Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out

Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in  Karachi, December 25, 2011
Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in Karachi, December 25, 2011 (Tehreek-e-Insaf)

The political tsunami that Pakistan’s Imran Khan promised, and was so sure of achieving, never came. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, fell almost a hundred seats short of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Muslim League which is now set to form a government.

The former cricketer’s meteoric rise in the past few years was perhaps the most notable feature of this month’s election. The massive turnout at his rallies in politically significant cities including Karachi and Lahore and the apparent appeal of his proclaimed “new Pakistan” led many to believe that he would be able to challenge the dominance of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League.

Two things seemed to work in Khan’s favor: his personal reputation and a general anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan. The latter was restricted not only to the People’s Party government but extended to the entire political system which included Sharif, a former premier. Khan exploited it well by focusing on issues that were bound to find a receptive audience. In particular, he launched a strong critique against corruption, the perks and privileges enjoyed by government officials, especially the unofficial exemption from paying taxes, and Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and the resultant drone strikes on its soil.

The fact that Khan had little of a political career also benefited him as he was viewed as an outsider. His lack of ties with Pakistan’s political elite set him apart from the rest of the field. His successful management of a cancer hospital in Lahore, in a country where much of the health sector is in shambles, was applauded even by his critics.

However, as the initial euphoria about him waned, flaws became apparent. While he rightly identified Pakistan’s problems, he offered little in terms of comprehensive solutions, his proposals being deemed “idealistic to the extent of being simplistic.”

Khan proposed to solve the country’s revenue collection problem by setting a better example which supposedly would have inspired Pakistanis to pay more taxes. He seemed to blame the United States entirely for fueling Islamic insurgency by targeting suspected terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles while refusing to speak out against the Taliban, alienating urban voters who were otherwise his main supporters.

Khan’s talk of a “new Pakistan” and promises of “change” were further tainted by his party’s inclusion of defectors as well as stalwarts of the old political system. Others resigned from the party, claiming that it had strayed from its original ideology.

In the absence of a convincing platform, Khan’s own reputation and widespread anti-establishment sentiment could only have taken him so far. The Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party, for all their flaws, still have strong foundations in their respective strongholds, evidenced by their performance in Punjab and Sindh, respectively.

All is not lost for Imran Khan. He may not have succeeded in “sweeping the elections” but his performance was a significant improvement from his previous outings. From having secured only one seat in 2002, his party emerged with a plurality in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where dissatisfaction with American drone strike is highest. Khan will be able to form the provincial government there.

Nationally, Khan’s may yet morph into a credible alternative to the major parties. It won’t have to compromise on its positions in a coalition government, rather develop its platform more comprehensively and prepare to pose a more formidable challenge in the next election.

Indo-Iranian Cooperation in Afghanistan Faces Challenges

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29, 2012
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29, 2012 (Presidency of Iran)

India reaffirmed on Saturday its willingness to develop Iran’s Port of Chabahar during the seventeenth meeting of the India-Iran Joint Commission in Tehran. With an initial investment pledge of some $100 million, the move further strengthens the emerging partnership between the two countries in Afghanistan.

The Chabahar port is critical to India’s Afghanistan policy. In the absence of direct physical access to the country and a hostile Pakistan denying Indian goods transit, the Iranian harbor is the most viable access point India has to Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.

India has already signed agreements with Afghanistan and Iran that grants preferential treatment and tariff reductions to Indian goods bound for Afghanistan and Central Asia at Chabahar. It has helped build the Delaram–Zaranj Highway, which connects Iran to the main Kandahar-Herat Highway in Afghanistan, as well as a road from Chabahar to the Iranian border.

Given Iran’s vital role in providing access to Afghanistan for Indian businesses, the government in New Delhi has resisted American pressure for the country to join international sanctions against the Islamic republic, designed to dissuade it from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, India and Iran both supported the Northern Alliance, a group of mostly minority ethnicities that opposed the Islamist Pashtun regime.

The two neighboring powers’ interests in Afghanistan still converge. A spillover in violence could have negative repercussions for both, including refugee flows, a particular concern for neighboring Iran, increased narcotics smuggling and terrorist attacks, which mainly concern India.

A return of the Taliban or some other radical Islamist group taking control of the country would serve neither India nor Iran. In such a case, the former would fear that the country once again becomes a safe haven for Muslim extremists who will be more susceptible to Pakistani interests.

From Tehran’s point of view, a Sunni bloc comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia poses an ideological as well as security challenge. India’s and Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan has, for the past decades, been aimed at reducing the Pakistani, Saudi and, in Iran’s case, American influence in the region.

Finally, for Iran, cooperation with India in Afghanistan serves a symbolic and economic purpose as it allows the country to appear less isolated in the world and ease some of the pressure that international sanctions have brought.

Iran’s standoff with neighboring and Western nations does pose a problem for India which has to balance its relations with Iran against its interest in deepening relations with the United States. Collaborating with American initiatives in Afghanistan or Central Asia that exclude Iran might persuade the latter to sever ties, for instance by removing the preferential treatment given to India at Chabahar.

Linked to the standoff is Iran’s response to the American troop presence in Afghanistan. While it does not want to see the Taliban return to power, it has extended support to the group in an attempt to keep the United States preoccupied in Afghanistan and distract it from attacking Iran. It is likely to reduce this support once the United States and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. For now, though, it threatens to strike at the very foundation of what brought India and Iran together in Afghanistan.

Moreover, this Iranian sabotage, along with its treatment of Afghan refugees and its tendency to fuel sectarian or ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan, is damaging its reputation in Afghanistan. It is increasingly seen in the same light as Pakistan. India, then, may want to be more cautious in being seen as a willing “partner” of Iran’s.

Pakistan’s possible response to such collusion cannot be ignored. The Northern Alliance was, and possibly still is, viewed in Islamabad as an Indo-Iranian attempt to thwart its influence in the country. The memory of such collaboration is likely to play a part in Pakistan’s strategic calculations, especially as increasing Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan, at Pakistan’s expense, could stoke its fears of strategic encirclement. Indian projects and targets have been attacked in the past and such attacks could extend to Iranian interests as well.

How the administrations in New Delhi and Tehran manage to navigate around these roadblocks over time will determine the viability and durability of their alliance in Afghanistan.

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared at the The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, August 22, 2012.

Pakistan Releases Taliban for Role in Afghan Peace Process

A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010
A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Nicholas Pilch)

During a recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul secured the release of several Taliban prisoners in an effort to push the political reconciliation process forward in his country. The announcement came only a few weeks after Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban prisoners during the visit of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to Islamabad.

Both countries have also agreed to provide a safe passage to travel for talks and work jointly to get at least key leaders of the Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.

Pakistan, through these talks, is attempting to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan and once again using the Afghan Taliban to facilitate it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban, whatever its past experiences with them, still form the only political faction in Afghanistan that could possibly ensure its interests there.

Pakistan, however, does not expect the Taliban to be capable of securing a military victory or controlling the country as it did before the 2001 invasion. It is unlikely that Pakistan itself would want to see complete Taliban domination in Afghanistan in the future either. A broad based government representing the various political factions, including the Taliban, would be more acceptable.

Thus, by showing an eagerness to assist the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking to secure a place for the Taliban in a future representative political setup without a protracted armed struggle that could see the insurgents completely excluded from the process.

At the same time, by maintaining control over the release of the prisoners, Pakistan can ensure that only Taliban members who are amenable to its interests get to play a prominent role in the talks. Hence its refusal to release Mullah Baradar, despite repeated requests from the Afghan government, as he is believed to be staunchly opposed to Pakistan.

Moreover, the playing of a “constructive” role in the process helps Pakistan achieve the additional objective of somewhat allaying the allegations of its duplicity in the Afghan war and thereby ease the international pressure on that count.

Pakistan has always wanted to play a role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation efforts and resented attempts to isolate it from them. Mullah Baradar, for instance, was arrested when he rouched out to the Afghan government on his own.

It is possible that the release of further prisoners or any assistance in the peace talks depends on Pakistan’s own sense of its level of involvement.

The belief that Pakistan would be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is based on the assumption that it holds a massive sway over the group. This influence may be overestimated. Pakistani relations with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the faction with which the Afghan government and the United States wish to negotiate, are tenuous at best and restricted to the provision of physical refuge. The relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government were similarly strained. It may not be possible for Pakistan to play a bigger role than it already is.

Pakistan’s significance lies more in its capability to play a destructive role than a constructive one. It is capable of scuttling the peace process and can stoke violence by supporting groups like the Haqqani network and engineer attacks against the government or foreign troops in Afghanistan.

It is therefore worrying that Pakistan has yet to provide access to the higher echelons of the Taliban leadership as demanded by the Afghan government. Nor has it released all of the high-profile Taliban prisoners which the administration in Kabul believes can play a crucial role in reaching a final settlement.

Any progress with Pakistan on these scores would be contingent on how both countries deal with their deep rooted mutual distrust. There is a widespread skepticism, even hostility, in Afghanistan toward Pakistan and its role in fomenting violence. The continuous volley of accusations back and forth of providing safe haven to insurgent elements and traditional border disputes flare up from time to time and could derail the progress.

India’s Future Role in Afghanistan Severely Limited

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, November 12
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, November 12 (MEA)

Afghan president Hamid Karzai reiterated the importance of India’s assistance for his country during his visit to New Delhi this month. He urged the country, and in particular its private sector, to further increase its investment in Afghanistan. The importance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the Americans as well who are pushing India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan post 2014, especially in the security realm.

There is no doubt that India has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001. Having contributed close to $2 billion in aid over the past decade, India is the fifth largest donor nation to Afghanistan.

Although India has committed to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, there are some major limitations to its engagement that need to be highlighted.

For starters, there is no geographical contiguity between the two countries so India depends on others, notably Iran or Pakistan, for access. Both options are contentious.

Although there has been some easing of trade restrictions between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani military is still wary of Indian influence in Afghanistan and keen to prevent it from playing a larger role in what it sees as its traditional backyard.

Denying access to Indian goods that are meant for Afghanistan is one strategy for inhibiting Indian influence and there seems to be no inclination on the part of Pakistan to change this approach. This has prevented the maximization of the commercial relations between Afghanistan and India.

India, consequently, has relied on Iran to facilitate its trade. However, the port facilities at Chabahar in southeastern Iran still need to be developed and expanded, thereby requiring massive investment, to enable it to support trade on a large scale. More importantly, the use of such facilities will always be contingent on good relations with Iran which could be strained if India does not tread carefully when it comes to collaboration with the United States in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Any developments in the region that India is a part of, including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline or the “New Silk Road” initiative of the United States, that isolates or excludes Iran is likely to be resented by Tehran. This could ultimately prompt Iran to deny India access.

The main thrust of the Indian approach to Afghanistan has been the provision of socioeconomic and humanitarian assistance which has enabled it to earn significant political capital among both the Afghan political elite and the Afghan people. However, its positive engagement has been possible on account of the semblance of security created by the United States and their NATO allies. It would be difficult to maintain the same level of commitment when international security forces withdraw in 2014.

The future uncertainties have already begun to derail India’s commitments to Afghanistan. No new projects have been started for the last two years. Reports suggest that India is planning to scale down the allocation of both human and monetary resources to Afghanistan post 2014. Work on a number of existing projects has stalled due to the prevailing insecurity in Afghanistan. For instance, work on the Salma Dam project in the Herat Province, which was to be inaugurated two years ago, has been delayed on account of the prevailing insecurity in the area and constant attacks on the construction site by insurgent forces.

The problem is compounded by India’s inability to fill the security vacuum that will be created after 2014. For instance, India is not going to contribute directly toward enhancing security in the country as it will likely continue to resist sending in troops into Afghanistan.

This has been to avoid antagonizing the Pakistani military which in the past has resented even the deployment of a small noncombat contingent of troops to provide security to India’s own projects and workers. An Indian military presence in Afghanistan in the future would be counterproductive as it could make India’s presence in Afghanistan actually more vulnerable.

Similarly, it could serve to undermine the goodwill that India has earned over the past decade given the negative perception in the Afghan psyche associated with a foreign military presence. For all these reasons, there is unlikely to be consensus within India for sending troops.

India has limited itself to providing equipment and training to the Afghan National Security Forces. Although it has agreed to increase such activities, it will not train more than 1,000 Afghan troops per year. This is too low a number since the envisioned strength of the Afghan army is about 350,000.

Policymakes in New Delhi will be keen to protect and expand upon the clout they have garnered in recent years through assistance and investments and use it as a springboard to further their interests and influence in Central Asia. But given the absence of an alternative security arrangement, tense relations with neighboring countries and the future uncertainties in both Afghanistan and the region, India’s ability to advance this agenda is severely limited.

Foreign Investment in Afghanistan Faces Obstacles

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan speaks with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Kabul, March 15
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan speaks with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Kabul, March 15 (USN/Chad J. McNeeley)

The recently concluded summits on Afghanistan held in New Delhi and Tokyo aimed at attracting foreign investments to Afghanistan in the hope that economic growth will simultaneously instill a sense of security and political stability. Although the Afghan government has managed to achieve its target amount — the participating countries pledged $16 billion for the next four years — any investment in the country is likely to face obstacles.

Security is the most obvious impediment for any development task undertaken in Afghanistan.

For instance, Chinese activity at the Mes Aynak copper deposits in Logar Province, an area where the Taliban are still active, has still not started as it is constantly under the threat of insurgent attacks. The Wall Street Journal has reported speculation that the Chinese may be deliberately delaying the project until they can properly assess the security situation post 2014 when American and NATO forces are due to leave the country.

As certain regions of Afghanistan are more prone to violence than others, there is a possibility that foreign investments will be restricted to areas that are secure and outside the control of the insurgents. This may mean that most of the developmental aid would go to the non-Pashtun areas and communities — a belief that is said to already prevail among the Pashtuns who feel that since 2001, other communities in Afghanistan have benefited at their expense. A lopsided development of the country is likely to fuel ethnic tension and could be used by the Taliban and their allies for mobilization purposes.

Apart from security, the lack of indigenous capital is likely to be a major problem. Most of the development in Afghanistan has not been geared toward building the financial capacity and skills of the local people, thereby ensuring that Afghanistan is still a long way from becoming economically self reliant.

The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, considered to be the source for its economic self-reliance, is still at least a decade away from becoming a huge source of income. Even the development of these natural riches would require substantial amount of foreign investment, especially for the generation of the necessary infrastructure — railways and roads for transportation, power generations plants and the capacity of the local people to sustain such projects on their own.

As a result, Afghanistan will continue to depend on the “benevolence” and “generosity” of other countries for the years to come.

Although a substantial amount has been pledged so far, foreign aid will always remain hostage to and fluctuate according to the conditions of the global economy and the domestic politics and public opinion in donor countries. Similar commitments have been made in the past but apart from Iran, no country has fully delivered on its promises.

It is also worth noting that the financial commitment for now is only until 2015 and, even if the international community manages to deliver on this amount for the next four years, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to sustain high levels of spending for another decade, especially since this is above the amount already pledged to meet the cost of maintaining the Afghan security forces.

Indeed, the current level of investment may be even tougher to maintain if corruption is not checked in Afghanistan.

According to the Corruption Perceptions Index produced by the Transparency International, Afghanistan falls almost at the bottom of the list. Nearly $1 billion of the $8 billion given out in aid over the past decade has been lost to corruption.

Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union’s envoy to Kabul, told the Reuters news agency that given “the considerable fatigue among the taxpayers of Europe and beyond,” it would become extremely difficult to justify a constant flow of aid to Afghanistan to the domestic populations.

Moreover, any project in Afghanistan would have to take the interests of local warlords into account to ensure its successful completion. This is likely to increase the number of individual beneficiaries and may lead to the diversion of funds and revenues away from the central government.

Attempts to bypass the warlords may derail the process further. This was evident in General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s attempts to prevent the extraction of oil from Sar-e Pol, one of his strongholds, by the Chinese as he was not taken into confidence when an agreement was reached between the Afghan government and Chinese companies.

Finally, the bilateral problems between certain countries can act as likely spoilers to foreign investments. For instance, India’s massive investment in Afghanistan — nearly $2 billion since 2001 — has drawn the ire of Pakistan and the various attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan have been traced back to insurgent groups based in or controlled by Pakistan.

As India seeks to increase its economic involvement further by tapping into the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, violence against Indian projects is likely to increase.

Similarly, the standoff between Iran and the United States has often put the Afghan government in a tight spot as it has been forced to balance its relations with both countries.

The continuation of financial investment in Afghanistan is essential for the country’s progress toward economic self sustainability. However, it would be extremely naive in light of the existing obstacles to believe that this transition can occur overnight or even within a decade.

Iran Denounces US-Afghan Strategic Partnership

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Iran denounced the recently signed Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. It sees the basing of American forces in the country and across the Persian Gulf as a security threat and has even reached out to the Sunni Taliban to balance this perceived threat.

The Iranians have long voiced discomfort with the prospect of a long-term American presence on its eastern border. They have attempted to use their clout within the political system of Afghanistan and the means of bribery to influence Afghan parliamentarians to vote against any security pact with the United States. Read more

The Futility of Talking to the Taliban, For Now

An Australian service light armored vehicle drives through Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 29, 2011
An Australian service light armored vehicle drives through Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 29, 2011 (USCC)

The face-saving strategy of the United States to facilitate an honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan — reaching a political settlement with the Taliban — seems to be failing.

Last month, Mullah Omar’s Taliban leadership announced their decision to suspend the peace negotiations. The official reason given for the pullout was the delay and apparent reluctance of the Americans to release prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an important prerequisite for the talks to be held.

However, the fact that the suspension came in the wake of the massacre of seventeen civilians in Kandahar by an American soldier clearly suggests a link between the two.

The massacre was the most recent in a series of incidents — the burning of Qurans at the Bagram base and the emergence of a video of American soldiers urinating over the dead bodies of Afghans — that has resulted in protests and demonstrations against the presence of foreign troops.

The vulnerability of the foreign soldiers in Afghanistan and government and military advisors currently stationed there has increased as a result. There have been more attacks perpetrated by members of the Afghan National Security Forces on their foreign counterparts as well — a direct consequence of the anti-Americanism.

Whether these are the result of Taliban infiltration or people acting on their accord, it does make it tougher for the United States to take on the Taliban militarily, just as this year’s fighting season is set to commence.

Although peace talks may yet resume, the intensification of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan in recent months will make it harder to reach a settlement with the Taliban if they do.

A satisfactory settlement, from the American point of view, seems highly untenable to begin with. The United States cannot hope to extract significant concessions from the Taliban from a weaker bargaining position. Although the Taliban are probably not capable of ensuring a military victory similar to their triumph in the 1990s, the NATO powers are and probably will not be in a position to coerce them into accepting their demands either.

The present situation is likely to strengthen the hardliners within the Quetta Shura who have been ideologically opposed to holding talks with the Americans from the start. They have always alleged that the United States mistreat Islam and the Afghan people and could use the recent incidents to get their way. Mullah Omar may be keen to avoid an internal struggle at this critical juncture and give in to the hardliners.

It is not just the internal squabbling which should concern Mullah Omar. If that was the case, he would not have agreed to the peace talks in the first place.

His political calculations are guided by realism, as evident from his decision to negotiate with the Americans, and it is this realism that would compel him to pay heed to the present climate in the country.

All major political groups in Afghanistan are taking note of the prevailing sentiments in the country in order to win brownie points with the masses. President Hamid Karzai has stood his ground during negotiations for the American-Afghan security partnership under the pretext of preventing further erosion of Afghan sovereignty. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction, the Hizb-e-Islami, a key opponent of Mullah Omar’s, called off peace talks as well. If the Taliban were the only ones to resume negotiations, it could further erode their legitimacy.

Finally, especially in light of recent American concessions on counterinsurgencies tactics, notably the transfer of control of the Bagram prison to the Afghan army and possible suspension of or at least reduction in night raids, the Taliban may decide that all they have to do is wait for the bulk of the remaining NATO troops to withdraw in 2014 to reclaim the initiative.