- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

U.S. officials and a former Afghan foreign minister are expressing skepticism over Pakistan-brokered talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and al Qaeda-affiliated groups, saying Islamabad appears to be trying to install its proxies in a future government in Kabul.

With an assessment for a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan set to begin in July 2011, Pakistan has stepped in to fill what it sees as a security vacuum in its neighborhood.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and its director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha are leading the vacuum-filling efforts. The two recently facilitated a meeting between Mr. Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network, according to an Al Jazeera news report over the weekend.

The Obama administration says it will consider dealing with only those groups that cease violence, support the Afghan Constitution and renounce al Qaeda. U.S. officials say the Haqqani network does not meet the criteria and describe the prospect of negotiations between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Haqqani as disturbing.

Still, Mr. Obama said over the weekend the negotiations should be viewed with “skepticism, but also openness.”

Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, on Monday said reports of a Karzai-Haqqani meeting were baseless.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss intelligence matters, said U.S. and Pakistani officials share a “regular, robust and candid” dialogue, including when differences arise. “Everyone’s eyes are wide open, of course, to the complexities of the Pakistanis’ historical relationships with certain players in the region,” the official said.

Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban is cause for frustration among U.S. and Afghan officials. They see in Pakistan’s recent actions as proof that the U.S. ally continues to support those groups and is seeking to secure spots for their pro-Pakistan leaders in a future Kabul government.

Abdullah Abdullah, a foreign minister in Mr. Karzai’s first Cabinet, described Pakistan’s actions as suspicious.

“The very fact that [the terrorists] trust Pakistan as a mediator is proof that Pakistan is still helping these al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” Mr. Abdullah said in a phone interview from Afghanistan.

Much like the Taliban, the Haqqani network continues to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“Peeling away lower-level fighters probably isn’t a bad idea, but the Haqqani leadership sure has a hell of a lot to answer for,” the U.S. official said. “The reality is that the Haqqanis have American blood on their hands. They routinely attack coalition forces in Afghanistan and are constantly plotting brutal acts of terror.”

Pakistan’s actions are being driven by a fear of encirclement by India and are a manifestation of the proxy war being waged with its longtime rival in Afghanistan, said former U.S. officials and analysts. The nuclear-armed neighbors in South Asia have fought three wars since achieving independence from Britain in 1947.

“Combined with the many other challenges facing Afghanistan today, the so-called proxy war of the Pakistan-India rivalry in that country makes the odds of Afghanistan becoming a stable country that much more difficult,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

India has invested billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s war-ravaged infrastructure, actions that Pakistan views with suspicion. Pakistani officials say Indian consulates in the Afghan cities of Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar provide cover for Indian intelligence agencies to run covert operations against Pakistan and foment unrest in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

India, in turn, accuses the ISI of supporting anti-India militants and orchestrating attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan. The deadliest of those attacks took place in July 2008, when a suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul killed more than 40, including the Indian defense attache.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said Pakistan’s primary aim is to ensure that no anti-Pakistan group is in power in Kabul. “A neutral government probably would also be acceptable,” he said. “The U.S. should be open to whoever is willing to enter the Kabul government. The final decision should be President Karzai’s.”

Mr. Nawaz said India and Pakistan are competing for Afghan affection — “India, by investing in selected areas, especially in the north; Pakistan, by trying to broker reconciliation efforts.”

Teresita Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the Indian-Pakistani rivalry makes it “almost impossible” to secure a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

Pakistan is unwilling to live with even “normal and modest” levels of Indian involvement in Afghanistan, said Mrs. Schaffer. “This is ironic, because a peaceful and decently governed Afghanistan would be the best thing for both Indian and Pakistani interests,” she said.

Early this month, two senior Afghan officials — Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh — resigned over Mr. Karzai’s approach to reconciliation with the Taliban. Mr. Saleh had publicly accused the Pakistani government of supporting extremist groups. With these critics out of the way, Pakistan stepped up its efforts to broker talks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karzai’s relationship with the West has come under strain in recent days after allegations of widespread corruption and diversion of foreign aid into offshore accounts.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and chairman of a House Appropriations panel that oversees Afghanistan’s reconstruction, said Monday that she would strip $3.9 billion for Afghanistan from a foreign aid bill because of the systemic corruption in the Kabul government.

“I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists,” Mrs. Lowey said.

Mr. Abdullah, who challenged Mr. Karzai in the presidential election in August, described Mr. Karzai’s outreach to terrorists as detrimental to the future of Afghanistan. “These terrorist groups are deeply involved with al Qaeda and behind most of the massacres of civilians. They will not make peace,” he said.

India’s influence in Afghanistan ebbed after the Pakistani-backed Taliban came to power in the 1990s, and India helped the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during that period. Relations with Afghanistan improved when Mr. Karzai, who was educated in India, took charge in Kabul in 2001.

For New Delhi officials, the inclusion of anti-India terrorists in Kabul’s government would signal a return to the days of the Taliban.

Indian foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan, writing in Monday’s edition of the Indian Express newspaper, voiced such concern: “Pakistan’s establishment-friendly media is hailing Kayani’s shuttle diplomacy as a ‘new beginning’ for Afghanistan. For Delhi, it is the biggest political challenge in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted from Kabul at the end of 2001.”

India and Pakistan have taken tentative steps toward restarting peace talks that were derailed after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. India and the U.S. blame the attacks on the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Mr. Inderfurth said talks between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan next month “provide an opportunity to begin to tackle and unravel the cycle of hostility, acrimony, and mutual suspicion that currently exists.”

“Afghanistan’s long-term security depends on it,” he said.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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