Who’s afraid of Afghan Ghani’s Pakistan pact?

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 24, 2015 1:57 AM (UTC+8)
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The signing of the agreement between the intelligence agencies of Afghanistan and Pakistan – National Security Directorate (NSD) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) respectively – has brought to the surface new “fault lines” that would have bearing on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan as well as the prospects of peace talks in the week ahead.

A significant body of opinion within Afghanistan is critical of the NSD-ISI tie-up. Such criticism will not wither away and may even snowball in the coming days. The point is, President Ashraf Ghani has showed the audacity to decide on the signing of the agreement all by himself and his political decision is a gambit.

What emerges is that the NDS-ISI controversy is making strange bedfellows in Afghan politics, even as former president Hamid Karzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah who had been bitter enemies through the past decade (ever since the latter was removed as foreign minister in 2005) are finding themselves on the same page. The stance of other key players (such as Vice-President Rashid Dostum, for example) is also to be carefully assessed. Meanwhile, a rift has appeared between Ghani and the Afghan parliament as well.

Why did Ghani take such a fateful decision? He isn’t unaware of the groundswell of “anti-Pakistan” feelings in Afghanistan.

The heart of the matter is that Ghani finds himself at a crossroads. He has an option to pursue the military path to confront the Taliban but he is intelligent enough to sense the futility of taking that path. His political vision is predicated on finding an end to the decades-old civil war.

Ghani realizes, on the other hand, that for kick-starting any meaningful peace talks with the Taliban, Pakistan’s cooperation remains critical, which in turn necessitates a clean break from Karzai’s acrimonious relationship with Pakistan.

Evidently, Ghani weighed the high political cost of annoying sections of Afghan opinion and the political elites in Kabul and decided that the importance of winning Pakistan’s confidence outweighed it.

So far, Pakistan has indicated its willingness to cooperate with Ghani, provided he is prepared to take a leap of faith and end Afghanistan’s security tie-up with India, Pakistan’s archenemy. On his part, Ghani estimates that a settlement with the Taliban would buy him more political space to consolidate politically.

In all this, the biggest danger will be that this controversy is all set to leap out of the Afghan political theatre and assume regional overtones. Anything involving ISI is bound to draw the attention of other intelligence services in the region and beyond. Conceivably, intelligence agencies in and outside the region may jump into the fray to stop the security pact from proceeding further into the implementation stage. And the fragmented Afghan politics is tailor-made for outside interference. Most Afghan politicians enjoy foreign patronage.

Interestingly, more than one foreign power could get involved in getting Afghan factions to fight it out and create a stalemate for Ghani. It could even be that some of the spy agencies from third counties may work in tandem.

Therefore, there is a real danger that the turbulence over the NSD-ISI pact may trigger political convulsions. Suffice it to say, the present national unity government itself may flounder in the process.

It appears that the security pact issue has added to the tensions already existing within the Afghan national unity government headed by Ghani and Abdullah and the latter is an ambitious politician, who never really accepted defeat in the last presidential election.

Ghani’s weakness is that he lacks an independent power base. He won the last presidential election on the basis of a loose coalition comprising assorted elements and interest groups (including Karzai) plus the behind-the-scenes support extended by the United States to the former World Bank official.

The present national unity government came into existence as an optimal formula devised by Washington since both Ghani and Abdullah are America’s friends. But the US gave weightage in favor of Ghani who was beholden to Washington in a way that Karzai (or Abdullah) never was.

Put differently, the Ghani-Abdullah coalition in Kabul is a brilliant ploy by Washington, which has ensured that the national unity government always could be calibrated to the US’ advantage. The U.S. is determined to avoid a replay of the Karzai era –- someone who was regarded as a safe puppet incrementally became independent and proved to be a wily master-builder of political coalitions and an independent power base from where he eventually began spinning out of American control.

From such a perspective, the Afghan-Pakistan intelligence tie-up could be seen as Ghani’s maiden venture into independent policymaking. Almost certainly, the initiative for the intelligence tie-up would have originated from Pakistan both as a litmus test of Ghani’s willingness to mothball the security ties with India as well as to somehow secure an insider track to know precisely that the Afghan intelligence no longer indulges in subversive activities to destabilize Pakistan (instead of merely taking Ghani’s word for it.)

All indications are that the NSD-ISI pact pact was born out of Ghani’s one-to-one meetings with the head of the ISI, Gen. Rizwan Akhter (with the backing of the Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif.)

It stands to reason that Ghani would have consulted the Barack Obama administration but an equally good possibility is that Ghani took the decision on his own.

Washington always encouraged a working relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan in counterterrorism, but it has also kept a wary eye on its ability to mentor the overall relationship between these two countries to its advantage.

From the U.S. viewpoint, Afghan-Pakistan cooperation is in principle a good thing to happen and is indeed a prerequisite of the efforts to stabilize the Afghan situation and begin the peace talks with the Taliban. But, having said that, the U.S. also never lost sight of its own agenda and specific interests in Afghanistan. The wide arc of countries surrounding Afghanistan in the regions of South, West and Central Asia are crucial to the U.S.’ global strategies.

Washington will most certainly factor in Pakistan’s upgrade of its relations with China as the anchor sheet of its foreign policies. To be sure, a Sino-Afghan-Pak entente in regional security would be detrimental to the U.S. interests. Interestingly, a leading Pakistani daily reported in the weekend quoting a senior official in Islamabad that Beijing has alerted the Pakistani agencies that “many foreign hostile intelligence agencies” might instigate terrorist strikes against the “Belt and Road” projects in Pakistan numbering over 200 within the ambit of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor.

The U.S. has made many mistakes in Afghanistan, but it will be the mother of all mistakes to overlook that the pact between the Afghan and Pakistani spy agencies may hold the potential to open a window of opportunity to get the peace talks started with the Taliban.

The point is, the ISI has stepped forward and offered to be accountable and that alone deserves to be tested on the ground.

It could turn out that the security pact with the NSD is a mere ploy by the ISI to infiltrate the Afghan intelligence set-up and erode the overall capacity of the Kabul government to resist a Taliban takeover. It could be that Pakistan is simply buying time and stringing Ghani along. Or, the ISI is sitting out the period until Obama announces the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, a failure to explore the opportunity provided by the NSD-ISI pact at the present juncture will be a historic blunder on the part of the U.S.

For President Obama, who has less than twenty months left in office, the smart money should be put on Ghani’s effort to frontally address the accumulated trust deficit in Afghan-Pakistan relations, which has been a core issue all along.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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