It was the secretive way Dr Ghani went about cutting the deal that the Afghans seem to have perceived as a bigger affront than the MoU itself
The Pakistani military spokesperson announced this past Monday that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for “intelligence sharing, complementary and coordinated intelligence operations on respective sides”. The Afghan government confirmed that an agreement had been signed. It was arguably the most Orwellian moment in the history of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. One could almost hear the dystopian soundtrack of the movie 1984 playing over George Orwell’s words: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” For all we know the deal may be a watershed event and things between the two countries will be hunky-dory from here on out but if it looks too good to be true it probably is. A day after this ostensible tectonic shift, a terrorist suicide bomber struck in the heart of Kabul by exploding his car bomb in the ministry of justice’s parking lot, killing five and injuring over 50, mostly government employees. It was the fifth such attack in the Afghan capital this month. The Afghan Taliban accepted responsibility for the attack and pledged more.
With a string of deadly Taliban assaults across Afghanistan, the Afghan political and public response to Dr Ashraf Ghani’s government signing the deal with Pakistan was predictably swift, unified and much harsher than even he would have calculated. “Betrayal” and “sell-out” were the predominant refrains used by Afghans in their resounding denunciation of the deal by Dr Ghani. Indeed, it was the secretive way Dr Ghani went about cutting the deal that the Afghans seem to have perceived as a bigger affront than the MoU itself. The Afghan presidential palace, Arg, denying reports that the deal also involves arrangements for training the Afghan secret service officials by Pakistan, seems to have found very few buyers since the incumbent chief of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil, refused to sign the MoU. According to Afghan media reports, a deputy chief of the NDS was made to sign the deal. Arg’s spokesman, Ajmal Obaid Abidi, tried to control the snowballing political fallout by saying, “The MoU between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a new thing. In the past, both institutions had such agreements but now the focus of this agreement is mostly on jointly fighting terrorism.” Invoking the alleged past agreements, however, does not pass closer scrutiny as any previous arrangement involved the US and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and was not bilateral, which makes the current MoU such a hot political potato.
The chairman of the Afghan Masharano Jirga (elders’ chamber or the Senate), Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, came out swinging against the deal and the Afghan president. Mr Muslimyar said, “Pakistan is an enemy to Afghanistan and will never develop friendship with us. Pakistan has always plotted to destroy Afghanistan and will continue to do so, therefore how can we afford to send our security forces for training in that country?” The members of the Wolesi Jirga (people’s chamber or the lower house) squarely denounced the deal as “against Afghan national interest” and their deputy speaker, Haji Qadeer, has directed the NDS chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, and the Afghan national security advisor, Mr Hanif Atmar, to appear before parliament to answer questions about the deal. For a country that has been ravaged by Taliban terror for 21 years it seems not just counterintuitive but an outright insult to its fallen men and women to sign agreements with those who they say have given sanctuary to their tormentors.
One cannot really blame the Afghan people and political leadership for their scorn of the ISI-NDS MoU; after all, Pakistan’s former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, admitted to the world in a slew of interviews recently that his regime harboured and used the Taliban including its Haqqani network affiliate against Afghanistan. Did Musharraf not tell the world ad nauseam that he had ushered in “enlightened moderation” and stood firmly in the anti-terrorism camp, only to concede 13 years later that his duplicitous policy was an elaborate ruse to buy time to get the US off his back? Who is to say that a few years down the road the Pakistani security establishment will not pull another Musharraf on Afghanistan? It would not be terribly difficult to repeat the 2004-2005 manoeuvre where the Taliban were unleashed after some years of relative lull, especially after securing their gains politically this time. Dictating to Afghanistan how to conduct its foreign and indeed domestic policies has all been part of Rawalpindi’s own security calculus vis-à-vis India. The so-called strategic depth sought inside Afghanistan has been a function of Pakistan’s recalcitrant quest for ‘parity’ with India. Going by the anti-India virulence on display in Pakistan at the highest level, the national security paradigm does not appear to have changed one bit. The current MoU, thus, might not mean abandoning the strategic depth delusion but rather its consummation. It would be utterly surprising if the MoU could mature into a confidence building measure let alone a tangible peace coming out of this move.
One would venture to say that President Dr Ashraf Ghani has really gone out on a limb this time. The MoU has put his national unity government at risk. If the Pakistani pledges to deliver the Taliban — and peace — do not materialise in a timely manner, Dr Ghani runs the risk of being compared to the British-installed Afghan king, Shah Shuja, who ceded Peshawar to the Sikh armies. In its section on that fateful installation in August 1839, the British Imperial Gazetteer notes, “Although we could enthrone Shah Shuja, we could not win for him the hearts of the Afghans. To that nation he seemed a degenerate exile thrust back upon them by foreign arms.” The rest obviously is history. The indignation expressed by the Afghans so vociferously indicates that they will hold Dr Ashraf Ghani’s feet to the fire sooner than one would have thought. War cannot masquerade as peace for too long.