Features | Politics | South Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan Take Center Stage

Afghanistan and Pakistan returned to prominence in 2008 after several years on the periphery.

By Mustafa Qadri for

Called ‘the central front’ by Barack  Obama, Pakistan and Afghanistan have endured another year of turmoil, writes Mustafa Qadri

Afghanistan and Pakistan returned to prominence in 2008 after several years on the periphery. In Pakistan, one of the most celebrated allies of the Bush White House was unceremoniously forced to resign. Although President Pervez Musharraf’s demise in August was largely due to domestic politics, his foreign supporters were also left to rue the extremist threat he failed to quell.

Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai’s political fortunes have not been as dire, although few expect him to survive the elections slated for 2009. The man derisively called the ‘Mayor of Kabul’ has struggled to exert influence beyond the nation’s capital ever since he was first made interim president in June 2002 and president in October 2004. Despite a series of cabinet reshuffles this year, his power still rests on continued Western support and that of local warlords.

‘Today, virtually every major terrorist threat that my agency is aware of has threads back to the tribal areas [between Pakistan and Afghanistan],’ CIA Director Michael Hayden informed the Atlantic Council in November. For the administrations of Afghanistan’s Karzai and new Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, the greatest challenge in the coming year will be to convince the world that they are meeting these threats.

Meanwhile, the plight of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis who suffered at the hands of both the insurgents and counterinsurgents remained largely overlooked throughout the year. The UN estimates that 1445 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the first eight months of 2008. Of these, 800 were attributed to the Taliban, 577 to pro-Government forces and 395 as a result of NATO air strikes. 68 were not attributable. Insurgents killed 262 foreign soldiers in the year, including three Australians, 40 Britons and 152 Americans.

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According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (www.satp.org), there were 1660 civilian deaths in Pakistan due to the Taliban insurgency up to November. The mainstream religious political party, Jamaat-i-Islami, which runs humanitarian missions in the tribal conflict zones, claims that more than 2000 civilians have been killed in Pakistan army operations

The fall of Musharraf

The year began in the shadows of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination by still-unknown assailants on 27 December, 2007. A titanic struggle for political control quickly ensued between Musharraf and rivals Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he had ousted in a bloodless coup eight years earlier, and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. The latter’s eventual triumph caps a remarkable revival for a man who spent almost 12 years in prison between 1990 and 2004.

Zardari has inherited the power to appoint the heads of the armed forces and dismiss the national assembly. He has promised to curtail these powers, but how and when remains unclear. Whether Zardari becomes Pakistan’s first civilian dictator since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto appointed himself Civilian Martial Law Administrator in 1971 remains to be seen.

Sharif also ends 2008 in a stronger position. With his skilful use of rhetoric deriding the foreign presence in Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army’s unpopular war with Taliban insurgents, Sharif has become the most popular leader in the country. But with an approval rating of around 38 per cent, according to one poll, his popularity is far from overwhelming.

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has done more to shape Pakistan’s fortunes in 2008 than any other single event. In death she was canonised as the martyred leader of Pakistan’s latest democracy movement. It was an image carefully nurtured by Asif Zardari, who placed her photo on the lectern while addressing the UN General Assembly in September.

In contrast, Pervez Musharraf cut an increasingly isolated figure in the dying months of his rule. By August the army and government reached a quiet agreement not to challenge one another in the wake of his demise. During official Independence Day celebrations, just days before Musharraf resigned on 18 August, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani praised army chief Ashfaq Kayani: ‘I want to assure you that army chief General Kayani is… highly professional and he is pro-democracy.’

Pakistan’s economic conditions have deteriorated markedly over the past 12 months. Inflation hovered between 20 and 30 per cent throughout the year, while energy supplies struggled to cope with demand, leading to long, daily blackouts in every major city. With its foreign reserves dwindling at an alarming rate, Pakistan was compelled to sign a US$7.6 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in early November.

Pakistan’s army remains the country’s cornerstone, as demonstrated by the civilian administration’s inability to increase oversight of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the most powerful covert operations agency in the Pakistan army. Both General Kayani and head of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met with senior US officials soon after commencing their appointments this year.

Increasing military operations

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Under intense pressure from the US, the Pakistan army launched major military operations against Taliban strongholds in the country’s mountainous north-west in 2008. The army boasts of killing more militants every day – including 1500 since August in one operation alone. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that around 310,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, mostly as a result of the army’s activities.

The US, too, has accelerated its unilateral missile strikes in Waziristan, the tribal region on Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line (the 2640km border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) that is perhaps the Taliban’s most robust stronghold. There have been at least 19 US missile strikes in Pakistan since Musharraf’s resignation in August and three attempted ground assaults on suspected al-Qaeda hideouts.

Obama threatened unilateral strikes within Pakistan

During the US election period, Barack Obama threatened unilateral strikes on al-Qaeda targets within Pakistan should its government prove unwilling or unable to act. His statements bear a striking resemblance to US policy under George W Bush. In July, President Bush authorised commando raids in Pakistan, although, according to a New York Times report in November, such raids have been occurring since 2004.

Pakistan issued strong public condemnations of the US attacks and the US Ambassador was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on two occasions. But behind the bluster lay quiet resignation. In October, Secretary of Defence Kamran Rasool told a senate committee that Pakistan had no option but to accept US policy, because the country would collapse within a matter of days without its support.

The Taliban increased its attacks in urban areas of Pakistan as it continued to lose direct military confrontations with the Pakistan Army. Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, was the hardest hit. Local police reported 124 kidnappings in the city, including diplomats from Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own ambassador to Afghanistan. A US official also narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. A number of journalists and aid workers were killed.

Attacks against Pakistanis, along with Benazir Bhutto’s bloody assassination in Rawalpindi and the powerful late-September blast that killed 60 at the Mariott Hotel in Islamabad, brought the conflict home to ordinary citizens. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 63 per cent feel less secure this year than last.

Taliban regaining influence in Afghanistan

‘The Taliban continued to infiltrate western, north-western and north-eastern Afghanistan,’ notes veteran Afghanistan observer Antonio Giustozzi from the London School of Economics. Emblematic of its success was the increased insecurity felt in Afghanistan’s capital. A relative oasis of peace for the past several years, Kabul became an increased target for Taliban attacks. In January the city’s top hotel was bombed. Suicide and missile attacks continued as the year wore on. In March, during a military parade, insurgents tried to assassinate President Karzai and cabinet ministers. Around the same time, several foreign aid workers were kidnapped or killed.

The Karzai Government stepped up its efforts to recruit members of the Taliban. In January, for instance, a former Taliban commander was made governor of the frontline Musa Qala district of southern Afghanistan. In September, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the Saudi Government arranged informal peace talks between the Karzai Government and representatives of elements of the Taliban.

More surprises were to follow when, in November, President Karzai publicly offered to reconcile with Mullah Mohammed Omar, founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, if he renounced his ties with al-Qaeda, stopped attacks on Afghan and foreign forces and acknowledged the Afghan constitution established under US auspices in 2004.

Afghans were not the only ones to consider negotiations. Newspaper reports in October revealed that Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of British forces in Afghanistan, favoured a political solution involving the Taliban. His comments were supported by General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the chief of the French army, and the UN’s top official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide. ‘We all know that we cannot win it militarily,’ Eide said at a press conference in Kabul. ‘It has to be won through… political engagement [with the Taliban].’

Such sentiments gained ground among US planners, too. Speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, United States Central Command (US CENTCOM) chief General David Petraeus said that negotiations with ‘reconcilable’ elements of the Taliban could, in part, reduce the violence.

‘Ultimately,’ added US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Europe, ‘there has to be… reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this.’

In November, unnamed Obama advisers were quoted in The Washington Post as claiming the president-elect would consider peace talks with more moderate elements within the Taliban. Yet Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, quickly doused such speculation when he warned that negotiations with the Taliban remain premature.

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For its part, the Taliban still officially refuses to negotiate until foreign troops leave the country. With Obama’s pledge to increase the 40,000-strong US military presence in Afghanistan by up to 20,000 in 2009, the prospects of peace look remote for next year.

Mustafa Qadri is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.