A regional conflict in the making?
An unprecedented, audacious, coordinated series of attacks were carried out by the Taliban in the heart of Kabul on Monday. A Taliban spokesman claimed 20 suicide bombers were involved, but since only seven were killed either by blowing themselves up or being shot dead by security forces, there are apprehensions of more attacks despite the security services having regained control after several hours of fighting. The attackers’ targets appeared to be government buildings, in a replay of the February 2009 siege of government buildings that left 26 people dead. This time however, they were unable to breach strengthened security around government buildings, which persuaded them to switch their attention to public places like hotels, shopping malls, etc. Because civilian targets were hit, the toll was 12 dead, 38 injured, which must still be considered on the low side given the number of people present in the area. Ironically, not far from the scene of the mayhem, President Karzai was administrating oath to 14 ministers in the presidential palace in his so far unsuccessful attempts to get a full cabinet approved from the Afghan parliament.
Worryingly, other reports speak of a secret visit to Kabul by the chief of India’s Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI), Lt. General RK Loomba, for discussions with Afghan, US and Nato officials regarding training Afghan national army units. If true, the report points in the direction of the growing role of India and its intelligence services in Kabul, and the leaning of the US and Nato towards relying on this help, possibly with an eye to the future withdrawal of US and Nato forces starting in 2011, when the vacuum of training and aid to the nascent Afghan army could arguably be filled by India. Needless to say, this development is a slap in the face of Pakistan’s insistence to the US and Nato that Pakistan’s core national interests in Afghanistan be taken into consideration, which at the very least include a friendly government in Kabul. It also needs no emphasis that such reports are likely to act as the proverbial red rag to our military establishment, could spark off a proxy conflict between Pakistan and India on Afghan soil, and even a wider conflict between the two South Asian neighbours, thereby reversing the momentum towards peace that seemed so promising at one time.
That establishment seems to have conveyed its message in no uncertain terms to President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP-led government that any softness towards India at a time when it is as far away as can be envisaged from playing ball with our peace overtures in the aftermath of Mumbai, would be frowned upon in GHQ and may lead to a breach with the civilian democratic government. Perhaps it is that message the president has taken on board or been persuaded of the logic of when his recent statements on Kashmir and chill in overtures to a recalcitrant India reflect a paring of sails to avoid unnecessarily annoying the military establishment.
President Zardari and the PPP-led government have only two possible choices. Either they submit to the will of the powerful military establishment on Afghanistan, India and even the internal conflict in Balochistan in order to survive in office and live to fight another day, or they stick to their guns regarding civilian supremacy over the military, and in the final analysis, if need be, go down fighting, return to the masses and the electorate for support, and set an example for the country of a new chapter in the politics of principle.
Although the second alternative sounds more attractive, the chances are that the president and the government will adopt a pragmatic stance and continue with their efforts, perhaps more subtly and long term, to reverse the history of the military’s domination of the country’s political affairs. The jury, however, is still out.