Af-Pak: Spy Game in Afghanistan
The MoU between the espionage agencies of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a case of the latter showing India the finger, never mind that it flies in the face of history and logic
Vikram Sood Delhi
Cooperation between the intelligence agencies of two countries is nothing new. Even during the Cold War, the CIA and KGB maintained communications. But the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the spy agencies of Afghanistan and Pakistan – for long at loggerheads – is a first.
There is something of an “in your face” attitude in it. There is a message for India as well as for the neighbourhood with an approving nod from the Americans and the Chinese.
Afghan intelligence and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have not had common strategic or tactical targets. Yet the two signed a memorandum of understanding to “jointly fight terrorism” and “enemy espionage agencies”. The agreement will allow ISI to probe terrorist suspects in Afghan detention. The memorandum also states that the two agencies agree to jointly fight separatism and separatist groups.
For Afghanistan the terrorists are the Taliban, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and other Pakistan-based terror groups operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan is interested in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). For Afghanistan it is the ISI which has been the enemy espionage agency so far, for Pakistan it is India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW).
Afghanistan has no separatist groups but Pakistan has several – in Balochistan, Sindh and even parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistan seeks unilateral cooperation in this regard and every time there is trouble in Balochistan and Sindh, Pakistan will blame Afghanistan and seek cooperation under the other clauses. In return, the ISI will train and equip National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel, and the two agencies will mould public opinion and narrative about Pakistan in Afghanistan.
The public announcement of the scheme left Fazl Muslimyar, chairman of the Afghan Masharano Jirga (Upper House), apoplectic. He made no attempt to hide his anger, saying, “Pakistan is an enemy to Afghanistan and will never develop friendship with us. Pakistan has always plotted to destroy Afghanistan and will continue to do so, therefore how can we afford to send our security forces for training to that country?”
Similarly, the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House) described the MoU as against Afghan interests. NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil opted out of signing it. Moreover, the deputy leader of the government, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, came to know of the deal only when former president Hamid Karzai informed him of it the following morning. The ferocity of the response has probably surprised President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and led to backtracking in Kabul.
But the anger was understandable. Afghanistan has been terrorised by the Taliban for 21 years, so a blithe deal with the people who had harboured and sent these terrorists across the border repeatedly was bound to raise hackles.
The reason the deal is so difficult to understand is that the two countries have essentially agreed to cooperate on the same issue that has always pitted them in opposition.
The Afghans have considered Pakistan their enemy and often have made no attempts to hide it. One million Afghans are estimated to have died since the Afghan jihad started which was led by the US with the active participation of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Not all Pushtuns were/are with the Taliban – and it is they who faced US daisy-cutters designed to bring them democracy. Pakistan sheltered and revived the Taliban after 2001. They have no hesitation in acknowledging this association some of the time while pretending at other times that they have no control over the Taliban.
It was always more than Khadamat-e Aetela’at-e Dawlati (KHAD) versus ISI in the past and ISI versus NDS now. The ISI and CIA cooperated in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but were also watching each other. TV series Homeland describes vividly this mutual distrust as the CIA hunted for terrorists. The US and Pakistan did not have common strategic aims. Therefore, the Pakistanis would drive a hard bargain whenever they could. Ultimately, as we know, bin Laden was found to have lived in ISI custody for years. The Afghan leadership must ask itself why the ISI would behave any differently with it. Perhaps Ghani was acting under duress and not out of conviction, because the US has not given up its habit of trying to appoint its consuls in positions of authority.
Pakistan’s singular goal is to dominate Afghanistan and keep India out. It seeks to keep that country’s intelligence agency under its control and sees the present situation as the best opportunity to achieve its long-harboured ambition. The Americans will leave behind a vacuum in the country. The Taliban are on the ascendant with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) unable to handle the situation. China is now increasingly involved in the dialogue with the Taliban. Consequently, Pakistan feels reasonably secure.
Former Pakistan Ambassador Munir Akram spoke of what might be his country’s endeavours. In a recent article in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Akram outlined his hopes that Pakistan would be able to get international recognition through the UN Security Council for Mullah Omar as the legitimate representative of the Taliban in the negotiations. Further, he proposed that the Afghan government would acknowledge the legitimacy of the Taliban and agree to power-sharing with them. In return, Pakistan would use its powers to bring all the Taliban to the table. In addition, the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan could talk to the Taliban to help solve issues, and China should aid the peace process.
There is no room for India in these calculations. Pakistan is obviously not going to put in all this effort and let the Indians in. The US is comfortable with this arrangement. So we will have to fend for ourselves.
A high-level Afghan delegation including the new defence minister met Taliban leaders Abdul Jalil, Hassan Rahmani and Abdul Razaq in May. All three are Pakistan-based and close to the Quetta Shura. The meeting was held in Urumqi and both Chinese and ISI representatives participated. The US-inspired Qatar process of Taliban negotiations seems to be over and the Chinese-Pakistani process is currently on.
A day after the MoU was signed, a suicide bomber killed five people in the Afghan ministry of justice’s parking lot and injured 50. There have been six attacks in Kabul in May, including one at an event the Indian Ambassador was supposed to attend. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks.
Meanwhile, attacks across the country continue. A truck bomb near government offices in Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, killed at least four and injured about 70 on May 25. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The same day, in a major attack in Helmand province, the Taliban attacked a police compound and killed 19 policemen and wounded seven. In another incident the same day, four policemen “in touch with militants” killed three of their colleagues and fled their checkpost in Kandahar’s Maiwand district. The governor of Uruzgan’s Shaheed Asas district was killed on May 23. Four civilians died in a roadside bombing in Ghazni’s Gailan district. There were reports of clashes between the Taliban and the ISIS in Farah province.
The situation in Kunduz province in the north has also been deteriorating for some years, with the Taliban making inroads. The Taliban launched their 2015 ‘spring offensive’ in Kunduz. Although initially surprised, the ANSF pushed them back in some areas though the Taliban held their ground in others. The exchange highlighted the lack of coordination between different forces (army, police, local police), which has been made worse by recruitment problems and ‘ghost soldiers’ and ‘ghost policemen’. Although the Taliban may be some way away from a military victory, they showed an ability to mount large and simultaneous operations in different areas, away from their traditional strongholds in the south and east. The Taliban also released a propaganda video depicting their shadow governor of Badakshan, Qari Fasehuddin, showcasing a series of attacks against government forces in April and May.
It appears the government has sought the help of old warlords to form local militias to fight the Taliban in the north, where the government is losing ground. It could be said the Kabul government is bolstering its counterinsurgency capability through its own version of Blackwater.
Pakistan is not even remotely embarrassed about its links with the Taliban or Haqqanis or even the LeT. They admit to having dealt with them but add that the next time they will do it better, whatever that means. Former President Pervez Musharraf even boasted about these connections. Pakistan has often used religious elements to curb nationalist sentiments in the country. The Taliban would serve two purposes - help provide strategic depth in Afghanistan and curb Pushtun nationalism through their religiosity. Pakistan also hoped that the Taliban would recognise the Durand Line. Instead, the Taliban became a political force with trans-border connections. They have not recognised the Durand Line and they have adhered to their own ideology, close to Al-Qaeda’s. In the process, extremists in Pakistan have succeeded in making space for themselves inside Pakistan.
President Ghani is entitled to snub India if he assesses it to be in Afghanistan’s interests. He did announce well in advance that his country would not be making the purchase of military equipment from India that his predecessor had so ardently pursued. He then took his own time showing up in New Delhi after kowtowing in Beijing and Islamabad. He went one step further when he called on the Pakistan Army chief in the latter’s office in Rawalpindi. This was a practical decision, one supposes, for it only underscored the obvious about who calls the shots in Pakistan (apart front the terrorists). But to sign a deal with your tormentor must be listed as a daft decision, and so early in his tenure. Conceivably, he must have been cajoled into taking this step by the Americans who, anxious to quit Afghanistan, wanted all the loose ends tied up and Pakistan’s wishes met before they left.
Karzai made several attempts to convince India that Afghanistan needed weapons and training of its armed forces by India for the inevitable resurgence of the Taliban after the American exit. But we were just too scared of upsetting the US and annoying Pakistan. So we hemmed and hawed. We left Karzai in the lurch and refused to behave like a regional power with regional interests. Ghani came to power and seemed to be doing us a favour by visiting six months later. He was snubbing us. Or being told to do so.
Ghani is beholden to America and fears Pakistan. His predecessor was eased out the moment he tried to be independent and became critical of both the US and Pakistan. He was too much of an impediment regarding negotiations with Pakistan-sponsored nominees from the Taliban. He wanted to be closer to India. This did not suit Pakistan and the US. And, after 15 years in Afghanistan, the US is quite comfortable with leaving a country that is militarily ill-equipped, undertrained and underpaid.
Afghanistan is no longer a primary US interest now that bin Laden is dead and the global war on terror can be declared over. And Pakistan is certainly not going to let the efforts of a venture launched 21 years ago and the gains of the last 14 years be wasted now.
Over that same period, we have failed to develop links with the various actors in Afghanistan and have not attempted to rebuild ties among the Pushtuns of Kandahar, Paktia and Nangarhar. We ceded ground to Pakistan without even trying. We failed to engage Afghanistan’s Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pushtuns. We have always had close relations with all Afghans, especially the Pushtuns who had commercial links with India. Perhaps, somewhere in our calculations, we presumed that all Pushtuns were Taliban.
There are now three strands to Pakistan’s strategy. First, to keep the pressure on Afghanistan through increased Taliban terrorist attacks; second, take over the dialogue process with the help of China; and third, tie all this up with an ISI-NDS deal.
The Great Game is likely to get more complicated in times ahead. There are reports of ISIS presence in eastern Afghanistan, with some signs of the ISIS in Pakistan as well. There are also some reports of clashes between the Taliban and ISIS in western Afghanistan. The position is unclear. Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the various sectarian militias in Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba are the other Big Guns whose turf will be impinged on by ISIS activity. One will have to wait and see how this other Great Game is played out on our western border.
(The writer is Adviser, Observer Research Foundation, and former Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing)