Joe Biden, the US Vice President, spent a very busy day in Islamabad on January 12, 2011, on a rather hastily scheduled visit, after his trip to Kabul.
Ostensibly, this unscheduled visit was to reassure Pakistan of America’s long-term commitment to Pakistan, and to express its concern on Salmaan Taseer’s murder and the public reaction of supporting Mumtaz Qadri.
Before looking at recent developments that might have a better explanation for this unscheduled visit, it is important to recall that Biden is the strongest opponent to prolonged US presence in Afghanistan and continued to oppose the ‘surge’ of US troops there, even after it was sanctioned by a reluctant Obama. While Biden and Obama favoured talks with the Taliban, Petraeus — supported by the secretaries of state and defence — opposed talks until a decisive US victory forces them to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Needless to add, the GHQ opposes Petraeus’ policy and doubts that US forces can ever achieve a ‘decisive victory’ over the Taliban.
Since December 2010, events have speeded up; events that might lead the US to re-think the ‘Petraeus policy’ and offer a more plausible explanation for Biden’s visit. To begin with, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who heads the Afghan High Council for Peace and is the only Tajik veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war era to have kept contacts with some Taliban members, addressed a Pashtun Jirga (council) in Nangarhar (a Taliban infested region) and said words to the effect that ‘this is your country’ and ‘we have all made mistakes that we need to learn from.’ Most significantly, the Jirga concluded that negotiations with the Taliban should begin.
Following this remarkable event, Rabbani was dispatched to Tehran while Afghan President Karzai travelled to Istanbul for the fifth summit, hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul for Karzai and Zardari, in another attempt to bring the two closer together. Turkey seems to be succeeding in something that the US has consistently failed at. At the conclusion of the summit, Turkey came up with a surprising offer: It was prepared to ‘open a representative office for the Taliban’— a suggestion which, according to Karzai, came from “dignitaries close to the Taliban”. Many have interpreted Karzai’s comment as a reference to Pakistani officials. The Taliban have not denied that this suggestion might have come from them!
Meanwhile, Rabbani’s visit to Tehran, where Tajiks are more welcomed than Pashtuns, is seen as an attempt to bring Tehran on board — an attempt at reconciliation with the Taliban. Tehran, with predominantly Shia Muslims, has always been concerned about the re-emergence of the diehard Taliban, who are Sunni and mistreat the Shia minority. Rabbani’s visit was not met with total success, but it was soon followed up by a visit from Muhammed Fahim, another Tajik and currently vice president of Afghanistan. Curiously, Fahim’s visit coincided with that of an erstwhile KGB General, Viktor Ivanov, who now heads the Russian anti-narcotic force. It seems that Tehran is prepared to ‘wait and see’.
Early this month, Rabbani led a 25-member delegation to Islamabad where, significantly, he met the COAS in the GHQ; a fact that signals the COAS’ endorsement of the ‘Burhani initiative’, given Burhani’s commitment of excluding the US from negotiations with the Taliban.
While allies in the war against terrorism, the US and Pakistan have significantly diverging interests in the ‘end game’ in Afghanistan, particularly in the pursuit of the ‘Petraeus policy’. For its success, Pakistan has been subjected to the continuous ‘do more’ mantra, with reference to the presence of the Haqqani group in North Waziristan; an act that the GHQ has consistently refused.
In fact, during the meeting that took place last year between Obama and Pakistani COAS Kayani in Washington DC last year, after having heard Obama, Kayani handed over an 11-page document to Obama, containing his analysis of the situation, and where and why the US was in error. Reportedly, Obama was taken aback, but assured Kayani that the document would be “fully and seriously considered”.
In pursuit of divergent interests, the two allies have frequently been playing a double game with each other. While Pakistan’s duplicity has frequently been highlighted in the US media, only a few analysts have pointed out America’s consistent duplicity and the fact that Pakistan, being a geographical neighbour of Afghanistan, has greater justification for guarding its interests in the long-term than the US.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a CIA/ISI joint operation and the ISI had agreed to hand him over to the CIA. However, during his debriefing after the capture, he revealed that his capture was ‘arranged’, for him to negotiate a deal with the CIA, excluding both Mullah Omar and Pakistan. Baradar obviously concluded that the ISI was ‘in’ on the deal. On learning this, Pakistan reneged and refused to hand Baradar over to the CIA.
I, for one, see absolutely nothing wrong with the duplicity on both sides. Isn’t this an age-old practice? Aren’t the organs of all states supposed to guard the interests of their own states, even at the cost of their allies, if the interests conflict? All I find cynically amusing is the effort by the US to occupy a moral high ground to talk down to its ally!
However, as soon as Biden’s visit to Pakistan was announced, The Washington Post, based on his briefings by senior officials, listed his priorities for the visit which, apart from reassuring Pakistan on a long-term commitment, included three important shifts in the US policy towards Pakistan: a) The US would no longer insist on an operation in North Waziristan; b) Biden would categorically reassure Pakistan that the US would not undertake ground-based, cross-border operations in Pakistan territory and c) US recognises that “Pakistan has an important, if not dominant, role in negotiating with the Taliban”.
If the Post is correct in its assessment, perhaps Kayani deserves to be credited with having forced a major shift in US policy through his written analysis, handed over to Obama, and his endorsement of the ‘Burhani initiative’.
Perhaps, if my assessment is correct, Biden’s visit might actually be the harbinger of peace in this war-torn region!
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2011.