‘INDIA SHOULD SUPPORT AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN TALKS AND RESTART TALKS WITH PAKISTAN’

Anatol Lieven is a British policy analyst, an Orwell prize winning writer and a journalist.His book called ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ is considered to be an authoritative work on the region.Having reported extensively from Afghanistan and Pakistan he talks to Hardnews about the two countries and India’s role in the peace process

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

What do you make of the recent attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar? A researcher I was talking to expressed surprise about how the largely Pashtun TTP attacked a school where most students were from Pashtun families.

The fact that a mainly Pashtun militant force murdered more than a hundred mainly Pashtun children is an indication of the degree to which they have moved away from Pashtun tradition (which categorically forbids such behaviour) under the influence of an extremist, Wahabi-influenced version of religious ideology. It also reflects the degree to which they have been brutalised by years of war, terrorism and Pakistani military action.

 

How far is the American intervention — drone strikes et al — responsible for the state Pakistan is in at the moment?

Drone strikes as such have only played a limited part. However, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequent military presence undoubtedly played a key role in radicalising large numbers of Pakistani Pashtuns and spreading the war into Pakistan. Most unfortunately, even many Pashtuns like Imran Khan who are not themselves religious radicals, see the Afghan Taliban as engaged in a legitimate struggle against foreign occupation, just as they saw the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s.

 

Do you think the Peshawar school attack will change the way the Pakistani State deals with terrorism, especially the way the ISI and the Army have been aiding some terror outfits for their strategic interests in the region?

The attack has increased the severity with which the Army and State deal with militants who attack Pakistan. The question is how it will change policy towards militants acting outside Pakistan, like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. My sense is that the Army and State will not take military action against these groups (as long as they do not join the Pakistani rebels) but may undertake a more limited shift in policy, reining in LeT and encouraging the Haqqani network to leave Pakistan and move across the
border into Afghanistan.

 

There is an atmosphere of uncertainty in Afghanistan since the ISAF forces were (mostly) pulled out and a new coalition government came in. What could be its possible implication for the region, especially India and Pakistan?

US forces are not leaving Afghanistan completely and will continue to prop up the government in Kabul. The biggest questions are: first, whether that government will hold together internally, or will it be destroyed by the rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah (reflecting, in turn, tensions between Pashtuns and other ethnicities); and second, whether there is any hope of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This would need to be facilitated by Pakistan, and backed by India, Iran, Russia, China and the US.

 

What are the chances of the Afghan government striking a deal with the Taliban, which now controls more area than it did before the elections? Do you see it coming anytime soon, especially when India and Pakistan don’t seem to be on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan?

A peace settlement in Afghanistan depends on a recognition by all parties of the obvious fact that neither side can win completely. Given the Afghan and international forces ranged against them, it is impossible for the Taliban to repeat their success of the 1990s and conquer Kabul, let alone Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. On the other hand, it is unimaginable that any Afghan government not at peace with the Taliban can extend real State control into the countryside of southern and south-eastern Afghanistan, where (except during the Taliban period) no real local State structures have existed since the early 1980s. The alternative to a peace settlement is therefore unending war and even de facto partition.

Both President Ashraf Ghani and the Pakistani establishment are strongly interested in a settlement with the Taliban. However, there are obviously enormous unsolved questions about what such a deal would consist of, and whether any deal could be designed that could be agreed upon by the more pragmatic elements within the Taliban as well as accepted by supporters of the present Kabul government, especially the Tajik population. Such a deal would have to include, on the one hand, a recognition of Taliban control in the heartlands of southern Afghanistan, and some measure of power-sharing at the Centre, and on the other hand, the Taliban’s promise to exclude all international terrorist groups, i.e., Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as Al-Qaeda.

We will not be able to explore whether any of this is a real possibility until real peace negotiations begin. For this, it is urgently necessary that India and Pakistan should resume talks. Of course, it is quite possible that as a result of talks, we will find that due to irreconcilable aims on all sides, no settlement is possible. But we can’t know that until all the sides have actually begun to talk.

 

How do you look at the way sectarian tensions are rising in Pakistan and the fact that the establishment has not been able to do anything even when the hardliners are openly threatening the minorities—for instance, many Shias/ Hazaras have been killed in attacks which
have become routine?

There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that the PMLN government of Punjab has long had a live and let live arrangement with the main Sunni sectarian terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Janghvi, abstaining from taking action against them as long as they do not carry out attacks in Punjab. I very much hope that this will change in the wake of the Peshawar massacre. One must also, however, remember that the Pakistani police needs strong and categorical orders to act against such groups, as their natural tendency (in all cases) is to do as little as possible.

 

Do you agree that the protests by Imran Khan and Tahir Qadri were an attempt to subvert the democratic processes? Do you think it may have been a veiled attempt by the Army to destabilise the government?

The protests were of course in the name of democracy, and against rigged elections and corruption. In effect, though, their effect was indeed to undermine the democratic process. As for an Army involvement, this is possible but there is no actual evidence of it. If you talk to the supporters of Imran Khan and Qadri, they tell you that they are motivated by much the same anger at corruption and misgovernment that motivated supporters of Aam Aadmi in India.

 

How does one explain the rising border tensions with India since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister? Do you see a meaningful dialogue resuming anytime soon?

I very much hope that a dialogue will resume soon, and will be focused on Afghanistan. The fear of militancy which has grown in the Pakistani military as a result of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, especially the fury caused by the Peshawar massacre, have led to a limited but still very significant change of attitude, which India should seek to exploit. Only through talks can India hope to learn just how far Pakistan is prepared to go in changing previous policies.

 

Pakistan’s foreign policy to a large extent has been shaped by its opposition towards India, which has also contributed to perverting its own environment, especially the terror outfits targetting India. In the light of Modi’s aggressive posturing against Pakistan and its support to terror, do you see the Nawaz Sharif government changing its attitude?

Both the last two chiefs of the Pakistani Army, Generals Kayani and Sharif, have spoken of domestic extremism — not India — as now posing the greatest security threat to Pakistan. This is not surprising since the military has lost more than 4,000 soldiers who were killed in this struggle, including seven generals. There has, therefore, been a significant, though only partial, change of mindset in both the military and the civilian establishments. Amongst other things, it means that while the government and military believe that the Afghan Taliban will have to play an important role in the future of Afghanistan (given their strong support in certain areas of the country), they cannot and should not return to full power there — because of the risk that they would then turn on Pakistan in alliance with the Pakistani Taliban.

This change of stance helps open the way for a new Afghan peace process. The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has recognised this and, with the encouragement of Washington, is pursuing talks with Pakistan in order to facilitate this. It is highly desirable that India too should support this process and restart talks with Pakistan.

Concerning anti-Indian terrorism, since 2008 (or in most respects 2002) Pakistan’s governments and the military have abandoned the Kashmir jihad and have reined in the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups from attacking India directly. They have, however, allowed or even helped them to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan. It is essential that this encouragement now cease completely.

On the other hand, given the domestic challenges Pakistan faces, and the degree of legitimacy that they enjoy in Pakistani (or at least Punjabi) society, it is not realistic that Pakistan should take military action against LeT, or extradite its leaders to India. This would drastically worsen Pakistan’s own security situation, and greatly increase support for LeT.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2015