The Afghan Chess-board and Pakistan

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. (File Photo: IANS) by .
Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

Pakistan is using the Taliban card to push for leniency on economic aid, the US could well be doing the same is reverse to Pakistan in the hope that Imran Khan will play ball. This is where the deep state in Pakistan comes in and given past precedence, it seems rationale to assume that the military will make the best out of the given situation….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. (File Photo: IANS) by .
Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

There is nothing unusual about Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan claiming that his country helped facilitate the dialogue between the US and Afghan Taliban recently in Doha. After all, the Afghan Taliban has been nurtured and sustained by the deep state in Pakistan since the early 1990s and  this relationship continues to this day. That the US continues to depend on Pakistan for its overtures towards the Taliban became evident when President Donald Trump wrote to Pakistani prime minister seeking his assistance in resolving the Afghan situation.

That Pakistan will use every opportunity it has and every card up its shoulder to play the great game in Afghanistan is apparent, for Pakistan needs IMF money which means US pressure. At this juncture therefore, Pakistan will do America’s bidding, but only to the point that it suits them. Asking Pakistan to present the Afghan Taliban on a platter to the US would have been the thing that Trump wanted, but instead is faced with a militarily strong Taliban and one that has the full backing of the Pakistani state.

In this situation, it is reasonable to assume that the US will do anything to get its objectives fulfilled in Afghanistan. Consider the fact that US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had proposed postponing the Presidential Election by six months so as to enable a dialogue with the Taliban to be completed prior to conduct of the election.

 by U.S. Embassy Kabul.
US Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad (File)

Well, that has almost happened as Afghanistan Independent Election Commission has announced a three-month postponement to the Presidential Election scheduled to have been held on 20 April 2019. That is the first step in what the Taliban visualises as the withdrawal of US and other international troops from Afghanistan. It is in this context that one must read President Trump’s tweet about withdrawing around 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. That this impulsive tweet on the actual withdrawal has since been denied by a senior White House official raises doubts about intentions and actual plan of action. It does appear to be that Trump intended in the first place to reduce troops strength in Afghanistan along the lines of Syria.

That Jim Mattis chose to resign over this pull out indicates greater antipathy towards President Trump in the US system than was thought of before. What exacty US objectives in Afghanistan are is anybody’s guess, particularly under President Trump. The only case to be made is to get out fast, nothing beyond that. Actually, the US is not interested in anything beyond that, period!

While Russia and Iran, publicly demand a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, in private they are aware that total withdrawal of US forces would result in a return to power of the Taliban. Pakistan is the only country which fervently hopes that US troops will get out of Afghanistan. And they are willing to help the US in this process by getting the Taliban to talk to US interlocutors. However, the price to be paid for this by the US is that Pakistan should be brought out of the pale and given assistance to help it tide over its precarious balance of payments situation. To this end, Pakistan has roped in UAE and Saudi Arabia to act as intermediaries to talk to the Taliban. The direction that Pakistan is taking is to get the US and others to agree to Taliban participation in the Afghan government prior to the Presidential elections. This would ensure that Ashraf Ghani’s position as President would get further undermined.

Photo show the blast site near Sidarat Square in Kabul, Afghanistan –
(Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah) (djj)

The other thing that Pakistan has accomplished in the last few months is to get the release of the Taliban Five from Qatar. These five seasoned Taliban leaders have been attached to the Taliban Political Office in Doha and act as the emissaries of the Taliban. For Pakistan, these five represent the old guard and provide greater leverage over the Taliban leadership based in Quetta Pakistan. This is also a sign that Pakistan has control over the Haqqani Network but has not been able to convince Sirajuddin Haqqani of the advantages of talking to the Americans. The Mullah Yaqoob faction, however, has indicated its willingness to engage in a conversation with the US. So Pakistan is basically seeking greater control over the Taliban by bringing the Taliban Five back.

Talking about talks is the first Pakistan tactic in the Afghan great game. The other is to keep the Taliban on a high, to ensure that factionalism does not take deep roots. Fortunately for Pakistan, the Taliban under Habiatullah Akhundzada has maintained a semblance of unity.

Akhundzada has continued with the military tactics of his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour and Sirajuddin Haqqani. But he finds it easier to leave the talking part to his representatives in Doha, who incidentally are controlled by Pakistan. This division of labour makes it difficult for the US to directly approach the Taliban. Actually, the US has itself to blame for this mess, for it created a false division of not recognising the Taliban as a international terrorist organization while it labelled the Haqqani Network as a terrorist outfit.

In other words, Pakistan is very much in the driver’s seat in Afghanistan, what with the US showing its desperation to get out as fast as possible. Or is that just a show put up by President Trump to get the best deal out of Afghanistan? Anything is possible in the current situation. There could be reasoned madness in Trump’s action as he seeks to put pressure on Pakistan while acting tough on Afghanistan, both of which are intended to get Pakistan to act on the Afghan Taliban. It might be argued that is giving too much credit to President Trump but needs to be factored in calculations anyways.

The argument here is that just as Pakistan is using the Taliban card to push for leniency on economic aid, the US could well be doing the same is reverse to Pakistan in the hope that Imran Khan will play ball. This is where the deep state in Pakistan comes in and given past precedence, it seems rationale to assume that the military will make the best out of the given situation. The bottomline in Pakistan today, and Imran Khan knows this very well, that the military calls the ultimate shots, while the government is left holding the economy, which is sinking pretty fast! That apart, the military knows that it can keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan for as long as they want while keeping the US guessing. That is what the Pakistani ISI is doing today to ensure that the Taliban is in power in Afghanistan tomorrow.

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