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Tellis: Bush’s ‘Mediation’ of Karzai, Musharraf Dispute Highlights Seriousness of Problem

Interviewee: Ashley J. Tellis
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 28, 2006

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Ashley J. Tellis, a prominent expert on South Asian security affairs, says President Bush’s effort to mediate the differences between the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan is unprecedented and underscores the seriousness of the problem between the two countries.

Tellis, a former member of the State Department and of the National Security Council under President Bush, says “If we don’t get this right, all the investments we’ve made in Afghanistan are at real risk. And for the president particularly, he cannot afford to add Afghanistan to the roster of reversals that we’ve suffered in the war on terrorism.” Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and recently served as an advisor to the State Department on the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

Wednesday night’s dinner meeting at the White House with President Bush trying to mediate between President Hamid Karzaiof Afghanistan and President Pervez Musharrafof Pakistan was extraordinary. What do you make of that meeting?

It tells something about the uniqueness of the war on terror, where we’ve managed to bring together a very valuable group of allies, all of whom in principle are committed to the struggle against terrorism but who are often sidetracked by disagreements they may have among themselves. What happened Wednesday night was emblematic of this problem. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are formally committed to the global war on terror but have sufficient differences between themselves that they have the effect of calling that commitment into question. And what the president tried to do was, in a sense, see if we could get a meeting of the minds and get the two leaders to engage one another in the hope that some new rules of the game might be written.

Could you examine some of these issues? I think the most prominent one is the Afghan leader claiming that Pakistan is not doing enough to stop Taliban infiltrations into Afghanistan and that they’re providing Osama bin Laden and his people sanctuary.

There’s clearly been a resurgence of the Taliban after a lull of about two years. The Afghans are deeply concerned, as are we, that the gains we have made in Afghanistan immediately after OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) might be frittered away. This leads to a very simple empirical question: Where are the Taliban located? Where do they operate out of and what are their targets? And the answers, at least to the questions of where they are located and where do they operate out of, are clearly Pakistan because geography doesn’t permit any other answer. The Afghans have been pushing the notion that if this is in fact true, then Pakistan is not doing enough. Now I think there is a certain element of truth to that proposition—that while the Pakistanis have been extremely supportive of our campaign against al-Qaeda they have been somewhat reticent to go after the Taliban with the same effort they have allocated to anti-al-Qaeda operations.

Was this dinner a really significant moment?

The President’s dinner with Musharraf and Karzai is really indicative of how serious the United States believes the problem is that confronts Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is not the kind of dinner that he hosts very often. Very few allies sit together at the table to make peace between themselves. But if we don’t get this right, all the investments we’ve made in Afghanistan are at real risk. And for the president particularly, he cannot afford to add Afghanistan to the roster of reversals that we’ve suffered in the war on terrorism. This really indicates how great the challenge is.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Do you think Musharraf might be moved to do something dramatic to ease the problem?

I don’t think he will do something dramatic because that would indicate, or at least suggest, complicity with the problems we’re complaining about. What he is likely to do is make some decisions that have partial consequences like stepping up the fight, apprehending a few more of these characters, things like that. I’m not sure he’s at the point where he can make dramatic changes and part of the reason is that his relationship with Karzai is so bitter, so frayed that it will take more than just a dinner hosted even by the U.S. president to improve things.

It has been really quite an experience watching Musharraf and Karzai on American television blasting each other.

Absolutely. They have not been shy about it. Even though Karzai is trying to be delicate about his remarks, every now and then the resentment comes through loud and clear.

What were relations like between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past?

They varied depending on the Pashtun, which are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and whose borders stretch into Pakistan. From the Pakistan point of view, the Afghan reluctance historically to accept the Durand Line, which is the line that divides the Pashtun areas of Pakistan from the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, has been at the root of the problem.

The line is named after Sir Mortimer Durand, the British foreign secretary of British India who actually drew the line in 1893 in the heyday of the empire. The Pakistanis [who emerged as an independent state in 1947] have always been concerned about the Afghan reluctance to accept the Durand Line. What used to happen was this: You had classic checkerboard balance-of-power politics. When Pakistan-Afghan relations were frosty, either because of disputes over the Durand Line or something else, Afghan-Indian relations grew immediately in intensity, and vice versa. What you found historically was that Pakistan-Afghan relations were inevitably tangled with India-Pakistan relations.

Pakistan, I think, a couple of years ago, made the decision that it was going to support the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001. The Pakistanis made it with a great deal of fear, trembling, and anxiety, but they did it, in the hope that this would lead to an Afghanistan that would be fundamentally supportive of Pakistani interests. But that didn’t occur. And the principal reason, in my judgment, that didn’t occur was because the victorious elements in Afghanistan were exactly those elements that opposed the Taliban and therefore were suspicious of Pakistan’s prior support of the Taliban. These opponents of the Taliban are led by the Northern Alliance and the Pakistanis look at those people who come from the northern border as essentially being the enemy. The Taliban battled the Northern Alliance for close to five years. Now after [Operation Enduring Freedom], they succeeded in destroying the Taliban

After the fall of the Taliban, these northerners, who are known as Panjshiri, came into power and essentially dominated the political apparatus in Kabul.

Even though President Karzai is a Pashtun?

Absolutely. But remember the forces on the ground that actually fought the land war against the Taliban were the Northern Alliance. And so the Northern Alliance generals essentially claimed the prize that all victors do. They said, “Okay, we’ve defeated the enemy. We now take over the government.” But what Karzai has done over the last few years is move toward a government that is far more representative than was the case in the immediate downfall of the Taliban. He has reduced the influence of the Northern Alliance and Panjshiri but they are still there. There is no way Karzai can eject them, because in some material sense, they were the victors in the war. But the very fact that they are present in the Kabul government raises real anxieties in Pakistan because the Pakistanis see them as being opposed to everything they want for Afghanistan.

Are the Pashtuns very similar to Pakistanis?

No. The Pashtuns basically are the majority tribe in Afghanistan, which happens to have ethnic links with the Pashtuns who are now living in the Pakistani frontier. What you get is essentially one common ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who are really divided by the line drawn by Durand. And those Pashtuns that are east of that line are in the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan and in the tribal areas; those that are west of the line are in the easternmost provinces of Afghanistan, immediately adjacent to the northwestern border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. You essentially have a common ethnic group that is divided by a boundary.

Historically there have been repeated efforts by the Pashtuns on both sides of the line to unite and form, to ask for autonomy, in the extreme even to ask for an independent state. Now these efforts have never really come to fruition, they have never been successful. But they’ve been a source of great concern to Pakistan because of the fear that if you get some kind of Pashtun mobilization it would lead to the fracturing of the Pakistani state. Because the Pashtuns are a minority in Pakistan as opposed to being a majority in Afghanistan, the issue of state fracturing really is a threat to Pakistan more than it is to Afghanistan.

So why would the Pakistanis then hope for a Pashtun government in Afghanistan?

Well they would want a Pashtun government in Afghanistan only because they think that government would be more susceptible to influence from Pakistan because Pakistan has a Pashtun population. A non-Pashtun government would have no linkage. That’s what the calculation is.

You would think abstractly that it would be in Pakistan’s interest to do everything possible to win American support by showing an all-out effort against the Taliban and against al-Qaeda and getting American support for the long run in their problems with India, rather than getting caught up in border problems with Afghanistan.

Yes. That is true. And that calculation holds in the abstract. But there are two things that limit that in practice. First, the Pakistanis have a remarkable sense of resilience. They have lived without American support intermittently over the last sixty-nine years and they have survived. And that gives them a certain confidence that, while it would be preferable to have American support, as long as the alternative is not direct American enmity there is a gap between support and enmity that Pakistan can exploit to pursue its own political objectives. And that is exactly what is happening right now.

Pakistanis are uncertain about whether the United States will stay in the region over the long term; therefore they think it is prudent that they should have a few options in case things don’t quite work out the way they would like. And what has happened as a result is they think keeping the Taliban as a force is a card they can play vis-à-vis the Afghans, because you never quite know what is going to happen to Afghanistan over the long term.

Where does Musharraf’s government stand right now? He’s got an election due to take place next year, right?

Correct. 2007.

And what does it look like? Is he just going to stay in office? Or has he promised to step down?

He has made so many promises that it’s hard to keep track. It’s quite clear what his intentions are. His intentions are to stay on in the position beyond 2007 if he can get away with it. And what he’s trying to do at the moment is negotiate an agreement with the two principal political parties or any coalition of political parties in Pakistan that can essentially assure him an extension of his term.

You mean they’d have a sort of fake election?

No, I think they will have a genuine election or at least I hope they do. But what he wants to do is construct a compact whereby the principal political parties will support his continuing to stay in office so he’ll get elected. There will be a genuine election in the sense that people will go out and people will vote, but the end result of that election will be that whichever party gets the majority of the National Assembly will be the party that is committed to giving Musharraf an extension of his rule.

And Karzai, is his future really endangered now by this stepped-up Taliban insurgency?

Not immediately in the sense that he has a term and he will not leave office before that term is out unless he’s assassinated or something terrible happens, which hopefully it won’t. But there is definitely a risk to the evolution of Afghanistan as a stable state, which was our objective after the fall of the Taliban. The whole idea was that we went in there after 9/11, we cleaned these guys out, and we were hoping that what you would get now is a state that is relatively stable, that would be able to build a new future without having to deal with these ghosts from the past. It now turns out these are not simply ghosts from the past but these are creatures that are well and alive and kicking and are continuing to cause problems.

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