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War between elephants and horses at AF-PAK: post-bin Laden opportunities

S ource: Today’s Zaman

After this statement, the developments in the AF-PAK signal that it is the end of a power struggle and the start of a full war. If we take a look at recent developments in the AF-PAK region, we see that the crisis that erupted after the killing of Osama bin Laden in the Bilal district of Islamabad in Pakistan in May escalated through attacks against the US Embassy in Kabul and NATO units mid-September, while tension further grew in a region shaken by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, known as the last peace envoy.

Some strategic tendencies that resurfaced after the recent assassination of Rabbani provide some hints on what is going on in the region. The state of insecurity after bin Laden was killed by SEAL commandos on Pakistani soil raised tension between the two countries. Some factions in Afghanistan accused Pakistan of providing intelligence to the Americans and the recent Rabbani incident escalated tension between the two states. Even though Rabbani was not a leading and powerful figure in Afghan domestic politics, he was a leader loved by the Afghan people and respected by Afghan politicians because of his spiritual and social leadership.

From this perspective, the assassination is actually a bullet fired at peace and the local people in the region. The statements made by Afghan authorities after this incident added a new dimension to the whole case as it was argued that it was committed by Pakistan; the argument that Pakistani intelligence was also involved in the assassination shows that the cards are being redistributed in the region after bin Laden’s death. On the other hand, Rabbani, who assumed a leadership role after the end of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, was elected president by jihadist groups. However, his decision to withdraw to the north of Afghanistan at a time when the country was moving toward civil war raised questions. From this perspective, Rabbani is a disputable figure, with both opponents and supporters among the Afghan people. Some hold that Rabbani was taking the country to the brink of civil war but turned into a dove later. In consideration of all these facts and realities, the Taliban appears to be an anti-thesis to the argument that the assassination was committed by Pakistan; the fact that the Taliban made differing statements on the assassination and that various Taliban figures assumed responsibility for the assassination raises doubts and questions.

Could Kabul become Pakistan’s new strategy?

The tension in the region escalated further after former US Chief of Staff Mike Mullen accused Pakistani intelligence — the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — of supporting a Taliban-linked insurgent group for the September attack on the US Embassy in Kabul. Likewise, remarks by the US State Department’s Mark Toner, who in late September said that northern Pakistan had turned into a safe haven for terrorists, surprised the Pakistani authorities. These remarks also gave the green light for a possible armed intervention, in addition to diplomatic efforts.

Pakistan’s conflict of interest with Afghanistan bears cultural and political significance as well. The Pashtun population, which remained along the Afghan-Pakistan border under the Durand Line Agreement, has become a source of problems between the two countries in recent years, despite Afghanistan’s attempts at assimilating them, as they remained immune to Afghanistan’s efforts.

But these were not the only problems, as the US using the Taliban and then-Pakistani intelligence against the Soviet Union in the past was of great help to the Pakistani government back then. It enabled it to avoid the spreading Soviet danger and remain influential in regions like Kashmir. In this way, the newly emerging Pakistani state survived in this precarious region.

All this aside, this ensures the consolidation of historical, ethnic and cultural ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This implies that Islamabad has the opportunity to further resist Russia’s pressure after the emergence of the Taliban as a strong actor and expand its sphere of influence among the Afghan Pashtun population. One of the reasons why Pakistan focuses on Kabul is that it sees Kabul as an extension of Indian policies. Any isolation that could be applied to Kabul policies will mean that Indian policies will be restricted, which will create an artificial strategic depth between the two states.

The term “Eurasian Balkans” goes no further than being a notion that Zbigniew Brezezinski created for Central Asia within American national security policy. Brezezinski holds that the US entry into Central Asian policies is possible through the door and region that the “Eurasian Balkans” open. To this end, security in the Eurasian Balkans, susceptible to the potential ethnic internal conflicts frequently stressed in American foreign policy, has crucial importance for Central Asia.

For this reason, Russia’s close relations with India and Afghanistan in their policies pose challenges for American policies. To this end, it should be noted that right after the Rabbani assassination, the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a strategic agreement with India after accusing Pakistan of being involved in the incident. Even though it was argued that this deal was aimed at no other states, the message was crystal clear: Making a series of military and strategic agreements that envisaged the training of Afghan troops will mean India containing Pakistan in both the Kashmir and Afghan issues. US-Pakistani relations are critically important in this respect.

Will India, which now assumes the role of mediation in the escalating tension between Pakistan and the US, which has been exerting efforts to make sure that Afghanistan does not turn into another Vietnam, be successful? This question raises doubts because a possible American withdrawal from Afghanistan may lead to the growth of fundamentalist groups in the region, and such a scenario for Afghanistan shows that the status quo has changed dramatically over the years.

The cards that changed in the Eurasian Balkan and Central Asian countries raise doubts and concerns for the American administration. Probable turmoil in Afghanistan may clear the way for fundamentalist groups to acquire power, enabling Pakistan to change its strategy.

Pakistan, which may suffer from American pressure, could also enter a crisis with India over nuclear balances. Able to observe all these factors, the Barack Obama administration will rely on controlled passive diplomacy in order to remain a global power in the region with Iran, Russia, China, India and Pakistan, because one step further in this strategy is the Caucasian energy line, as well as nuclear activities. The White House, which is considering making Pakistan foot the bill for these developments, may provoke a Pakistani-Indian conflict to address Afghan grievances. The next strategy of the Obama administration, which expects the elephants to crush the horses, will be asking Pakistan to cease its nuclear activities because of the Indian threat.

*Emrah Usta is the US political analyst and free-lance observer based in Turkey. The author can be followed on Twitter: @StrategcAnalyst

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