On Tuesday Jane Perlez at the NYT reported that Pakistan offered to mediate with Taliban factions who use its territory and have long served as its allies. This is not the first time that Pakistan floated such an idea. In July the Army’s spokesman Athar Abbas floated the idea during a CNN interview when he stated Pakistan still had contacts with various Taliban factions and hinted at what wanted [hint: it had something to do with keeping the country to its east out of the country to its west] in exchange for helping to broker a solution. That trial balloon got popped a few hours when the Inter-Services Public Relations denied Abbas ever made the comments.
This time around, the offer came from Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, during a meeting last month at NATO headquarters. Two things jump out from Perlez’s reporting. First, this:
Pakistani officials familiar with General Kayani’s thinking said that even as the United States adds troops to Afghanistan, he has determined that the Americans are looking for a fast exit.
The idea that Pakistan is moving because it thinks the U.S. is working on borrowed time could be read many ways, but two broad notions stand out. One is that America has done a poor job of convincing its allies and its enemies that it is prepared to stay the course and Pakistan is positioning itself to resume some sort of hegemonic relationship vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Maybe not turning the clock back to September 10th, but it has successfully waited the U.S. out and is now poised to deliver an acceptable peace.
The other is that Pakistan sees the writing on the wall and realizes that without the U.S. there in the long-term it is going to be forced to deal with a government in Kabul that is much closer to Delhi than it would like. Further, this suggests that Pakistan doubts whether, even without the U.S. there, it could turn the clock back to September 10th and enjoy a proxy government [even one that did not listen to it all that much] in Kabul.
In reality, both of these calculations probably exist simultaneously. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has claimed the ISI stayed out of Afghanistan more than the U.S. expected for the first 4-5 years of the fight because it assumed the U.S. would triumph. When the Taliban’s insurgency gained legs a few years back, the ISI reengaged. It probably did so out of fear and opportunism. In any event, the question is not just what Pakistan hopes to gain in terms of influence in Afghanistan, but what it can deliver for the U.S. and whether that aligns with American goals for the region.
This goes to the second item that jumped out at me:
What the Pakistanis can offer is their influence over the Taliban network of Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani, whose forces American commanders say are the most lethal battling American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network is responsible for much of the violence in southern Afghanistan and the major suicide bombing operations in the country. The Haqqani’s are close to al-Qaeda’s leadership – a relationship that goes back to the war against the Soviets – and have acted as a proxy for Pakistan in Afghanistan. It was responsible for planning the suicide bombing operation against the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008, which U.S. officials claim the ISI engineered. It also helped AQ and the TTP to stage the 30 December attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan. The million dollar question is, therefore, which way would the Haqqani’s swing?
My evolving sense of the ISI vis-à-vis control over proxies like these is that it has a lot more contact and influence than it claims publicly and a less influence than it claims privately. Could Pakistan get the Haqqani network to ratchet back in Afghanistan? Maybe. But could it get the Haqqani’s to deliver their AQ allies? I’m pretty skeptical. And while stability in Afghanistan would be great, the idea was always to degrade al-Qaeda. Perlez reports:
According to a Pakistani military official, the Pakistanis would first have to resolve where Qaeda fighters would go and whether they might be given safe passage to Yemen or another location.
This seems a bit far-fetched to me and I can’t imagine the U.S. agreeing to it. Of greater concern is that, if the U.S. does pull back from an Afghanistan where Pakistan has greater influence without rolling up al-Qaeda elements in the tribal areas then it is going to be much more difficult to keep the pressure on. Again, stabilizing Afghanistan would be wonderful and taking players like the Haqqanis off the pitch would go a long way toward doing that.
But fighting in Afghanistan was always supposed to be a means to the end of al-Qaeda elements in the region. On that score, Dan Markey who knows a thing or two about Pakistan summed it up pretty well when he told Perlez ‘The United States side is pretty worried about seeing a deal emerge that suits everyone other than us.’