Grand moves on Afghanistan’s old chess board

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Events in Afghanistan are moving so fast that it is often difficult to keep pace. The two-day visit to Islamabad (March 9 and 10) by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai was preceded by two other events: a visit on March 9 to Kabul by President Mahmoud Ahmed-inejad of Iran to meet Karzai, and the capture on February 8 of Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This was followed by an announcement that members of Hizb-e Islami (led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar) had met Karzai and his advisors in Kabul on March 22. During his Islamabad visit, Karzai also announced that he will organize a jirga-gai (a mini-jirga) to be held in Kabul in April. This will be followed by a Loya (grand) Jirga in Islamabad.

Mulla Baradar, second in command to the Taliban leader Mulla Omar, was involved in secret negotiations with Karzai as well as the UN, as admitted by the former UN representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, on March 19. So what precisely is going on and what significance does Baradar’s capture by the ISI and meetings between the Hizb-e Islami and Karzai’s government have?

At the strategic level, Pakistan has dealt a blow to UN-US-Karzai attempts to bypass Islamabad in any negotiations for a peace deal in Afghanistan. Immediately after Mulla Baradar’s capture, the Americans demanded that he be handed over to them and while Pakistani officials said they would, the move was blocked through a court challenge. When Karzai made the same request during his meeting with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gailani in Islamabad, the latter politely brushed it aside pointing out that Pakistan had to await the court’s verdict before acceding to any such request.

What is so significant about the capture of Mulla Baradar and what was he involved in? As Kai Eide admitted, the UN had been involved in secret negotiations with the Taliban through Mulla Baradar for more than a year. Eide lamented Pakistan’s capture of the Taliban’s second-in-command calling it unhelpful and said it had abruptly halted all such contacts. Interestingly, Mulla Baradar had slipped into Karachi a few days earlier from the Maldives, perhaps via Dubai, where UN-brokered talks had taken place with Karzai’s representatives on several occasions. According to reports, Mulla Baradar and the Karzai team were flown from the London Conference on Afghanistan (January 28) to Maldives for secret talks at one of its exclusive resorts.

The Afghans dressed in baggy shalwar kameez and huge turbans must have stuck out like sore thumbs on a Maldavian resort famous for bikini-clad beachgoers. It is possible they were taken to a resort that was off limits for tourists while the parleys were underway. To think that such talks could take place –” the earlier UN contacts with Mulla Baradar in Dubai –” without the knowledge of Pakistan’s ISI is beyond naïve. Whatever one’s opinion of the ISI, one must give it credit for being on top of things, especially in the region. What went on in London and Maldives could not have escaped ISI attention. For Mulla Baradar to then arrive in Pakistan, presumably using a passport provided by the UN, was like poking fingers in ISI’s eyes. His capture and interrogation by the ISI served notice to the US, UN and Karzai that any peace-deal must go through the proper channel: Islamabad. No other deals or routes would be tolerated. Mulla Baradar must also have spilled quite a lot of beans to his Pakistani interrogators.

It appears that not only Kabul but also Washington has got the message. On March 14, General David Petraeus admitted on US television that Pakistan had legitimate interests in Afghanistan and that the country served as its strategic depth vis-à-vis arch-rival India. Karzai had also spoken about the importance of Islamabad’s involvement in peace negotiations during his visit. He heaped uncharacteristically high praise on Pakistan calling it a “brother” –” a far cry from his earlier allegations that Islamabad was stoking terrorism in Afghanistan and harboring the Taliban. When Karzai was caught making a secret deal with the Taliban bypassing Pakistan, he was forced to change tune.

The former UN envoy, Eide’s emphasis on talks with the Taliban also seemed to underscore growing differences between the US and some of its allies over tactics. The UN and European countries want internationally supported agreements with the Taliban through immediate negotiations. The Americans are not averse to this but they cannot bring themselves to admit that their hi-tech “mighty” army has been defeated by rag-tag bands of Taliban in Afghanistan. They are looking for a way to get out without having to admit defeat. America’s staunchest European ally, Britain, has been advocating UN involvement as one possible face-saving formula. During a speech at MIT early last month, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the UN could serve as a “neutral” meeting ground for parties that distrusted each another. That is exactly what had been underway for more than a year, as confirmed by Eide. Karzai had begged the Taliban for more than two years and even used Saudi interlocutors to help mediate with them.

Let us look at the background of Mulla Baradar. He is an interesting character and belongs to the same Popalzai tribe to which Karzai belongs (Mulla Omar is a Ghilzai). Mulla Omar and Mulla Baradar (or Abdul Ghani) are childhood friends and studied not only in the same madrassa but went through training by Pakistani military officers together during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Colonel Imam, one of the more colorful Pakistani military officers intimately involved in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, has confirmed that the two were very close. So why would Karzai rely on Mulla Baradar?

During Taliban rule, Mulla Baradar had recruited Karzai into the foreign ministry to serve as deputy foreign secretary. Later, Mulla Baradar sent him to Washington. In typical Afghan fashion, Karzai established links with the neo-cons as well as with oil executives that were interested in the oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia. Karzai also brought his brothers to the US and with bakhsheesh given by the Americans, opened a chain of Afghan restaurants. They are still operating in Washington, DC and Virginia.

Karzai also struck secret deals with the Americans to betray the Taliban in return for a high post in the Kabul government once the Taliban were removed from power. This was in 2000-2001 when the Americans had soured on the Taliban, especially after the Berlin Conference in July 2001 where they had threatened to bomb the Taliban into the Stone Age if they refused to accept the pipeline deal offered by UNOCAL, the American oil company. It needs recalling that UNOCAL had invited a Taliban delegation to Houston in December 1997 and dined them for several days in hopes of convincing them to sign the pipeline deal.

Despite Karzai’s be-trayal (that perhaps was unknown to the Taliban at the time), when the Taliban surrounded him in Qandahar during the US onslaught, it was Mulla Baradar who rushed with his fighters to rescue him. Abdul Haq, a guerrilla leader during the Soviet occupation, was not so lucky. He was America’s favorite but was caught by the Taliban while trying to organize an uprising against them. Abdul Haq could not escape before the Taliban caught up with him (he had lost one of his legs during the anti-Soviet struggle and could not run fast enough, like his nephew who had accompanied him into Afghanistan). Abdul Haq was promptly hanged by the Taliban even as they were on the verge of abandoning Kabul. With Abdul Haq eliminated, the presidency fell to Karzai.

The situation has now turned full circle. Karzai is once again in dire straits. He knows he has little or no tribal support or military muscle and if the foreign occupation troops leave, as they must sooner rather than later, he will be left dangerously exposed. He has turned to the one man –” Mulla Baradar –” who had been his benefactor on so many occasions. With Mulla Baradar now firmly under lock and key in Islamabad, Karzai has turned to Pakistan for help. Will the Pakistanis oblige? Based on the reception he was given upon arrival in Islamabad on March 9, the answer must be in the affirmative. The Pakistanis want to protect their interests and if Karzai can deliver, they will be happy to deal with him. At the same time, they have nurtured the Taliban for more than two decades; they are not about to abandon them, especially given their desire and policy to ensure that Afghanistan does not become too close an ally of India. The latter has penetrated the country deeply but the situation has radically changed in the last few weeks.

Not only Karzai but also the warlords in Washington have realized that Pakistan is the most important player as far as Afghanistan is concerned. No deal will work without Islamabad’s blessings. And in this, there is little or no room for Delhi to mess around. It may be time for payback for India’s meddling in Afghanistan and Pakistan as was evident from the February 26 suicide bombings in Kabul that killed a number of Indian employees, many of them no doubt working for India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). When their charred bodies were returned in boxes, Delhi must have got the message that the ground realities in Afghanistan had changed radically and no amount of kowtowing to the Americans would help India. Pakistan can pack a much more powerful punch in Afghanistan than India can ever hope for.

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