Mind Games in Afghanistan (Page 3 of 3)

In his September 22 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Mike Mullen bluntly denounced the continuing links between the ISI and the Haqqani terrorist network. Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan deteriorated further when on November 26, U.S. attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship attacked two Pakistani border outposts near Afghanistan in the Mohmand tribal area shortly after midnight, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others. The Pakistani government accused NATO of having conducted an unprovoked, deliberate attack on Pakistani troops and the government retaliated by closing Pakistan’s two Afghan border crossings at Chaman and Torkham to NATO’s supply convoys.

And relations could very easily deteriorate further this year. Coalition and Afghan forces appear to have made considerable progress against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, but not in the eastern provinces, where they can exploit their sanctuaries in Pakistan. NATO figures indicate that there has been a 21 percent increase in enemy attack in eastern Afghanistan. As a result, this year will probably see the coalition shift its focus eastward, which will increase the fighting in the border regions.

But against this backdrop, it has to be said that the timing of the interrogation report’s release was suspicious. After months of strained relations since last September’s assassination of  former President Burhanuddin Rabbani by an alleged Pakistani agent, Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was making a one-day reconciliation visit on February 1 – the day the report hit the media – to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders.          

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Khar told reporters that: “We can disregard this as a potentially strategic leak…This is old wine in an even older bottle.” Expressing frustration that the affair was overshadowing her peace outreach effort, she added that, “We must start engaging in the end of blame games.”

Despite Afghan complaints that the Pakistani intelligence service renders aid to the Taliban and other militants, and that Pakistanis were involved in the assassination of Rabbani, the Karzai government wants Pakistan involved in any peace talks. In particular, Afghan officials acknowledge that Pakistani government support is needed to induce the Afghan Taliban to end its insurgency since the Afghan Taliban use Pakistani territory as their main base of operations. In addition, the Pakistani authorities have in the past arrested Afghan Taliban members who seemed inclined to negotiate with the Kabul government independently rather than through Pakistani-approved channels.

The State of the Taliban report’s release has therefore deepened mutual suspicions, with NATO governments newly irritated at Pakistani government assistance to the Afghan Taliban and with Pakistani officials see the release as designed to prevent an Afghan-Pakistan reconciliation and make it easier for Washington to negotiate a separate peace with the Afghan Taliban.

During the past year, U.S and Taliban representatives have been holding “talks about talks,” seeking to determine under what conditions to begin more formal negotiations in Qatar. Neither Afghan nor Pakistani government representatives have joined these sessions, and they now fear being marginalized in future rounds of peace talks.

After calling the report “frivolous,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Basit declared that: “We are committed to non-interference in Afghanistan and expect all other states to strictly adhere to this principle. We are also committed to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process.”

The Pakistani government has endorsed efforts at reintegration and reconciliation in Afghanistan, but Pakistani authorities want to determine which insurgents will enter the negotiations and what terms they will accept. Pakistani officials will hedge against the possibility that the Taliban will regain control of some, if not all, of Afghanistan, by maintaining operational ties with the group, despite Afghan and U.S. complaints.

Following the report’s release, NATO took several steps to improve its position. NATO representatives stressed that the military balance was in their favor, and NATO governments stressed their determination to maintain some kind of operational presence even after 2014, and that they would continue to provide military and economic assistance to the Afghan government even after that date.

Ultimately, though, NATO will have to accept that this won’t be the last time it has to go into damage limitation mode. The reality is that this coming year is likely to see more mysterious media leaks – and other games – as the parties try to shape the psychology of the Afghan end game.

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