Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karzai And Gilani Try to Paper Over Differences

No matter what crises hit diplomatic relations, Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied to each other.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
It was not exactly a kiss-and-make-up session, but the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan have at least got a dialogue going again.

After suspending relations in mid-July in protest against Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghan president Hamed Karzai had a breakfast meeting on August 3 with Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to discuss further cooperation in the struggle against extremism and terror.

The two met in Colombo, on the sidelines of the 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, which brings regional leaders together in what many say is more of a talking shop than a genuine policy forum.

The Sri Lankan capital served as a backdrop to the continuing drama of India and Pakistan, whose rivalry is now apparently being played out in Afghanistan.

A bomb attack on July 7 in Kabul targeted the Indian embassy, killing more than 50 and injuring over 150 more. Two Indian diplomats were among the dead.

Afghanistan immediately placed the blame squarely on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, ISI, which, according to Kabul, has long been supporting extremism in Afghanistan. This was the latest installment in a bitter war of words, which peaked in mid-June, when Karzai threatened to attack Pakistan if his eastern neighbour did not do more to stem the flow of extremists across the almost non-existent border between the two countries.

India also blamed Pakistan for the embassy bombing, and, on August 1, the United States joined the chorus. US intelligence officials told the New York Times that they had evidence that ISI officials had provided aid and guidance to the bombers, suspected to be part of the militant Jalaluddin Haqqani network, which enjoys safe haven in Pakistan.

On July 14, Afghanistan’s cabinet voted to suspend all talks with Pakistan. Previously scheduled meetings were to be postponed until “bilateral trust” could be restored.

“We have not cut all our relations with Pakistan,” said presidential spokesman Hamayoun Hamidzada, speaking at a press conference in mid-July. “The decision was that we would hold ‘no talks’ over the next weeks. But we also hope that the other side will show its honesty.”

Pakistan has continued to deny involvement in the attack. But at talks with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh in Colombo, Gilani said that his country would launch its own investigation into the attacks, and his information minister Sherry Rehman acknowledged to the media that that were elements in the ISI that sympathised with the Taleban.

Evidently, this was enough for Karzai to sit down with Gilani in Colombo, to try and paper over their differences. For no matter what crises hit diplomatic relations, their countries are inextricably tied to each other, and Karzai’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric may be regarded as a bad case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

“There is no use in trying to pressure Pakistan through verbal attacks or by cutting relations,” said Afghan political analyst Ahmad Sayedi. “The cabinet should have considered the political and economic consequences of their decision. I am sure that most of the ministers still have no idea of what they were doing. They just raised their hands.”

Sayedi pointed out that 80 per cent of the food that Afghans consume comes from Pakistan. “The government should have sought an alterative before deciding on a boycott of meetings,” he said. “Of course we can cut down on some imports from Pakistan, but we cannot just sew our mouths shut and not eat anything.”

He said Pakistan also risks losing a ready market as relations with Afghanistan plummet, “Pakistan has no other market for its poor-quality goods. Pakistan will also sustain damage.”

Afghanistan has long been a proxy battlefield where other countries play out their differences. Over the centuries, it has played host to the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain, with India as the prize; in the 1980s, it served as the theatre of a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union. Now it is India and Pakistan who are using the volatile central Asian country as a pawn in their political game of chess.

India has been assiduously courting Karzai’s secular government as a bulwark against Pakistan’s perceived designs for a united Islamist front in Central Asia.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is deeply suspicious of India’s motives in the region, and has traditionally supported the more radical elements in Afghanistan. Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognise the Taleban government.

The Afghan president has proven less than adept at negotiating these rocky waters, and the strain is showing in his support at home.

“Karzai’s government has failed, and this is now acknowledged both here and outside,” said Fazel Rahman Oria, political analyst and editor of the Erada daily newspaper. “Now Karzai wants to distract people’s attention by attacking Pakistan and blaming it for all his problems. Afghans do not like the government of Pakistan, so Karzai is trying to curry favour among the electorate.”

Afghanistan is scheduled to run presidential elections next year, and the political climate is already heating up.

The decision to boycott meetings with Pakistan was absurd, said Oria, especially given that Pakistan had already begun unilaterally to cancel its scheduled contacts with the Afghan government.

But, he added, the decision had military and security consequences that could be harmful for Afghanistan, “Pakistan has deployed its troops along the border with Afghanistan. And ISI is shifting al-Qaeda from Iraq to Afghanistan.”

At such a delicate time, it was unwise to choose confrontation over cooperation, he went on.

But Hamidullah Faroqi, member of the board of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, applauded the decision.

“The government was compelled to take this step,” he told IWPR. “Pakistan’s military and intelligence circles are interfering so strongly that the Afghan government had no choice.”

The damage to relations would be reflected in economic hardship on both sides of the border, he said.

“Afghanistan is a consumer country, and 80 percent of our imports are from Pakistan,” he said. “If the border closes, we may be able to supply ourselves from the north or the west. But Pakistan makes two billion US dollars per year on trade with Afghanistan, and if they lose it, they will suffer a blow.”

The trade routes to Afghanistan go through some of the most lawless territory in Pakistan – the tribal areas where the central government has little control.

Media reports indicate that the extremists in the tribal areas, who have declared their commitment to jihad against the foreign troops in Afghanistan, have issued warnings against shipping goods to the Coalition forces. Over the past few weeks, several fuel tankers carrying fuel for international troops have been attacked in eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan.

Afghan businessman Mohammad Seddiq said that he and his colleagues were disturbed by the warnings. Many drivers were refusing to bring goods across the order, he said, and those who were willing to do so were asking prohibitively high prices.

He, like many of his countrymen, see the hand of the ISI in the conflict, and blame Karzai for ratcheting up the pressure.

“I am sure that ISI encouraged the Taleban in this warning,” he told IWPR. “They want to say to the Afghan government, ‘okay, you are threatening us, but we can cut off your food’. We have seen nothing good from Karzai’s policies over the past six years, just harm. If you have no power, why are you screaming?”

Mumin Khan, a teacher, agrees.

“Karzai’s verbal attacks on Pakistan, and the cabinet’s decision [to suspend relations] are just like children playing,” he said. “One minute they fight with each other, the next minute they make up. My advice to Karzai is ‘be calm, don’t talk so much. Your speech has brought only harm’.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.

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