Afghanistan: The war the world forgot

  • Vikram Sood
  • Updated: Jul 26, 2016 19:25 IST
Relatives and friends inspect shoes and other belongings of those who were killed in the twin suicide attack, gathered on the ground at a mosque in Kabul. (AFP Photo)

On Saturday, a suicide attack killed more than 85 people and wounded more than 200 during a peaceful protest march by Shia Hazaras in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghanistan, which has been fighting the Pakistan-based and supported Taliban, is now also facing terror from Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack. Sadly, Afghanistan, which was once portrayed as United States President Barack Obama’s good war, is now his forgotten war. He would rather contemplate sending 1,000 troops to Poland against a prospective, maybe imagined, threat from Russia. This is safer than having to bolster forces in Afghanistan, where Americans increasingly say they have no interest.

The suggestion by Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan that the US should ignore Pakistan, cut off aid and military supplies to that country, will not be accepted in Washington DC, despite Pakistan’s dubious record as a US ally. The drone attack in May that killed Mullah Mansour was a surprise — but that he was killed a few kilometres away from Quetta inside Pakistani territory was not. Mansour was not even the first malcontent to be found on Pakistani soil. It was simply the sort of action that the US should have begun a decade ago.

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Up until 2005 Pakistan pretended to help the US in its global war on terror by periodically handing over inconvenient al Qaeda operatives like Abu Zubeidah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the US for a ransom.

Only time will tell if the attack was just a warning that US patience with Pakistan, for its support for Taliban and its attitude toward Afghanistan, was running out or a serious rerun of the “Are you with us or against us?” line. The chances are that this will not be a game-changer even though the Taliban accounted for 1,093 terror attacks in 2015, the largest number in the world. The US has far too many distractions in its election year and the world is otherwise occupied with multiple crises. The chances are that Pakistan will carefully calibrate its actions till the next president takes office and not pressure the Taliban in any substantial way. It will also use this window of opportunity to try to extend its control in Afghanistan and to exacerbate the situation in Kashmir.

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Wars against international terror have to be fought by nations cooperating with each other. A major component of this is intelligence cooperation on the ground where all the hard work is done. The killing of Mansour without informing the Pakistanis, as in the case of Osama bin Laden, underscores the abysmal nature of the relationship between US and Pakistani intelligence agencies, wholly based on opportunism and acute mistrust. This has been a major problem on the ground that has hindered US ability to assert itself in Pakistan or to force a change in attitude, enabling Pakistan to extricate itself from many awkward situations.

At the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s the Americans had outsourced the jihad to the ISI, who as the sole recipients of money and material, controlled the destiny of the various mujahedeen groups. Pakistan was looking for strategic depth against India after 1971 but the US was looking to defeat the Soviet Union. Their goals were different but relations between the two intelligence agencies were generally not strained. Pakistan was left free to pursue its quest for the nuclear bomb and abet Sikh terrorism.

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The cooperation in the present phase started off badly because the first Pakistani emissary to Mullah Omar in 2001, the DG ISI Lt General Mahmood Ahmed sent on US insistence, gave the exact contrary advice to Omar. He urged the Taliban to fight on. Pervez Musharraf was at that time on a weak wicket and was unable to resist angry American demands that Ahmed be replaced. His successor, Lt General Ehsan ul Haq was the embodiment of cooperation. His replacement in 2004, the future army chief Lt General Ashfaq Kayani reverted to form, viciously. The CIA-ISI relations plummeted and Kayani’s successor in 2007, Lt General Nadeem Taj made this worse. By then, the CIA became increasingly wary of the Pakistani establishment and its propensity to leak and double-cross, and stopped sharing vital intelligence.

The only aspect that is new in the latest US drone attack is that this was in restive Balochistan where the situation on the ground remains volatile. Continued instability worries Islamabad fearing that the Chinese may walk away from the province along with their mega-billion projects.

Read | ‘Pakistan­-based groups target India goals in Afghanistan’

This is happening at a time when India’s future in the region looks brighter following the tripartite Afghanistan-Iran-India deal on Chabahar. India’s stock has risen further with the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Herat and the Agriculture University in Kandahar. It is in India’s and Afghanistan’s interest that the Afghan National Security Forces be strengthened. India could be the bridge between the US and Afghanistan. India could help establish contacts among regional leaders. India needs to develop capabilities to carry on with its activities, regardless of Pakistani intentions.

Pakistan can be expected to continue to pressure Afghanistan through the Haqqani networks and the Taliban. Pakistan probably presumes it has a window of opportunity to push forward with its usual activities against India. The escalation of terrorism in Kashmir could be a last attempt to draw US attention by raising fears of an ultimate nuclear escalation or try and regain its position in the Valley as the US remains preoccupied.

Finally, most Indian analysts and the media have bought into the narrative that Islamic State is the new threat to India, relegating by implication, the threat from Pakistan-based jihadis. Islamic State is indeed a threat but to some extent it obscures Pakistan’s nefarious role in terror in the region and this is something the US should not lose sight of.

Vikram Sood is former chief, Research & Analysis Wing. The views expressed are personal.

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