As U.S.-led NATO forces brace themselves for a likely pullout from Afghanistan, from the longest and costliest military campaign in history, the already tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has begun experiencing hiccups. The faltering relationship threatens to push south Asia into a new era of destabilization.
The latest trouble between the bickering neighbors is a controversy over a concrete gate erected by Pakistan on its border with Afghanistan to check infiltration into its territory. But Kabul, which had in the past accused Islamabad of failing to check infiltrations, raised a strange hue and cry over the gate, alleging it was erected inside Afghan territory in violation of the Durand Line, the un-demarcated border between the two countries which runs through mountainous terrain.
A bad omen
This trouble is a bad omen for Pakistan which is on the verge of one of the bloodiest elections in its history, as bombs going off almost every day in markets, public places and election rallies, killing and wounding people including candidates and political leaders. The violence has threatened the polls scheduled for May 11, meaning they could be postponed anytime.
It is an open secret that Karzai’s rule is confined only to Kabul, elsewhere in Afghanistan the Taliban rule the roostMansoor Jafar
Against this backdrop, the two countries held U.S.-sponsored talks in Brussels, aimed at finding ways and means to ease the tension between them. But the talks remained inconclusive despite the fact that they featured key personalities like Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani.
The most significant item on the agenda of the talks was General Kayani leading Pakistan’s side, against the top elected leaders from Afghanistan and U.S., this sent the message that Islamabad’s foreign policy was still formulated at military headquarters instead of the foreign office. Though Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister has a limited mandate, as the holder of foreign affairs portfolio he should have formally led the delegation to give a positive message to the world.
NATO is under immense two-pronged pressure. On one hand, it was unable to achieve any significant target against the Taliban, despite running the world’s costliest and longest ever war, and on the other, it is pushed by the pullout deadline of 2014. Their worries about Afghan security forces’ inability to control the Taliban after their pullout are justified. That is why NATO spokesman, in a post-talk statement, reiterated that Islamabad should make effective progress against the Taliban.
This 12-year war is a series of failures for Washington. After failing to eliminate the Taliban in initial years, Washington changed its strategy several times. They invited the Taliban to participate in the political process. Several countries in the Middle East were encouraged to act as guarantors and middlemen, and the Taliban were even allowed to set up political offices in Qatar. But everything failed to the dismay of Washington and the Karzai administration, whose ruling mandate is very close to ending.
It is an open secret that Karzai’s rule is confined only to Kabul, elsewhere in Afghanistan the Taliban rule the roost. Recently, the Taliban kidnapped 11 foreigners including eight Turks after their helicopter, which was going to Kabul from Khost, made a forced landing in Logar due to bad weather. The Karzai administration is unable to locate or recover the abductees, while NATO dissociated from them, saying they were civilians and had no connection with the military campaign, though reports suggested all the passengers of the chopper were clad in U.S. army uniforms.
Against this backdrop, the Karzai administration is accusing Islamabad of not implementing an effective crackdown against the Taliban, to cover up its own failure inside its territories. Kabul completely ignores the sacrifices made by Islamabad to support the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan. Kabul also ignores the fact that Pakistan suffered heavily in terms of human and material losses across its length and breadth as the U.S. war on terror spilled into its territories in shape of bomb blasts and a host of other kinds of subversion carried out by those elements who, Islamabad says, come from Afghanistan. Besides, Pakistan suffered over $75 billion material losses providing logistic support and bases to NATO forces that carried out thousands of attacks against Taliban forces from its soil. This amount is more than Pakistan’s foreign debts, to which Islamabad pays millions of dollars every years as debt service at the cost of multiplying the miseries of its citizens.
Bracing for change
As Pakistan is bracing to welcome a new democratic government, Washington’s biggest worry is if Islamabad’s new democratic rulers make any policy changes that create problems with regards to pulling out from Afghanistan and the smooth functioning of post-pullout administrations in Kabul. Washington savors the ugly memories of pullout from Vietnam, during which it suffered a significant number of casualties.
Washington’s top priority at the moment is to prevent chaos and casualties in the post-pullout period, at the hands of Taliban. But it is yet to ensure that horror is not going to visit U.S. forces again.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar