By Lt Gen P.C.Katoch (Retd.)*
Concurrent to launch of the Spring Offensive in Afghanistan, the incident where Pakistan was publicly unmasked perhaps went largely unnoticed. At a panel discussion in Jinnah Institute on April 8, Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan said it was important to build an environment of trust given the main hurdle to peace in the region was a trust-deficit with Pakistan. His explicit message was that Pakistan is the main hurdle in achieving peace with Taliban. Zakhilwal said, “it was important for both sides to talk to each other, and not at each other. Pakistan would always face roadblocks in its attempt to become a gateway to Central Asia, as would Afghanistan in its attempt to be a land-bridge to Central Asia, if peace continued to elude Afghanistan. Elements supporting violence in Afghanistan continued to use Pakistani territory…. Pakistan too has paid a price for the regional conflict, losing USD 70-80 billion annually due to instability in Afghanistan”.
Needless to mention Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Affairs Adviser on foreign policy to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, sharing the same dais with Omar Zakhilwal was left red faced, taking refuge behind the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). His response was that it is the QCG that would have to collectively decide how to deal with elements refusing to join the peace process. How very convenient! This from a man who was also wearing the twin hat of Pakistan’s National Security Advisor when Mullah Akhtar Mansour and the religious teacher of Haqqanis, Sirajuddin Haqqani were installed as the head of Afghan Taliban and the deputy, respectively.
So how does Sartaj Aziz see the QCG deal with Mullah Mansoor, who is being in-sync with what the notorious Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had stated in categorical terms, “we will continue our jihad until the creation of an Islamic system. The enemy with their talk of peace is trying by this propaganda to weaken the jihad”. And why should he talk, with the Taliban gaining ground and with all the time available to the Taliban to wear out the US forces?
That Haqqanis who have been based in Pakistan for the past several decades have explicitly been linked with the ISI and are acting as the latter’s proxy in Afghanistan is an established fact. Michael Hughes described the Haqqanis in 2010 saying, “the Haqqani Network is Al Qaeda. Pakistan has had a close relationship with the Haqqanis for over 30 years, who are still seen as a crucial anti-Indian asset. So, for nine years the Pakistanis protected the Haqqanis and claimed ignorance as to the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden and the Quetta Shura. Nine years, nearly $300 billion dollars and 1900 dead coalition soldiers later, the US has officially verified that the entire war effort has been focused on the wrong side of the mountains.” Reports in New York Times too have talked of Haqqanis running network in Pakistan like a mafia, known to visit military facilities in Rawalpindi, and leaders hiding in plain sight in cities rather than in remote tribal areas. More significantly, Afghan intelligence has been periodically calling attention to Pakistani military regulars undertaking terror attacks in Afghanistan in conjunction Haqqanis.
The truck bombing on April 19, 2016 in the heart of Kabul followed by a fierce gunfight that left at least 70 people dead and 327 wounded, has been claimed by the Afghan Taliban as its doing even as it continues to categorically deny that the civilians of Kabul were ever their target. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed their fighters had managed to enter the offices of the National Directorate of Security; a claim which has been denied by Afghan officials.
President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement, “we condemn in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of Kabul, as a result of which many of our countrymen were martyred and wounded”. This attack mirrors similar truck bombing in Kabul on August 7 last year that killed 15 and wounded 400. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) had then stated the attacks were carried out by elements of the Pakistani army with the help of their mercenaries – Haqqani terrorist network. Significantly, Afghan clerics gathered at the site of last year’s truck bombing had given a call for jihad against Pakistan stating, “Afghan people are Muslims and Jihad is eligible against Pakistan’s military intelligence – Inter Service Intelligence and Punjabi military; the country’s army and intelligence is directly involved in the ongoing violence and savagery in Afghanistan.”
Announcing the commencement of this year’s Spring Offensive dubbed ‘Operation Omari’ (after Mullah Omar) on April 12, Taliban have warned they would “employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country” during this offensive. Post the recent truck bombing, President Ghani said, “Such cowardly terrorist attacks will not weaken the will and determination of Afghan security forces to fight against terrorism.” These are brave words but instability appears increasing rapidly. John Kerry’s statement during his recent visit to Afghanistan that the National Unity Government was not bound to any premature termination indicates that all is perhaps not well at the political front too. How successful this year’s parliamentary elections can be conducted in Afghanistan is anybody’s guess in wake of Taliban’s spring offensive which is predicted to be much more vicious. With an estimated 5,500 troops killed during 2015, worst-ever toll, the ANSF regressing into fortress mode cannot be discounted. Such eventuality would egg the Taliban to go pro-active with impunity.
The US no doubt is watching the situation closely but the US forces abandoning the Helmand region earlier, albeit reinforced in February to advice and train, has accelerated the Taliban upsurge. Besides, then US has its focus on Middle East, West Asia and more significantly Asia Pacific where China is upping the ante in the SCS, with fear of Chinese physical action to preempt ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on territorial claims of Philippines filed in 2013 against China over disputed areas in SCS. Chinese economic ventures in Afghanistan are safe due to her own links with the Taliban and through Pakistani proxies. China’s double standards in terrorism have just been demonstrated with China using her veto at UN to prevent Azhar Masood, JeM chief as terrorist. Chinese statement they put “technical hold”, not “veto” is akin to China developing “strategic support bases” in IOR, not “military bases”; the Chinaman is fooling no one.
The Pakistani military is in the happiest position, what with Nawaz Sharif caught in the Panama web and being auctioned on eBay! But that apart, they hold all aces because of: Mullah Akhtar Mansour (whose succession to Mullah Omar was orchestrated by Pakistan) is key to holding both Taliban together; the so called ISIS in Afghanistan orchestrated ex Peshawar by Pakistan includes Pakistani Mujahids; support from Obama administration with funds, weapon platforms and military equipment flowing in; total Chinese support albeit on altar of sovereignty, with PLA troops milling around the CPEC all the way down to Gwadar; west ignoring the genocide in Balochistan, and; dissent in Gilgit-Baltistan steamrolled with PLA presence.
So, the façade of bringing the Taliban into the reconciliation process will continue while Pakistan will play out the free hand bestowed upon her, expanding her influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani military’s proxy war in Afghanistan and India will heighten. The bizarre case of veteran Indian naval officer working in Iran with valid documents abducted by Pakistan and showcased as spying in Balochistan indicates the level to which the Pakistani military will stoop to prevent Indian efforts for dialogue and peace. Afghanistan is in worse state with the country literally subcontracted to Pakistan. The pointers indicate more instability and violence for South Asia, Af-Pak region in particular.
*Lt Gen P.C.Katoch (Retd.) is veteran Special Forces of Indian Army. He can be reached at: [email protected]