Afghanistan and Kashmir: Calling Islamabad’s bluff

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani

Last week, as the rushed Afghan peace plans were said to be ‘90%’ done, a grim sign of the impending future was shown by way of a horrific bomb blast that killed over 60 civilians in Kabul. The hapless Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been at his wits’ end, with the US negotiating unilaterally with the Taliban in Doha, while the opinion of the fledgling Afghan government remains unsolicited.

Just a couple of weeks back, another blast outside a police station in Kabul had killed 15 people, and the Taliban had brazenly owned responsibility for the attack. Yet, the US continued negotiations with the Taliban, to the consternation of the Afghan regime.

This inexplicable US urgency to extricate itself from war-torn Afghanistan has serendipitously brought Pakistan onto the negotiation table, even though its nefarious machinations with the Afghan Taliban are well documented and commented upon by various US military commanders on the ground. 

For the last 18 years, Pakistan has faced accusations of constant interference in Afghanistan in pursuit of its ‘strategic depth’, through the Taliban. Today, a virtual U-turn in US commitment and policy has paved the way for Pakistan to return and re-establish leverage in Kabul. The return of Taliban, after getting thrown-out by the US-led ‘war on terror’ in 2001, is now inevitable. Having sunk billions of dollars and lost over 3,500 lives, the Americans have lost appetite to sustain and are effectively working on an ‘agreement to withdraw’ and not on an ‘agreement for peace’. The US withdrawal is posited on the Pakistanis ensuring safe passage for the bulk of approximately 14,000 US troops, and the supposed safety of the interests of the remaining Afghan regime. This gives the Pakistanis immense influence with the US to ensure the withdrawal process and its aftermath. The Pakistani establishment senses the US desperation and is not averse to arm-twisting the US to its advantage, even beyond the strict confines of the Afghan-Pak realm.

Pakistan’s own desperation, following the lukewarm response to its frantic efforts to ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir issue, is also visible. New Delhi’s move to abrogate Article 370 in J&K has led to desperate attempts by the Pakistanis to blackmail the US by conjoining its Afghan peace plan with its wholly unrelated failure on the Kashmir front. The loaded threat to the US was made by the Pakistani Ambassador to the US when he linked the two issues by stating that the news on Article 370 “could not have come at a worse time”, and added “If the situation escalates on the eastern border, we will have to undertake redeployments.”

The implied import of the Pakistani threat was not lost on anyone, as Islamabad beseeched Washington DC to intervene on its behalf by way of some face-saving statement for Pakistan on the revocation of Article 370. Barring the expected cover-fire of the Chinese, Pakistan has met with an embarrassing silence on its pitch, with some allies like the United Arab Emirates going as far as to explicitly suggest ‘bilateral’ negotiations, as opposed to the Pakistani desire for third-party intervention.

The Afghans, who are still smarting from the incredulous return of the Pakistanis, went on the offensive immediately to call the Pakistani bluff and delink the two issues immediately. The Afghan Ambassador to the US, Roya Rahmani, articulated an aggressive, pointed and unequivocal objection to the Pakistani chicanery, when she stated, “Any such statements that link the evolving situation in Kashmir to the Afghan peace efforts are reckless, unwarranted and irresponsible.” The language of the Afghan rebuttal not only reiterated the ‘bilateral’ dimension of the Indo-Pak issue but also slammed the deliberate attempt of expansive obfuscation by Pakistanis as a “poor excuse”. In a move that could embarrass even the Americans, who are huddled with the Taliban and the Pakistanis, the Afghan Ambassador did some blunt talking and stated the obvious, “Afghan stability is frequently threatened by Pakistan-based, sanctioned and supported militant and terrorist groups.”

By vacating the Afghan theatre yet again, the Americans are poised to repeat history as the move promises the return of a dangerous ‘vacuum’ that they had created at the end of the Cold War, which ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban in the early 1990s. A similar ‘vacuum’ was allowed to fester and metamorphose into the phenomenon of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, post the achievement of the limited objective of ‘taking out’ Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi in Iraq and Libya, respectively. The Afghan regime in Kabul is under no illusion or hope about what lurks in the future, with the Pakistan-Taliban axis in play. More than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in combat operations against terrorism in just the last five years, and the Afghan government has consistently and squarely laid the blame on the Pakistanis for having nurtured the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan has earned global infamy for its duplicitous role in terror-management, with the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) still holding out the threat to ‘blacklist’ the nation for its continued support to terrorism. Since the early 1980s, Afghanistan has been the pet borough for the Pakistani establishment to negotiate, implore and squeeze aid. It hasn’t shied away from openly diverting and misusing its moment in history to further unrelated causes.

India and Afghanistan have repeatedly suffered due to the benefit-of-doubt, deliberate oversight and bargaining afforded to the Pakistani establishment, to secure temporary interests of the US. Both India and Afghanistan know, time is running out and the doomsday scenario looms with the announcement of the Afghan peace plan, which will essentially short-sell peace in the region. Therefore, the auto-instinctive move by the Afghans to correct the reality of two separate issues in the region, and not allow Pakistan to dictate the narrative.

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