Just before the first anniversary, this week, of the NATO attack on the Pakistani military check posts in Salala, Pakistan has released some mid-level Taliban leaders that it had held. The post-Salala sabre- rattling between an angry Pakistan and an unrepentant United States almost caused the bilateral relations to snap. Frigid standoff followed the bitter spat and Pakistan blocked the NATO ground supply route through its territory. A face-saving apology of sorts was squeezed out of the US, a thaw ensued and the supply line reopened. It was business as usual between the frenemies.
The Taliban release is purported to be not merely a goodwill token towards the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) delegation that visited Pakistan but is also being showcased to mark a ‘sea change’ in Pakistan’s notorious policy towards Afghanistan viz. its quest for the strategic depth. A slew of reports in the western and Pakistani media appearing before and after the Taliban leaders’ release quoting Pakistani officials and analysts close to the Pakistani security establishment claim that not only has Pakistan jettisoned its strategic depth policy but has also been reaching out to Afghan groups other than its Taliban proxies.
A former chief of the ISI General (retired) Javed Ashraf Qazi who was my co-panellist on a recent VOA Urdu talk show would have the world believe that this ‘paradigm shift’ is the next best thing since sliced bread. Pakistan talking to some of the erstwhile Northern Alliance Afghan leaders, helping Afghans and the US jump start the talks with the Taliban, and ultimately blessing a broad-based government in Kabul, does sound promising. Promising to the uninitiated, that is. Ironically, such PR gestures have been tried before too. Just before Pakistan put its weight behind the Taliban after failing to impose its Pashtun favourite Gulbudin Hikmatyar in the Afghan civil war (1992-1994), there was a flurry of activity involving invitations to Ahmed Shah Masud and Rashid Dostum to Islamabad. The Pakistani establishment, it seems, modifies only the appearance but does not change the substance of its script. The Pakistani shenanigans sound just too good to be true.
An assessment of the level of fighting during the winter down time is fraught with inaccuracy but it is perhaps a safe bet that the US and the Taliban have reached a plateau and further incremental gains are less likely. No major US offensive is expected in the summer months lest the Taliban pull off a game changer. Both sides seem to be consolidating their positions and wish to translate them into some tangible political gains. In other words, it is a stalemate in Afghanistan. The US apparently has given up on the prospects of a Pakistani operation against the Haqqani Network in the North Waziristan and is resigned to the idea that the road to Mullah Omar goes through Rawalpindi. Pakistan is doing on the diplomatic front what the Taliban did in the battlefield of Kabul in November 2001: melt away without putting up a fight only to regroup and resurge at the time of their and Pakistan’s choosing. The Taliban retreated though in the face of an overwhelming US might while Pakistan is doing so sensing the US vulnerability written in red letters on the withdrawal calendar.
The Pakistani diplomatic position clearly seems to be a tactical retreat rather than a real change of heart and strategy. The original Pakistani goal was to have its Taliban proxies at the head of the table in Kabul but for now it would settle even for a toehold so long as that gives the US enough reassurance that its withdrawal would be on time and not bloody and messy. The Pakistani calculation seems to be that the US has no strategic objectives left in Afghanistan. And as far as immediate tactical US concerns go a relative lull in fighting and some semblance of a coalition government in Kabul is a prerequisite for ending the US combat operations in 2013 and the pull out in 2014. The magnitude of post-2014 residual US force is an unknown but an artificial peace may even help reduce that to a skeleton crew.
The Pakistani strategy vis-à-vis the US in Afghanistan appears to be a replay of the wily General Zia-ul-Haq’s modus operandi against the Soviets: keep the pot simmering but do not bring it to a boil. Pakistan may even turn the heat down a notch. The overtures to the non-Pashtun Afghans are also a page from the old Pakistani playbook of 1990s where Saudi money and blessings were deployed to lure in Ahmed Shah Masud and the late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani. The rockets barrage by the Pakistani proxies Gulbudin Hikmatyar and then the Taliban on Kabul ruled by Masud and the elder Rabbani is the fine print in the Pakistani script that the Afghans today can ignore only at their peril. The formula is simple: say and do whatever it takes to get the US out. The mice will play once the cat is away.
In its quest for the strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan in fact has kept providing reverse strategic depth to its jihadist proxies that it deployed recklessly against Afghanistan and India. An ideological milieu and jihadist infrastructure were created not just in the tribal frontier regions but in the Punjab in the heart of Pakistan to groom and launch these jihadists. A conformist, puritanical Islam sanctioned by the Pakistani state and pushed through the mosque— and now electronic— pulpit has radicalized two generations of Pakistanis. Over 50 Shia Muslims were killed and more than 300 injured in over 50 terrorist attacks, including several bombings, in the first 10 days of the Muharram month. The federal interior minister Rehman Malik thinks that illegal mobile phone SIM cards and motorbikes are the root cause of the terror that has put the Shia— one-fifth of the country’s population— under siege. In pursuit of its strategic depth Pakistan’s military-jihadist combine has churned out thousands of human killing machines programmed to exterminate the Shia, the Ahmedis and non-Muslims. And there is absolutely no indication that the Pakistani state is willing or even interested in decommissioning its jihadist assets. In fact, some Punjab-based jihadists like Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi of the Takfiri banned terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan operating under a new name Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ) will likely be launched into electoral politics soon.
The US has its circumscribed interests to look after in the region and can opt to leave Afghanistan after securing them. The Afghans and the regional powers including India, and most importantly the common Pakistanis will have to live with the consequences of what is unravelling in the run up to the US withdrawal. Without Pakistan reversing the reverse strategic depth it has given to the jihadists this talk of ‘paradigm shift’ will remain hogwash.
Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a regular columnist for the Daily Times, Pakistan where an abridged version of this column appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mazdaki