Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Déjà vu : Afghanistan-ISI join hands to bring peace !

India tried to bloster non-Pushtoon Abdullah Abdullah during the previous Afghanistan elections. Now Hamid Karzai wants to undermine the Tajiks and give more control to the Pushtoons. ISI is backing Hamid Karzai starting a new chapter in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

Pakistani proposals for peace talks between President Hamid Karzai and an insurgent commander have triggered political tensions inside Afghanistan that analysts warn could dangerously destabilise the country.

Western officials say Pakistan's ISI spy agency has offered to negotiate with Sirajuddin Haqqani – an al-Qaida linked commander – as part of a broader initiative to find a find a settlement to the conflict.

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, are due to arrive in Kabul tomorrow for their third meeting with Karzai in recent months.

Frosty relations between the two sides have thawed in recent months; about 10 days ago reports emerged from Pakistan that the ISI was offering to "deliver" the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan in the tribal belt.

Today a suspected CIA drone attacked a compound in North Waziristan, killing at least three people, in the second strike in as many days. At the same time al-Jazeera television reported that the talks were so advanced that Karzai had met Haqqani in the presence of Kayani and Pasha – a report that officials denied emphatically.

But the very notion of Pakistani-sponsored talks has sparked consternation among Afghanistan's ethnically fractured opposition, who fear the rapprochement with Islamabad will see them excluded from any future political settlement.

"None of the players believe in the current strategy," opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah told the Guardian. "Karzai is going down the drain and taking the international community with him.

"If he thinks he can give [the Taliban] a few ministries and a few provinces, they will simply take those provinces and then force him out."

Abdullah said he was appalled that the Afghan president had recently referred to the Taliban with the affectionate "jan" suffix. "Talib-jan is how you would refer to your dearest young son – it would be considered too soft to use on a teenager."

Three weeks ago Karzai's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and his interior minister, Hanif Atmar, quit in protest at the new Pakistan policy. Both men are Tajiks; Saleh was previously a leading member of the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001.

Michael Semple, a regional expert, said he was alarmed at the speed with which the political class was fissuring.

"Sane people, who've been part of this process all along, are now saying the country won't survive till the end of the year," he said.

The proposed Haqqani talks have also annoyed US officials, who complain that Karzai is increasingly excluding them in favour of direct dealings with Pakistan. "Karzai hasn't done the groundwork for a deal. What happened with Saleh shows that there's a lot of consternation out there," said one western official.

The ISI, which has long been accused of harbouring the Taliban inside Pakistan's long western border, insists it is not manoeuvring to return the group to power in Afghanistan. An official said policy was to seek a political settlement involving all Afghan factions. "We can live with a hostile Afghanistan, as long as it is peaceful and stable," he said.

Relations between Karzai and Pakistan are thawing rapidly. Pakistani officials have begun to speak warmly of a figure they previously disparaged. The ISI offered him "unconditional support on any and all decisions he makes about the future of Afghanistan," the official said.

Despite the intense speculation, a senior Nato official in Kabul said progress towards a deal was "pretty tentative", adding there was "no real substance in terms of talks and what a deal with the ISI might look like". But he said that with a huge fight against "their own Taliban" the Pakistanis were reluctant to divert soldiers to tackling sanctuaries enjoyed by the Afghan Taliban. And although Karzai has tempered his anti-Pakistan rhetoric in public, he still distrusts the Pakistanis. "If anything, rapprochement between the two sides is frustratingly slow," he added.

It is not clear whether the ISI, for all its reputed influence, is able to "deliver" the Taliban or Haqqani group that easily. One western official said that while the agency has a strong relationship with the military groups, it was not clear whether it extended to "command and control".

"It's like Iran and Hezbollah," said the official. "It's much easier to judge when they are both moving in the same direction. But that is not always the case."

Semple, the analyst, warned that as players to the conflict jockey for position, some were engaging in "disinformation warfare" to influence public opinion. So far, he said, "the story with Haqqani talks is that it's just a story."

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