Pakistan is playing a cat and mouse game

Gulf News, October 19, 2005

For over two years, Abdul Latif Hakimi regularly telephoned Pakistani and Western reporters and described himself as the spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban. He claimed responsibility, on behalf of the Taliban, for several terrorist attacks.

In June, when a MH-47 helicopter was shot down during an anti-guerrilla mission in Afghanistan’s Kunar province bordering Pakistan, killing all 16 American troops on board, Hakimi reported the incident to the media before US or Afghan officials. Hakimi’s claims were often exaggerated and sometimes totally fabricated. But no one doubted that he was based in Pakistan and he spoke on behalf of the Taliban.

Hakimi’s telephone press conferences and interviews, conducted on satellite and mobile phones, offered an embellished version of an emerging ground reality. After being toppled from power in the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban have reconstituted themselves in part of the Afghan countryside as an insurgent force, especially in several provinces dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Since the beginning of 2005, casualties in Afghanistan have been rising. Eighty-four American soldiers and 1,400 Afghans have been killed this year, more than any year since the arrival of US forces in 2001. The Taliban insurgency is weak and not yet as threatening as the violent challenge in Iraq. But Afghan insurgents are clearly getting arms, money and training. Through propaganda of the type waged by Hakimi, the Taliban are also recruiting new members.

When Pakistani authorities announced on October 4 that Hakimi had been arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta, near the Taliban’s traditional support base Kandahar, officials in Afghanistan were not impressed. Why had it taken the Pakistanis so long to silence Hakimi when he operated freely in Pakistan for over two years, they asked. What about other Taliban leaders who allegedly roam the streets of Quetta and other Pakistani cities and towns quite openly? Pakistan’s decision to arrest the Taliban spokesman was attributed to relentless US pressure.

American and Afghan officials realise that it would be difficult to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan if the Taliban and other enemies of President Hamid Karzai’s government continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan.

During the war against the Soviets, Pakistan’s military leader General Ziaul Haq had adopted a policy that would bleed the Soviets without goading them into direct confrontation with Pakistan. Pakistani intelligence officers used the metaphor “the water must not get too hot” to describe that policy. It seems that Pakistan is pursuing a similar policy in relation to Afghanistan today.

By allowing the Taliban to regroup and mount insurgent attacks across the border, Pakistan’s hopes to make it clear to Afghan leaders such as Karzai that they cannot stabilise their country without Pakistan’s help. At the same time, Pakistan does not want the situation to reach the point of inviting US reprisals.

Pakistan’s attitude towards Afghanistan was formed largely by historic developments of the nineteenth century when Britain and Russia competed for influence in Central Asia in what came to be known as the “Great Game” of espionage and proxy wars.

Demand for Pashtunistan

Since independence, Pakistan has been concerned about the demand for Pashtunistan, pursued vigorously by Afghanistan for many years and about Indian influence in Afghanistan that could make Pakistan a target of a pincer movement. Pakistan’s concern about the lack of depth in its land defences also led to the Pakistani generals’ strategic belief about the fusion of the defence of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s complicated role in Afghanistan beginning well before the Soviet invasion of 1979 and through the rise and fall of the Taliban can best be understood in light of this desire for fusion of the two states. Although friendly towards Pakistan, Karzai and other Afghan nationalists remain unwilling to accept Pakistan’s vision of Afghanistan as a sub-ordinate state. Afghanistan maintains close ties with India and expects to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Although Pakistan is engaged in a peace process with India, its generals remain fearful of Indian domination. India’s size coupled with its economic and military might make its ascendancy inevitable but that does not deter Pakistan from pursuing options of low intensity and sub-conventional warfare for greater regional influence a contemporary version of the great game.

Pakistan’s establishment will crack down on the Taliban only when it finds the cost of positioning itself as a major regional power unbearable. The US could help Pakistan realise the dangers of persisting with its traditional policies by refusing to publicly pretend that it is unaware of Pakistan’s regional double-dealing. An American brokered accord between Pakistan and Afghanistan to end the latent dispute over the Durand Line, coupled with international guarantees to end Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan might be the minimum requirements for durable peace in the region.