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Regional Powers Gear Up For Afghan Intrigue -- Even As West Looks Away

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) speaks with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Kabul in April
To hear the Americans and Europeans talk, it’s the beginning of the end game in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies are rushing for the exit. In Western capitals the discussion is all about troop withdrawals, political settlements, and negotiations with the Taliban.

But that’s only how the West sees it. The picture looks rather different from the vantage point of leaders in South Asia and the Middle East. Regional powers are gearing up for a period of renewed intrigue. The rest of the world should prepare itself for an intensification of long-established rivalries and a rise in instability inside Afghanistan itself.

First and foremost, the security establishment in Pakistan is in no mood to loosen its grip on Afghanistan. While U.S. policymakers fret about Islamabad’s reliability as an ally in the war on terror, the Pakistani General Staff and the heads of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are making their own preparations for the departure of U.S. and other international forces.

While visiting Pentagon dignitaries scold the generals in Rawalpindi for failing to crack down on militants who are infiltrating into Afghanistan from the tribal areas, the Pakistani military remains conspicuously selective in its operations. The Pakistani Army attacks only the jihadis who carry out attacks against the Pakistani state, but spares groups who are fighting against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led international forces on the other side of the Durand Line.

Controversial Drone Strikes

After years of looking away from U.S. drone attacks on militants inside the tribal areas, Pakistani generals and politicians are suddenly assailing the American air strikes for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani rails against the drone strikes in the national assembly. The regional parliament in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa passes resolutions demanding action. Ex-cricketer Imran Khan, normally a political lightweight, appears at the head of indignant demonstrations denouncing the Americans.

This is not about protecting the rights of ordinary Pakistanis. In fact many members of the Pakistani elite quietly approve of the strikes. (The drones have been attacking their targets for the past seven years, but we’ve had to wait until now for the politicians and the generals to start denouncing them.)

What’s actually going on here is that Pakistani leaders are sending a blunt message to the United States and its allies: Don’t sideline Pakistan from any future settlement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has good reason to be worried. Inside Afghanistan, many politicians, officials, and ordinary people prefer arch rival India when it comes to cultural, trade, and diplomatic relations. Many Afghans have had enough of high-flying talk about jihad -- especially when it comes cloaked in Pakistani garb.

This awareness fans Pakistani paranoia. The prospect of rising Indian influence means that the ISI and the Pakistani military establishment will work even harder to keep control over their proxies inside Afghanistan and to thwart any deals that fail to take Islamabad’s interests into account. Rightly or wrongly, Pakistani leaders have long viewed the radical jihadi groups as strategic assets for safeguarding Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and deterring giant India’s hostile designs.

India, meanwhile, will continue to do everything it can to box Pakistan in by cultivating alliances with sympathetic warlords and politicians. Islamabad’s suspicions in this respect are not irrational. It used to be that India and Pakistan confined their dirty tricks to the border regions between them. Now Afghanistan is the preferred turf for their maneuverings.

Nor can Iran be expected to remain idle. Though keeping their cool for the moment, the country’s leaders are closely watching developments on the Afghan scene. They will jump in the moment they see the need to defend their interests in their neighbor to the east.

Predominantly Shia Iran will not be happy with a dominant role for the Sunni Taliban next door. Iran will also want guarantees for the minority Hazaras and other Shia communities in Afghanistan in case the Taliban are offered a bigger slice of the Afghan pie.

Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia also has its long-standing investments in Afghan warlords -- though its intelligence service mostly stayed behind the scenes by funneling cash to groups supporting Wahhabi Islam.

Analysts and observers believe the dreaded Haqqani network, which gets much of its support from Pakistan, also enjoys the backing of the Saudi intelligence. The Haqqanis, veterans of the Afghan jihad, are smart enough to take help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Al-Qaeda at the same time.

The Saudis would also like to see the Taliban in power again in Afghanistan, particularly given the kingdom’s concerns about Iranian interference in Bahrain. For the Saudis, a revival of Taliban influence in Kabul would act as a counterweight to Iran’s presumed support for the Shias in Bahrain and its meddling in the broader Middle East.

Turkey, meanwhile, is trying to boost its role in the Islamic world -- hence its efforts to broker an Afghan peace deal. Pakistan and Turkey are enjoying closer diplomatic at the moment, but the situation could easily reverse itself if Islamabad begins to feel that the Turks are encroaching on its prerogatives in Afghanistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari recently visited Turkey, where he not only pushed for the usual strengthening of trade and diplomatic ties but also made a point of approving Turkey’s recent initiative to open a diplomatic office for the Taliban. Analysts said that he was underlining Pakistan’s insistence on a leading role in any future settlement in Afghanistan.

These regional rivalries are, by themselves, enough to undermine the prospects for stability inside Afghanistan in the years to come. But there are other problems, too. The power vacuum left behind when the United States and its allies withdraw could easily spawn new turmoil.

Warlords And Private Militias

The warlords have grown in strength over the years. They occupy ministries, hold offices and seats in parliament, and take advantage of the billions of dollars poured into the country for the development and welfare of Afghan people.

None of them has disarmed. All have gained immeasurably in power and wealth. Karzai has failed to restrain their power or root out the corruption from his administration that has cost him the trust of the common Afghans.

The past nine years have actually exacerbated the ethnic divisions within Afghan society. President Karzai’s wardrobe may have borrowed liberally from various ethnic groups but there has been little real rapprochement in areas that count. The long years of war and the experience of Taliban (mis-)rule have deepened the divide between Pashtuns, the country’s biggest ethnic group, and others like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Recent reports suggest that private militias operating in the country’s north are collecting taxes from people in the name of security. Members of the security forces, and especially the police, show more loyalty to the warlords, provincial governors, district chiefs or their own ethnic groups than to the state and the Afghan people as a whole. The police, meanwhile, are poorly trained. Their failure to cope with recent protests over the burning of the Koran that led to the deaths of several people offers manifest proof.

Finally, President Karzai is demonstrating with his actions that he, too, has a plan for dealing with the Americans’ departure. He uses every possible opportunity to address the Taliban as “brothers” even as he courts the Pakistani leadership, makes overtures to Iran, and dispatches his emissaries to Saudi Arabia. It is all much more satisfying than listening to lectures from the Americans about his own incompetence and corruption.

The latest of Karzai’s gimmicks was his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani in the presence of the heads of the Pakistani army and intelligence. The intended message was clear enough: There won’t be any outside solutions to Afghanistan that don’t include Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

It all looks like a mess. But there is a potential solution. The international community needs to persuade neighboring countries to stop interfering, in whatever shape and on whatever level, in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. At the same time a real effort must be made to address the genuine concerns of neighbors like Pakistan, Iran, and India.

In particular, the United Nations or a group of impartial member countries should arrange a comprehensive dialogue between the leaderships of India and Pakistan to formulate their concerns about the future of Afghanistan. These confidence-building measures could, for example, persuade India to stop interfering in Baluchistan and Pakistan to halt its maneuverings in Indian Kashmir. Once agreed on a code of conduct, the two countries can also progress on resolution of other mutual disputes.

At the same time every effort should be made to create a forum where all of the various groups inside Afghanistan can discuss their differences and interests and work to create a framework for future stability. An international settlement would help to pave the way for a domestic power-sharing arrangement.

If handled properly, the Afghan imbroglio can pave the way for lasting peace in the whole of South Asia. After all, only a peaceful and stable Afghanistan can serve the interests of its neighbors and help bring prosperity to a region so long cursed by war.

Daud Khattak is acting director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.