Afghanistan: An MoU for chaos

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s strange decision to ask his intelligence agency to sign an MOU with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has raised serious doubts about his intentions as well as about the future of Afghan society

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

The memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Afghan and Pakistani intelligence agencies has raised fears in Kabul of a Taliban resurgence and renewed repression of the country’s women – along with the sidelining of India.

With a Taliban attack almost a daily occurrence in Kabul, the more liberal Afghans are stunned to learn that President Ashraf Ghani is cutting deals with their backers across the border, said an Afghan diplomat, requesting anonymity. “We are outraged at the way President Ghani is going around
giving concessions to Pakistan,” the diplomat said.

Following a media leak, the public relations division of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) confirmed May 18 that the spy agency had inked an MoU with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) to cooperate in fighting terrorism. Critics in India and Afghanistan, however, blasted the deal as a farce – since the ISI has been funding and equipping the Afghan Taliban.

Kabul insiders see the MoU as a grim indicator of what’s to come.

Pointing out that longtime US resident Ghani and his largely American-educated support staff are far removed from the realities of Afghanistan, the diplomat said thousands of Afghan women fear for their rights if the Taliban is allowed to join the government in Kabul. Thus, Afghan diplomats currently posted overseas have applied for asylum in their host countries when their terms end, the diplomat said, citing direct knowledge of several colleagues who have sought asylum in the US.

Their fears are hardly unfounded.

It’s been 13 years since the NATO-led Internal Security Assistance Force (ISAF) started operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but stability has so far eluded the war-torn country.

“If the Islam-pasand elements were to join the government in Kabul, then it is going to be very problematic for the gains Afghan society has made in more than a decade,” says a former Indian envoy to Kabul. 

Interestingly, an all-woman delegation comprising Afghan Members of Parliament and members of the High Peace Council (HPC) met with representatives of the Taliban to talk women’s rights in the Norwegian capital of Oslo recently.  

India, too, is dismayed by the intelligence agreement. New Delhi believes that the pact is the handiwork of the British, who along with the Americans exercise considerable influence on the Afghan leadership. Top Indian diplomatic sources in Kabul told Hardnews that a “foreign hand” had orchestrated the deal, but stopped short of naming any specific government.

Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh has hinted at the unprecedented relationship between Ghani’s government and the British in an interview to Hardnews. Interestingly, it was the American agencies who informed India of the involvement of Pakistan-based terror groups in attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and the consulate in Herat in 2014. “It was the Americans who informed us that the ISI was behind the attacks through the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba,” an Indian intelligence source says.  

Kabul political and diplomatic circles have been very active since a leaked draft of the MoU began doing the rounds. The speed with which the draft was signed took many by surprise, including Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer who is sharing power with Ghani in the National Unity government.

Abdullah has not publicly expressed reservations but in private he has been opposing it. Reports suggest that he is upset about not being kept in the loop about the final draft and voiced his dissent in the National Security Council meeting on May 21.

Apart from his general reservations about partnering with the ISI, his objections likely focus on key components of the MoU which are not in the public domain. These may include provisions for real-time sharing of intelligence and joint operations and access to captured militants, which many Afghans find problematic.

Already, Ghani had overruled opposition by NDS chief Rahimatullah Nabil and instructed his deputy to sign the pact. The last two chiefs of the NDS, Asadullah Khalid and Saleh, have also said the pact goes against the interests of Afghanistan. And there is considerable opposition in the Afghan Parliament with more than 90 per cent of the MPs opposing it. Among them is Senate Chairman Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, who said that Pakistan is an enemy and has been working to undermine peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Seemingly unnerved by the stiff opposition, Ghani shot off a tough letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demanding Pakistan take specific measures under the deal. The Afghan president has demanded that Pakistan destroy Taliban safe havens on its soil and help in fighting against the insurgent group. This comes after almost 10 months of continuous efforts to reach out to Pakistan. Interestingly, there are conflicting reports on this letter. While some insiders suggest it was purposely leaked by Ghani’s office to cool tempers, another report says that the letter is actually a non-paper which was drafted before Sharif’s May 12 visit to Kabul.

Meanwhile, since Ghani took charge as president after a controversial election rife with allegations of fraud, there has been a visible shift in Afghanistan’s policy towards Pakistan. Ghani has been more hands-on in his approach and seems to believe that for an effective reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan, getting Pakistan on board is essential. This view is also shared by the Americans and the British, who despite saying that a solution to the Afghanistan crisis needs to be Afghan-led, have always maintained that Pakistan is the key to solving the problems in Afghanistan. “Pakistan is a key player,” says a British diplomat who works on Afghanistan. “Karzai’s views were well-known. He was openly anti-Pakistan. President Ghani doesn’t carry that baggage.” 

The British diplomat Hardnews met also saw hope in the way democracy in Afghanistan was progressing. “Of course, there have been problems and that will continue. The government has not been able to appoint an army chief and a defence minister but all other appointments have been done. If you also see the way Abdullah has kept his reservations about the MoU private, that means he is also serious about the peace process working and doesn’t want to derail it,” the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, in line with Ghani’s policy to reach out to Pakistan, there has been a continuous dialogue between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. During Ghani’s visit to Pakistan, where he met Pakistan Army chief Raheel Sharif, he proclaimed that “Afghanistan wants to bolster security and defence ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in training and border management”.

General Sharif, too, has made as many as three visits to Kabul, seeking cooperation on counter-terror missions, while six Afghan army cadets have been sent for training by the Pakistani army.

Ghani has also made visits to China and Saudi Arabia, seeking their cooperation to pressure Pakistan and to get the Taliban talking to the government in Kabul. In fact, these were the three countries he decided to visit first as soon as he took charge. Recently, a delegation comprising representatives of the so-called ‘good Taliban’ held talks with Masum Stanikzai, the head of the HPC, in the presence of ISI officials in Urumqi in Xinjiang, clearly indicating that Ghani is serious about getting the Taliban to talk peace. Post the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan, China has emerged as a key mediator in the Great Game. The US had a trilateral meeting with China and Afghanistan in February, in London.

“We do not know if these members of the ‘good Taliban’ hold any sway over the ones who are actually fighting on the ground. There is little evidence to suggest that Mullah Omar would listen to them,” says an Indian intelligence source who has served in Kabul. 

“We expect them (China) to do more, but, unfortunately, they are into little things like believing in good Taliban,” Saleh, the longest-serving chief of the NDS, told Hardnews. “Good Taliban is an illusion. It is an invention. It is best for China to envision a strong Afghan government. By hosting enemies of the Afghan government, China, perhaps unknowingly, is weakening the Afghan government.”

However, the MoU did pacify the Pakistanis, who have been badly wanting support from Kabul, to rein in members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), members of which are said to have taken refuge on the Afghanistan side of the long and porous border after the Pakistani army pushed them back in an operation christened Zarb-e-Azb.

“NDS for long has been suspected by the Generals of Rawalpindi of launching covert attacks through the TTP. This gives them a handle,” says Rakesh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Kabul.

Pakistan, experts say, is keen on conducting joint operations and joint interrogation of detainees with Afghanistan to neutralise the threat from the likes of Mullah Fazlullah.

“The Pakistanis wanted this agreement because they are genuinely worried about extremism within Pakistan and determined to crush the TTP,” says Anatol Lieven, a scholar on Afghanistan-Pakistan and the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country. “The Pakistani high command also does not believe that the Afghan Taliban can ever restore their rule over the whole of Afghanistan. They therefore think that a peace settlement will be necessary at some stage, unless Afghanistan is to be permanently divided.”  

Lieven says that the analysis in Pakistan is that if Kabul comes up with a peace offer that many in the Taliban can accept, then the Pakistani military will do its best to push as many Talibs as possible to support it. But they do not think that Pakistan can force the Taliban as a whole to accept something that is clearly against their principles or interests.

Clearly, getting the Taliban to share power in Kabul seems to be the best scenario for Pakistan. And this has unnerved India despite the belief of some former officials who say that India needs to be cognizant of the possibilities in Kabul and needs to open channels with the Taliban. “There were attempts by former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon and Mulla Zaeef, who even visited Goa for an event. This hasn’t been pursued since,” says a former intelligence official. 

 The news of the MoU, which was also seen as an attempt to contain India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), which exercised considerable influence during Karzai’s years in power, came as a surprise to the Indian government. While Ghani made it amply clear during his visit to New Delhi that he won’t allow Afghanistan to be used as a ground for a proxy war, a veiled endorsement of Pakistan’s assertion that India has been using Afghanistan to covertly destabilise Pakistan, the Indians didn’t expect that Ghani would go as far as to try to get the ISI and the NDS together. Lately, Pakistan has yet again been openly accusing Indian agencies of fomenting trouble in its territory. “This is the old playbook that has been repeated many times as a mantra,” says Lieven. “The problem is, though, that after the latest statements by NSA Ajit Doval and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar about the need to use proxy warfare against terrorists and their supporters in Pakistan, more intelligent Pakistanis than usual are inclined to believe in this possibility.”

With Abdullah sharing power, India still expected some leeway in Kabul.

“We do not know what the Americans have promised Abdullah,” an Indian intelligence source said, reiterating that the British could be behind this move.

“They have lost the war in Afghanistan and therefore reconciled to the fact that there can never be complete stability,” says a former Indian envoy to Kabul. “They are fine with low stability as long as things don’t go totally out of control.” 

Indian intelligence sources say that Hanif Atmar, the National Security Adviser to Ghani, is particularly close to the British government, an assertion which was echoed by Saleh, who says the NSA office receives assistance and guidance from British officers. A British diplomat told Hardnews there was no truth to claims of any such interference and blamed the gossip-hungry bazaars of Kabul for spreading rumours.

But if the rumours are true, it would not be the first time the British have tried to meddle in Afghanistan covertly. On an earlier occasion, MI6 was accused of presenting a member of the Taliban to talk peace with Karzai. It was later found, as reported by the London-based Daily Telegraph, that the man was an imposter. Curiously, he was still flown to Pakistan by the British agency.

“The British and the Americans would want Ghani to compromise more with Pakistan,” says Sood.

“One doesn’t know the fine print yet, but if this MoU means an intrusive or forced marriage between the two agencies, then the results would be disastrous,” says the former Indian ambassador to Kabul.

The former diplomat pointed out that while the CIA worked closely with the NDS, it still wouldn’t venture into their territory. Sood says the pact could lead to polarisation within the Afghan intelligence apparatus, the bulk of which sees Pakistan as an adversary state. The other issue is that NDS is mostly populated by Tajiks and Hazaras, who are not fond of Pakistanis. For the NDS to cooperate with the ISI, the composition of the directorate would have to be changed. To bolster cooperation, the non-paper by Ghani’s office in May had demanded that Pakistan denounce the summer offensive of the Taliban – something Islamabad is yet to do.

 In kabul and the Afghan countryside where the Taliban still continues to hold sway, the summer offensive is in full swing. This year has seen unprecedented violence by the Taliban, leading many to question the way Ghani has gone out almost unilaterally in seeking support from Pakistan. Intense fighting has also commenced in the North, which is not a traditional stronghold of the Taliban, forcing Ghani to form and arm local militias even though such a move could later lead to infighting between competing groups. Ghani’s office, meanwhile, says that no militia is being supplied with weapons, and that the government is just building up a force of civilians who can later be brought into the fold of the Afghan police.

Ghani is more insecure about the warlords and their armed supporters than the Taliban, says Anwesha Ghosh, a scholar on Afghanistan at the University of Erfurt, Germany. However, experts point out that the deal with the ISI could strengthen those potential enemies. “The members of the Northern Alliance are deeply unhappy. And this could further lead to activation of more militia,” an Indian intelligence source says.

“The problem with Ghani’s approach is that it lacks domestic consensus [and] support, and a large chunk of Afghan society who have the identity of being anti-Taliban and have suffered for decades are feeling left out. They think their fate has been put out on sale,” Saleh said.

Reaching out to Pakistan may be a continuation of policies pursued by Karzai, who also tried it on different occasions, and even sacked Saleh on the insistence of the ISI. But the renewed efforts may prove to be a big gamble. “Pakistan is clearly unwilling to reciprocate. The intensity of the fighting season shows this,” Sood said. “And Ghani needs to realise that as the presidential election in the US gets closer and they get consumed by domestic needs, it may prove to be difficult for him to keep his Unity government together.”

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