Will Af-Pak Rescue Obama?
America’s first Black President Barak Obama who started as the great coloured hope of the Third World is by general assessment unlikely to win his second term in the election of 2012. His ratings have plummeted. Two factors anger the American voter. One is the troubled US economy; the other is the war in Afghanistan which has trapped US soldiers in its quagmire. It seems unlikely that in the time left to him Obama can turn the economy around. But if he can successfully terminate the war in Afghanistan he might pull off a victory. Can he?
There are signs that he just might. The US has announced a troop withdrawal six months from now starting July 11th. By 2014 there is commitment to achieve a total military exit from Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden has claimed that the American troops withdrawal in July 2011 will be more than a token reduction. What lies behind such American confidence? There are a number of hopeful signs indicating a possible breakthrough in the Af-Pak region.
The big game changer is of course TAPI, the Trans-Afghanistan-Pakistan India gas pipeline starting from Turkmenistan. The agreement to construct it has already been signed by the four governments involved. Negotiations preceding the agreement were so hush-hush that even well informed Pakistan scribes were caught napping. The usually well informed daily Dawn from Karachi editorially described TAPI as a pipe dream and placed its faith on the Iran-Pakistan-China gas pipeline coming through. The future may stand this projection on its head. TAPI may well emerge sooner than people think. The Iran gas pipeline idea may wither away.
The crucial factor for TAPI to emerge is achieving Af-Pak peace and security because the pipeline will be laid through Taliban territory. There are three most important insurgent leaders in the Af-Pak region. They are Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sirajuddin Haqqani. All three are in the process of being neutralized.
As mentioned earlier through these columns there was indication that the Pakistan army and General Kayani were reappraising their Afghanistan strategy. It was written that General Kayani could be distancing himself from the present policy of achieving strategic depth in Afghanistan. Doing that would entail withdrawing ISI support to the Pakistan based Taliban as well as the Haqqani outfit. Well, some moves in that direction seem to be afoot. Last fortnight the US was considering labelling the Pakistani Taliban or the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani outfit as top terrorists. Last week inside Pakistan Nasiruddin Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin and son of ageing founder of Haqqani outfit, Jalaluddin, was arrested. This indicates that the Pakistan army has got cracking. It has announced that it will start operations in North Waziristan, the heart of insurgent activity in Pakistan, at the appropriate time.
Mullah Omar it was repeatedly written sought the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan and was prepared to distance the Taliban from Al Qaeda and its global terror agenda. It was also known that behind the curtain dialogue with sections of the Taliban had been proceeding. That some headway on this has been achieved became clear from President Hamid Karzai’s statement last Friday that he would welcome Turkey’s help to host peace talks with the Taliban. This statement indicates that time may have come to convert a silent dialogue into open and formal negotiations.
The third important leg of Af-Pak insurgency, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami group, is the one most explicit in its support for peace and the TAPI project. The Hizb-e-Islami has said it is ready to cooperate in implementing the USD 7.6 billion project as it is in the interest of the people of Afghanistan. In an emailed statement in Pashto released by its official spokesman it said: "Hizb-e-Islami asks its members not to allow armed groups to harm the project. Only those will create hurdles for the project who are servants of aliens and are enemies of the countrymen and the country." However, the group promised to continue its armed resistance against foreign troops until they withdraw. "We only hit those who rain bombs on Afghans and who have occupied Afghanistan," the statement said. The statement criticized Iran and Russia for opposing the project because they did not want Central Asian gas to be transported through Afghanistan. The statement slammed the Pakistan government for adopting policies that "favour" Iran and Russia .
It is amidst these developments that the timing of Robert Blackwill’s proposal to withdraw all US troops from areas inhabited by Pashtuns should be viewed. If Pakistan’s present policy of achieving military strategic depth in Afghanistan is being revised, the role of Pakistan’s Pashtuns in its tribal belt becomes crucial. That is why the tallest Pashtun leader in Pakistan, Afsandayar Wali Khan, needs close watching. He might well play the most crucial role in bringing peace to the subcontinent. He heads the National Awami Party. He is the grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. His father, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, was the party’s first President. Wali Khan did his schooling in Doon. He wrote a book “Facts are facts: The untold story of India’s Partition” which roundly criticized Pakistan’s leaders for the Partition. Indeed, that book inspired this scribe to write his own book on the subject which roundly criticized the Congress leaders for the Partition. It is not without significance that after a fierce debate in his assembly Afsandayar succeeded in renaming NWFP province as Pakhtunkhwa Khyber. The very name suggests the cultural unity of Pakistan’s Pashtuns with their brothers in Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass.
The countdown to AF-Pak peace may have well begun. Peace in Af-Pak could initiate peace across the subcontinent. Before July when the first phased US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan begins things ought to start moving. India is in disarray. It urgently needs a government with its house in order. The foreign office should start devising its strategy. For a start it might get in touch with Afsandayar Wali Khan.
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Dr. Rajinder Puri
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