BY SAEED NAQVI
Do the latest attacks by the Taliban on government buildings, Western embassies and military bases across four provinces bear some resemblance to the dramatic attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel in June last year? In fact the intercontinental attack was probably more telegenic – blazing flames, billowing smoke. Let us also not forget last September’s attack on the US embassy, then, as now, directed from construction blocks.
In these instances the message from Haqqani network based in Pakistan’s north-west was: look we’re still around. Dare you script scenarios for Taliban being in the power structure without us?
The earlier attack linked up with the arrest in Karachi in February 2010 of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban commander who led the Quetta Shura and directed operations from Pakistan. The arrest was ordered because Baradar was engaged in conversations with the CIA which Pakistani intelligence chanced upon. In other words, neither the CIA nor Baradar had kept Islamabad in the loop on the talks which could have a bearing on the future power structure in Kabul. This has been something of an anathema for the Pakistan establishment.
And now talks with Taliban have been launched in Qatar, not quite Pakistan’s preferred rendezvous. Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai is huddled with US officials on the Strategic Document where the fine print is being read carefully by the skeptics on what, for instance, is the understanding on “night raids” to be carried out by Afghans with US troops playing a support role.
Americans have, in spells, been hated in Afghanistan, but over the years other hate objects had come into focus – Pakistan, for instance. But the burning of the Quran at the Bagram base, Marines urinating on dead Afghans, posing for pictures with mangled bodies, the gruesome murder in Kandahar of 16 people mostly women and children by “a group of US servicemen” according to the Chief of Operations of the Afghan National Army, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi – all these have raised Anti Americanism to fever pitch. Americans insist only one serviceman was involved in the mindless massacre. In other words negotiating anything with Americans in an atmosphere of feverish Anti Americanism depletes whatever goodwill President Karzai has.
In these circumstances, Karzai has to prepare himself for the high table at the NATO summit on May 20 to 21, focused on Afghanistan. President Obama is determined to show the Chicago Meet as his successful management of the withdrawal process from Afghanistan. But how? Drawdown, reduce, withdraw are terms being used for what the US will do with its troops in Afghanistan. I doubt if a cogent withdrawal strategy can be given shape in a month when the Summit is due. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan, leave alone Pakistan, is in total disrepair.
The irony is that in a region of such noisy anti-Americanism, there is no regime which is actually interested in the US departing from Afghanistan, whatever the public postures.
President Karzai would have difficulty surviving in Kabul without US protection.
Iran would be happy to watch the Americans embroiled in crises and not, with pruned numbers, comfortable and settled in their bases. Would Pakistan like to lose its “frontline” status with the US depending on supply routes through its territory and those billions of dollars. On current showing, relations between Washington and Islamabad are hopelessly bad. Can they sort out the rules of engagement, a prohibition in unilateral military action which includes drone attack?
Russians too have tossed their hat in the ring. They are willing to open up Lenin’s birth place, Ulyanovsk, as a supply base for the Americans so that they remain pinned down in Afghanistan and end poppy cultivation in Helmand because Russia has become not just a transit route for drugs but also an end consumer. This could also be the Russian olive branch to the US for balance of power because Moscow probably feels uncomfortable playing second fiddle when Moscow and Beijing move in concert as at the UN recently.
Yes, there will be some withdrawal agenda discussed in Chicago but the real policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan will only be delineated when the new administration takes charge in Washington in November.
(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)