In a major shift, spy agencies Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and National Directorate of Security (NDS), of Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively, have agreed to share intelligence and cooperate. This is the partial outcome, and perhaps culmination, of Afghan President Ghani’s rather unpopular agenda to bolster Kabul-Islamabad relations in an attempt to bring Taliban to the negotiation table. The unpopularity is limited to particular political circles and is homebound; it is widely believed that Washington is approving of the rapprochement. Indeed, closer ties with Pakistan can contribute to the realisation of Ghani’s vision to ‘negotiate with them [Taliban] from a position of power.’ Despite the uproar and paranoia by the detractors of the ISI-NDS Memorandum of Understand (MoU), it is an appropriate move for Kabul to reshuffle its immediate foreign policy.
India, since the Western invasion of Afghanistan, has been and continues to be one of Kabul’s closest allies. Karzai, ex-president of Afghanistan and a critic of the new arrangement, famously referred to the Afghan-Indo relationship as a ‘love affair’ while reciting Lata Mageshkar’s catchy song ‘jab pyar kya tu darna kya.’
It is reported that India has up to a dozen ‘consulates’ and missions throughout Afghanistan’s Southern and Eastern provinces. India is a popular tourist destination in Afghanistan but by no means does tourism warrant this amount of consulates. Rather, it is speculated Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – India’s intelligence agency – is using the bases to keep a watchful eye on historical enemy Pakistan.
This hostility between India and Pakistan has long been fought in distant lands, away from the bustling cities of Mumbai and Karachi. Afghanistan, in the midst of that line of rugged and worn frontlines has constituted the largest and most formidable battleground.
In fact, Kabul has long accused Pakistan of harbouring and supporting Taliban. This is a grounded accusation given the history and lore of the accusers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa some 30 odd years ago when they were the ‘Taliban’ of their time. Most of the politicians and political ‘analysts’ questioning realignment with Pakistan at the cost of alienating India know first hand what Pakistani friendship or enmity constitutes. Taliban, it seems, have been fittingly positioned to be the friends of a security state in Pakistan while Afghan government, despite their own ever-expanding, albeit often unfaithful, circle of ‘friendship’, have earned the enmity of successive juntas and now the quasi-democratic Pakistan. But what often goes unquestioned, at least in the public domain and in a tradition inherited from those anti-Soviet resistance days is: why are Taliban being supported by Pakistan?
There are the historical, ‘age-old’ grievances stemming form Kabul’s successive governments – from the Muhammadzai monarchy all the way to Mujahidin government, including Daod’s republic and the PDPA Marxists in between – insisting for a ‘Pashtunistan policy.’ The policy in its historical context, dating back to Pakistan’s advent in 1947, demands Pashtuns seceding from Pakistan and ultimately joining the motherland Afghanistan. The illusive Durand line, a colonial relic, cutting through the Pashtun lands, would be replaced by a new border in this scheme as a long-held dream would be realised. That vision, however, have been distorted and eroded. Rarely do Afghans now, despite its evoking of sense of pride, know what the ‘Pashtunistan Policy’ means in practice. Especially since the empowerment and dominance of non-Pashtun political elements in Afghanistan who would avoid a Pashtun-majority Afghanistan at all costs. This group practically runs half of President Ghani’s Afghan National Unity government under CEO Abdullah.
Then there is the new, post-9/11 grievances caused by Afghanistan’s growing relationship with India, among other causes. Since the removal of Taliban in late 2001, Kabul-Delhi relations have become tighter while a souring relationship with Pakistan ensued. RAW agencies disguised as Indian consulates across Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan students on Indian scholarship programs, Indo-Afghan joint military drills and training missions, and Indian investment and development projects in Afghanistan have marked a seemingly genuine relationship. Pakistan, owing to its support of Taliban, both their regime from 1996 to 2001 and in its current resurgent incarnation, have been looked at with suspicion and doubt. Uncoordinated cross border shelling into Afghan territory and skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani army have been widespread in the recent years.
Ever since Pakistan’s own homegrown insurgent group Tahrek-I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emerged in 2007, Islamabad has in return blamed Afghanistan for propping the insurgents and routing Indian support. Recently, Pakistani Taliban have become equally ruthless, if not more, in their tactics as their Afghan counterparts. For example, in December 2014, seven TTP men massacred 145 school children and staff in an army public school of Peshawar.
It is important however to note that the intelligence sharing deal is only an MoU, not a treaty. According to an NDS spokesperson, already in 2006 and 2009 similar agreements were signed although they were not implemented. The NDS-ISI agreement may not warrant any excitement. But it does remind us of the ill-conceived defensive Afghan policy towards Pakistan and vice versa without much deliberation to peacefully resolving their differences. The status quo has not worked for either countries and there is no reason to sustain it
Kabul needs the support and ‘friendship’ of Islamabad, and Rawalpindi where its army HQs are, more than it needs India’s support. Pakistan, owing to 35 years of proxy warfare and politics of mistrust, has deeply infiltrated the Afghan power structure. This includes both the insurgency and legitimate political order of the country. India, on the hand, has only secured the support of certain powerful political elements. To bring Taliban to the negotiation table, a wary Afghanistan has to push through with its changing attitude. Instead of continuing the war before being forced to heed to Pakistani demands, it better make the move now on its own.