The plot thickens in Afghanistan. Not much more than a year before international troops leave and Afghans become the masters of their own destiny, the first glimpses of what the future might look like are coming into focus. And it’s not a pretty sight.
The Taliban remain firmly in control of much of the countryside and are making inroads into most city centres. Warlords and drug lords maintain a stranglehold on the political narrative. This year’s opium crop is set to break records and the number of heroin addicts in Afghanistan has topped a million (not to mention a startling increase in crystal meth addicts). The economic front looks no better: addicted to foreign aid and the thick wallets of aid workers, Afghanistan’s economy is expected to shrink by more than 10 per cent as foreigners pack up and leave.
And of course there is Pakistan.
Relations between the two countries are at an all-time low. Border skirmishes over the 2,640-km-long Durand Line have intensified over the past two years, with both sides blaming the other for instigating hostilities. Hatred at the top has also filtered down into the general populace: everyday Pakistanis and Afghans are beginning to despise each other.
If you think things couldn’t get any worse consider this most recent bit of folly: On Oct. 28, the New York Times exposed a plot hatched by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) to support terrorists in Pakistan.
This is one of the most disheartening revelations to come out of Afghanistan in months, putting the kibosh to any notion that Pakistan and Afghanistan might be on the road to co-operation.
The details paint a disturbing picture: for the past year, the NDS had been in “talks” with Latif Mehsud, considered to be the second-in-command of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). The talks were public record, characterized by Afghan authorities as “peace efforts,” with Mehsud playing the role of “peace envoy.”
Sometime in the first week of October, the Afghan army was transporting Mehsud to Kabul for a “secret” meeting with NDS officials when U.S. forces stopped his convoy. The Americans, according to officials, had been “tipped off” about the true nature of the NDS’s negotiations with Mehsud: to “foster a mutually beneficial relationship” with the TTP, which has been targeting the Pakistani government and military for years. The NDS hoped to use the TTP as leverage in peace negotiations, offering to stop supporting the group in the future if Pakistan would in turn force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
The U.S. intervention came swiftly. American forces stopped the convoy and took Mehsud into custody. He is now reportedly being held at the Bagram Airfield north of Kabul.
American officials were perplexed. “What were they thinking?” one official told the Times, referring to the NDS.
But it should come as no surprise that Afghan intelligence would eventually travel down this path. The Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, has been pulling strings in Afghanistan for decades. That Afghan authorities would want to give their meddling neighbours a taste of their own medicine was inevitable.
The consequences, however, are frightening. It’s not hard to imagine where this could lead. Rather than achieve the peace both countries so desperately need, the world may have to prepare itself for a protracted proxy war with the potential to further destabilize the entire region.
As if it wasn’t already bad enough. Anyone with even the most cursory understanding of the geopolitics of the AfPak region knows that there can be no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistani support. Equally, Pakistani stability is a function of Afghan stability. But while high-level government talks are continuing—including a meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the end of October in London—the cold war seems to be heating up.
More importantly, any prospects for peace in a region so intricately linked by culture and history depend on trust between peoples. Playing at proxy wars is a sure way to destroy what little trust remains, perhaps irrevocably.
Recent events highlight how far things have gone. On Nov. 1, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the TTP was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. A week later, the TTP leadership named Mullah Fazlullah, one of the country’s most hated militants and the man responsible for putting out a hit on Malala Yousafzai, as Mehsud’s successor. Pakistanis were dismayed. Some blamed the NDS, pointing to the Latif Mehsud fiasco as proof that Afghan intelligence is in control of the TTP and the appointment of Fazlullah is its latest attempt to wreak havoc in Pakistan.
“The Afghan government claims that Pakistan is supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan so Kabul is supporting the Pakistani Taliban,” former brigadier-general and security analyst Mahmood Shah was quoted as saying in Pakistan’s Dawn daily, adding that Fazlullah, who is currently reported to be in hiding in Afghanistan, is supported by the NDS.
Chaos in Afghanistan is reciprocally blamed on Pakistan, the most recent example being a suicide bomb blast in Kabul on Nov. 16 targeting the site of a meeting of Afghan elders scheduled to start five days later. The gathering will vote on a much-anticipated agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan on the future role of American troops after the scheduled withdrawal of NATO-led forces at the end of 2014.
“This has to be the work of the Pakistani ISI,” Mustafa Laghmani, an engineering student at Kabul Polytechnic University, told Maclean’s a few hours after the attack. “Pakistan wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan completely so it can finally do what it wants here. They will never let Afghans control their own destiny.”
The net result is a deepening rift between Pakistanis and Afghans. Being Pakistani in Afghanistan these days is risky; equally detrimental to one’s physical health is being Afghan in Pakistan. Pakistanis working in Kabul complain of constant harassment at the hands of Afghans while Afghan refugees still living in Peshawar, near the Afghan border, have told Maclean’s horror stories of arbitrary arrests and beatings by Pakistani security officers.
Engaging in the kinds of proxy wars the NDS was attempting and that Pakistan has been employing for years will only accelerate the spiral into mutual suspicion and hatred. And that will lead to the worst possible future: an unrelenting and regionally catastrophic descent into chaos.