Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Weekly Pulse
March 26-April 1, 2010
If in the past several years Pakistan was criticized for failing to nab Afghan Taliban leaders allegedly hiding in the country, now it is being condemned for arresting them. The basis of previous criticism was that Afghan Taliban leaders were using Pakistani border regions as a safe haven for fuelling insurgency in Afghanistan. The rationale for current criticism is that the arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders will sabotage the international bid to reconcile Taliban insurgents.

Since February, Pakistan’s security agencies have arrested several top leaders of the Quetta Shura, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (Taliban military commander, Mullah Umar’s deputy and head of Quetta Shura), Agha Jan Mohtasim (Finance Minister during the Taliban regime and Mullah Umar’s son-in-law), Mullah Abdul Salam (Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz), Mullah Mir Mohammed (Taliban shadow governor of Baghlan), Mohammed Younis (Taliban shadow governor of Zabul), and Maulvi Abdul Kabir (Taliban head of Peshawar Regional Military Shura). In total, Pakistan has arrested 14 Afghan Taliban leaders in the past couple of months.

Mullah Baradar’s arrest was most significant—an outcome of a joint US-Pakistani security operation in Karachi in mid-February. He was in charge of planning the Taliban campaign against US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, allotting funds and weapons and picking commanders to set up a shadow administration of militias and courts that held sway over much of Afghanistan’s southern and eastern countryside.

Proactive Campaign

These arrests have taken place during a period which has seen US drone attacks in North and South Waziristan gain significant momentum and kill some of the most dreaded Taliban leaders, including Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain and Muhammad Haqqani. For their part, Pakistani security forces battling the Taliban in South Waziristan and other tribal agencies like Bajaur and Khyber have succeeded in eliminating other notorious Taliban leaders like Faqir Muhammad.

Taken together, the recent arrests and killings of Taliban leaders by Pakistani security forces are believed to have disrupted the insurgents' chain of command, making it tougher for the Taliban's war council to relay funds and battle plans to their commanders fighting NATO troops. In particular, they have enhanced Pakistan’s profile in the international campaign against terrorism in the region.

No surprise that top US civilian and military leaders have in recent weeks hailed Pakistan’s counter-terrorism performance—with Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying his country is “extremely gratified” that Pakistan has arrested key Taliban leaders. During a State Department briefing on March 19 on the eve of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in Washington, he said: “We are extremely gratified that Pakistan apprehended the number two (Taliban leader) and others.” He added that the said arrests brought “more pressure” on the Taliban than before and the move was “good for the military operation” in Afghanistan.

Strategic Dialogue

The US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, participated by the two countries’ top civil and military leaders, has been the most important ever meeting between the two strategic allies covering ten crucial issues, including energy, defense, education, science and technology, counter-terrorism, strategic stability and non proliferation, health, communication, agriculture and public diplomacy.

In the last over one year, Mr. Holbrooke has visited Pakistan and the region eight times. During this period, the top-level interaction between US and Pakistani civilian and military leaders has also intensified. Pakistan’s proactive campaign against terrorism is partly a fruit of this deepening strategic link between the two countries and partly a consequence of the enormity of Taliban terrorism in recent years. Mullah Baradar’s arrest couldn’t have occurred without close collaboration between US and Pakistani security agencies.

And yet we have the former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, criticizing Pakistan for the very reason his American counterpart is “extremely gratified.” On the same day Mr Holbrooke praised Pakistan, the former UN envoy said in a BBC interview that the arrest of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan had a “negative” impact on attempts to find a political solution to the Afghan war.

Mr Eide said he had held talks with senior Taliban figures, starting around a year ago in Dubai. “The first contact was probably last spring, then of course you moved into the election process where there was a lull in activity. Communication picked up when the election process was over, and it continued to pick up until a certain moment a few weeks ago,” he said in the BBC interview.

Reconciliation Process

The Norwegian diplomat, who quit his UN position earlier in March, seemed to suggest that Pakistan had deliberately tried to undermine the negotiations, as the reference in his interview regarding the UN-led negotiating process continuing “to pick up until a certain moment a few weeks ago” is certainly to the mid-February arrest of Mullah Baradar jointly by US-Pakistani security forces.

The deputy presidential spokesman of the Afghan government, Siamak Hirawi, was quick to certify the ex-UN envoy’s claim, by saying the said arrests had “slowed down Afghan government peace initiatives. “We confirm the negative impact of the arrests on the peace process that the Afghan government has initiated.”

Since then, Time Magazine has also reported that the roll-up of Taliban leaders by Pakistan “has dealt a blow to secret, preliminary talks under way during the past six months between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, as well as those conducted through a separate channel between the Taliban and U.N. envoys.” The said report, interestingly, claims that the arrested Taliban leaders in Pakistan were “more malleable to peace talks with Karzai than a core of hard-liners within the Taliban's ruling shura, or council, who are thought to be hiding in the Pakistani cities of Quetta or Karachi.”

However, the recent visit to Islamabad by President Hamid Karzai does not seem to indicate that the issue of the arrest of Afghan Taliban leaders by Pakistan has become a major irritant in the hitherto sordid ties between the two countries.

Before Mr. Karzai’s visit, the press in Afghanistan and Pakistan had speculated that the Afghan government was seeking extradition of Taliban leaders from Pakistan, despite the fact that the country’s High Court in Lahore had barred the government from such extradition. The only statement on the matter Mr. Karzai made during his visit was that the two governments were working out the modalities of an extradition treaty.”

In fact, one important outcome of Karzai’s visit was the agreement between the two countries to revive the joint Peace Jirga, whose first and last meeting took place in August 2007. The Afghan government is scheduled to organize a grand peace jirga next month, consisting of more than 1,800 parliamentarians, clerics, judges and provincial officials.

In coming months, mini-tribal council meetings, called Jirgagai, will take place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, paving the way for a grand Peace Jirga. The relationship between the two countries is also becoming more meaningful now, with expanded targets in bilateral trade, educational exchanges and security cooperation. Along with Iran, the two countries are likewise moving forward in institutionalizing multi-faceted regional cooperation.

Emerging Trend

Seen together with the holding of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, the emerging trend in US-Pakistan-Afghan triangular relationship is one of taking cooperation to a higher strategic plane. It is this very trend that contravenes all of the speculative stuff grounded in unfounded criticism of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism role led by the former UN chief in Afghanistan.

As for Mr Eide’s claim that Pakistan has sabotaged the process of reconciling Taliban leaders in Afghanistan by arresting them, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her media interviews on the occasion of US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in Washington reiterated the significance of these arrests in the resolution of Afghan conflict.

She did not feel the need to contradict the former UN envoy, arguing that he can have his own opinion on the issue. The United States, she argued, looked at these arrests as a confirmation of Pakistan’s renewed resolve to fight terrorism in the region and contribute to the resolution of Afghan conflict.

Given that, whatever the current detractors of Pakistan’s role in the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan and the region may say, given the country’s unique ethnic, geographical and historical link with Afghanistan, Pakistan is poised to play a pivotal role in the political resolution of the Afghan conflict as war efforts in Afghanistan coming months coincide increasingly with bids aimed at reintegrating Taliban-led insurgents and reconciling their leaders.

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