Washington, Beijing, Moscow and now Kabul are convinced that Islamabad is serious about quelling terrorism this time around. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is said to have been apprised by the ISI that the Peshawar massacre was aimed at provoking Pakistan to launch a retaliatory attack inside Afghanistan so that the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s growing tilt towards Islamabad can be thwarted. Nawaz Sharif was told that the Army and ISI foiled these nefarious designs by immediately reaching out to the Afghan President. Interestingly, among others, former ISI official Nasir Ahmed had said “spoilers in the region” and enemies of the Islamabad-Kabul friendship include “Al Qaeda, the Haqqanis, and India”.
Clearly, the Peshawar school massacre does not appear to be a simple tit-for-tat game; it has an intricate link to the Afghan endgame in which Pakistan wants to be the victor. Pakistan Army Chief General Sharif and DG ISI immediately rushed to Kabul; their purpose appears to have been to either get Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah apprehended or to gain for Pakistan the right to engage in ‘hot pursuit’ in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan. Kabul was apparently given seven days to take action against Fazlullah and his group. In the event, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems to have agreed for joint operations and intelligence cooperation.
Early this month the US clandestinely transferred a senior TTP leader Latif Mehsud and his associates from Afghanistan to Pakistan without the knowledge of the Afghan government. This was done in violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and without an extradition treaty. Mehsud’s transfer came soon after Pakistan’s Army Chief visited Washington. In return, the Pakistan Army killed a Saudi-born al-Qaeda operative Adnan el Shukrijumah in South Waziristan. Afghan President Ghani also visited Islamabad around the same time. Of course, such deals are a familiar pattern in US-Pakistan ties, but has Afghanistan too joined the duo? Clearly, the Peshawar school killing is connected to these dots that began to appear soon after Karzai left office.
As the ISAF’s combat mission ends on December 31, the unfolding events relate to America’s desperate last minute bid for stitching together a peace deal between Islamabad, Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. Several tricky issues with regional implications may arise as a result.
The weakest link in this new game appears to be Afghanistan. The transfer of Mehsud while bypassing Afghan authority may have already deprived Kabul of its bargaining card vis-à-vis Islamabad or the Taliban. Of course, President Ghani’s credibility is thus undermined in the eyes of the Afghan Taliban. Simultaneously, as the drawdown ends, the ISI is directing the Taliban to step up their winter offensive across Afghanistan for three related reasons: to score a victory point, to demoralize the Afghan army and to squeeze Ghani further to come to terms with Rawalpindi’s diktat. It may not be surprising if Ghani has already been coaxed into ordering his military to collaborate with the ISI. We will know this if Fazlullah is hunted down by the Pakistan Air Force inside Afghanistan.
To be sure, given Afghan history, such dirty deals are bound to boomerang and enrage the Afghan people. America’s collusion with the ISI had turned even Karzai a critical opponent of US policy. Aware of Pakistan’s duplicity, most Afghans would be sceptical about its change of tack.
In fact, the day after the Peshawar massacre the Afghan media openly called upon Pakistan to honestly confess its mistakes of engineering the Taliban and using them against its neighbours. They noted that Pakistanis have become victims of their own designs, like spiders getting tangled in their own web – they are numbed, divided, disoriented and hapless. The message was clear: do not play games; you cannot get Kashmir by shedding Pashtun blood anymore.
The moot question remains whether Ashraf Ghani asked General Sharif to go after the Afghan Taliban leaders operating from safe havens in North Waziristan. Does Ghani expect Islamabad’s reciprocity in terms of handing over Mullah Omar, Zabihullah Mujahid, the leaders of the Haqqani group and others to Kabul or does he want to treat them as ‘misled brothers’ and strike a deal with them under the ISI’s supervision?
Now that the chickens are finally coming home to roost and Pakistani outrage against the TTP has grown high, many hope that Islamabad will revisit its terror policy. Nawaz Sharif’s “action plan” to end terrorism in the “whole region” and not to make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban are nice spectacles that Islamabad has presented for diplomatic consumption. Surely, many in Kabul and in Delhi would like to show empathy.
To expect that Pakistan will admit its mistakes and walk on the path to becoming a normal state would be grossly flawed. Make no mistake. Islamabad wants a puppet state in Kabul and snatch Kashmir away from India – the goals long pursued by Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Pervez Musharraf and others. It played games to contain the Soviets; to impede Iran’s influence; to curb Pashtun and Baloch irredentism and to counter India. It used tribals against India, Mujahedeen against the Soviets, and the Taliban/al-Qaeda against the Kabul regime. In executing these war projects, the Pakistan Army thrived on American and Saudi funding; and Afghan narcotic revenue was used for producing jihadis at an industrial scale.
Pakistan will never replace India with the Taliban as its enemy No. 1, for it is painfully aware that mishandling the Taliban could bounce back with the risk of potentially inflaming Pashtun nationalism. The credibility and impact of Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber-1 operations in North Waziristan are doubtful. Uzbek commander Usmon Ghazi admitted that only his IMU hideouts in Waziristan were liquidated following the Karachi Airport attack in June 2014. Remember, Sartaj Aziz had said that Pakistan singled out militants who are against Pakistan.
As it is, radicals are thriving not only in the tribal belt but also in every Pakistani city. Jihadis are already well entrenched in every section including military and intelligence.
Ironically, the school massacre could help Pakistan transform its image from that of a patron state sponsor of terror to a victim of terror. As the world’s sympathy pours in, the victimhood image is being played through the media. The West and China always shielded Islamabad. Sadly, now even Russia has started to bail Pakistan out.
Clearly, the US is seeking a Pakistani solution for Afghan peace. But to expect the entire Afghan system to bow before Rawalpindi would be a gross mistake. That would tantamount to underestimating the Afghan resolve and determination to resist.
One should have no illusions about Pakistan’s role and the region may see yet another dirty game coming. To be sure, the LeT or JuD will not fall in Islamabad’s new ‘no distinction’ list and Hafiz Saeed will have a free rein. However, Islamabad should know that the end of the Kashmir insurgency might cause a similar blowback for Pakistan.
(The author is a former ambassador and expert on security affairs. He has just returned from a visit to Kabul. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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