes," she said.

The conference was designed to prepare for the huge task of reconstructing Afghanistan. The United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, co-hosts, have formed a team to prepare a preliminary needs assessment in readiness for a high-level meeting in Tokyo in January, she explained.

"There is, of course, much more work to be done, but the level of consultation with Afghanistan's NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and professional community at the conference has established an important foundation for this urgent work," Lautenbach maintained.

The difficulties for the military regime in Pakistan are not confined to the uncertainty in Afghanistan. The debate in the Western media and among think tanks about the safety of the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan refuses die down. The Musharraf government, obvobviously under pressure from Washington, has detained two of its former nuclear scientists for their alleged links to Osama bin Laden and Al Queda. The military government is finding it difficult to contradict, on daily basis, reports in the Western media that the U.S. has sought their extradition for interrogation.

The controversy has had its impact on Pakistan. Jane's Defence Weekly noted:

"The reports that Osama bin Laden is in the market for a nuclear weapon surprise no one, but this desire has refocussed attention on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal - currently the only known Islamic atomic bomb. Clearly the quickest way for the world's most wanted man to obtain the ultimate deterrent would be to get a readymade weapon from just across the border. So, how safe is Pakistan's arsenal and how secure is the man with his finger on the button?

"The obvious fear for the USA and India is what happens to these weapons if hard-line military forces topple General Musharraf. This is not a new concern and it came as no surprise when an Indian political official gave Jane's Foreign Report assurances that plans were already in place to deal with such a scenario.

"By one account, well-trained U.S. Special Forces and the Israeli 'Sayeret Matkal' unit, responsible for the Entebbe raid, have been training together for a lightning raid designed to disarm the Pakistani deterrent. Indian Special Forces have also rehearsed such an operation. It would be surprising if (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair had not also volunteered British SAS forces. Of course, a complex system of decoy warheads and secure storage makes such an operation a one-chance-only job. This makes it imperative that Musharraf maintains his position and he may need to rely on his new friends to achieve security of tenure."

As if all this was not enough, the former Prime Minister and chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), during her recent visit to India, made some serious charges against Musharraf and raised doubts over his intention to restore democracy before the October 2002 deadline that he had set.

There is a hue and cry among the religious and fundamentalist forces in Pakistan over the designs of the U.S. vis-a-vis the nuclear assets of Pakistan. Musharraf has threatened to take stern action against the fundamentalist forces in the country in the coming days.

There is little doubt that he has his task cut out. It would not be easy for him to curb the activities of the fundamentalists given their links to the jehad in Kashmir. Any effort by Musharraf to curtail them could lead to criticism that he is buckling under U.S. pressure and preparing to sacrifice the Kashmir cause. It is one risk that no one in Pakistan would like to take.

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