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Afghanistan: RFE/RL Analyst Explores Pakistani-Afghan Tensions

May 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Government troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan have clashed along their border repeatedly this month -- with more than a dozen people reportedly killed in artillery barrages and gun fire. Correspondent Ron Synovitz asked RFE/RL's Afghanistan analyst, Amin Tarzi, about the roots and ramifications of the crisis.

RFE/RL: What background is essential for those who want to understand the current crisis between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Amin Tarzi: This conflict is not new. After the Taliban government fell (in late 2001), the first instance in which Afghanistan claimed that Pakistanis crossed into Afghanistan was in 2003. And that triggered the burning and attacking of the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul. It was the beginning of open hostilities between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has gone cold and warm since then.

RFE/RL: If this is an old conflict between what are supposed to be allies in the U.S.-declared war against terrorism, why is the situation only garnering international attention now?

Tarzi: I think the reason that there is a lot of attention right now is because, in the West and especially in the United States, there is an awareness that two of the allies of the United States in the war on terror are actually going at each other [along their] borders. And secondly, because a U.S. soldier was killed on Pakistani soil allegedly by a member of the Pakistani Frontier Corps, or at least, wearing their uniform.

Roots Of Crisis

RFE/RL: Some suggest that the roots of this crisis lie in the 19th-century demarcation of British Colonial India, known as the Durand Line. Afghanistan has never officially recognized the Durand Line as its border with Pakistan. What impact do you think this has in the crisis?

Tarzi: From the Pakistani side, that is the main grievance. When Pakistan was created as a country in August of 1947, Afghanistan was the only country in the world that voted against Pakistan's entry into the United Nations. That vote was later changed. But in my view, the first shot was fired from the Kabul side. Afghanistan has never, including the Taliban regime, recognized that boundary as a legitimate boundary. That gave Pakistan, from day one, a notion that Afghanistan has to be contained -- either by being a very friendly Afghanistan or a very weak Afghanistan -- and that the identity of Afghanistan should be an Islamist identity which Pakistan can control rather than a nationalist identity which would have claim over parts of Pakistan. This has implications in the war on terror. This has implications on Al-Qaeda's presence, the Taliban, the support of Pakistan to the militants in Afghanistan. But the core question is that of the border.

RFE/RL: Does that mean that the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is more concerned about its own foreign policy goals than it is about the U.S.-led war on terrorism?

Tarzi:  The reason we are hearing so much about this lately is because the United States, and NATO in particular, are seeing their soldiers being killed by people who are coming from Pakistan. That is obvious. NATO is putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, to curtail these activities. From Musharraf's perspective, there are two issues. Musharraf cannot control this border. Nobody has ever been able to control this border. And he doesn't want to control it because Pakistan's vital interest is to have an Afghanistan that does not have claims on its territory. Even though, on one hand, Musharraf is fighting alongside the West in this war against international terror organizations, on the other hand, Pakistan's long-term policy is to keep a card against Afghanistan. And that card is the Islamist card, because that's what gives Pakistan leeway. So Pakistan is doing both of them.

RFE/RL: What do you think are the immediate causes of the cross-border clashes between government troops of the two countries in recent weeks?

Tarzi: I believe the latest tensions -- the shootings and the subsequent activities that led to the killing of a U.S. soldier -- were because of [Pakistan's efforts at] fencing. Afghanistan is vehemently against the fencing. Pakistan is now saying, 'Look. We want to fence this border because you say that [militants] are coming [across the border]. We say yes. So we're going to fence it.' But Afghanistan says, 'No, you cannot fence it.' Fencing would mean a de facto demarcation of the border, which Afghanistan doesn't want. So both sides are not working in good faith -- both Kabul and Islamabad.

Who Wins?

RFE/RL: Who is likely to benefit most from the Afghan-Pakistan border crisis?

Tarzi: If you are the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and if you see the two sides that you don't like -- Musharraf and the Afghan government, the two best friends of the United States, as they see it -- actually going at each other, they (Taliban and Al-Qaeda) are happy. Unless you bring the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan to an acceptable and normal state-to-state relationship, the terrorists will win at the end of the day. They do not have to love each other. But they have to respect each other as states with defined boundaries. So it has much greater repercussions, not only in the short term with Al-Qaeda, but upon long-term stability.

RFE/RL: Do you think this crisis could deteriorate in the future?

Tarzi: Most of the hardest terrorists in the world are sitting right in that border area. If that border area is not controlled or accepted, they will use that tension and that lack of certainty to their advantage. And unfortunately, so far, neither the United States at a meeting in the White House [in September 2006] nor the Turkish attempt to bring some kind of understanding between Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Karzai has been able to bear fruit. This is one of the biggest problems in the war against terror. The escalation will go on. Afghanistan could bring Pakistan and NATO into direct conflict. Already, one [U.S.] soldier has been killed on Pakistani soil while they were trying to negotiate. If more Pakistanis retaliate and their artillery hits NATO troops, eventually there might be a [NATO] retaliation, which would be disastrous. This is very, very tense. And right now, I think some cool heads need to be working in both Kabul and Islamabad.

Contributing Factors

RFE/RL: What other factors are contributing to the crisis?

Tarzi: Unfortunately, neither Karzai nor Musharraf is capable or willing to control their own governments. Musharraf, I think, has people in the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency) and within the Islamists of the Northwest Frontier Province's government that want this tension to continue. And on the Afghan side, a lot of members of the security forces of Afghanistan are vehemently anti-Pakistani. And they like this tension because it also weakens Karzai. So there is a political game going on inside Afghanistan as well.

RFE/RL: How is this crisis impacting the domestic political situations for Karzai and Musharraf?

Tarzi: I think it is weakening Karzai more than Musharraf. But it is weakening both of them. People in Afghanistan who want to destabilize Karzai are not in cahoots with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. But it will, because of a weakened Afghanistan, be indirect help to the Islamists. It goes beyond the personalities. And NATO has put all its eggs in the baskets of two individuals -- namely, Karzai and Musharraf. Even if they had the good will -- which they don't have right now, they don't even shake hands -- but even if they had it, I think it's beyond their control right now.

RFE/RL: How are the main peace brokers in this conflict?

Tarzi: The United States and NATO are very aware, and becoming more aware of this problem -- that their two allies who are supposed to work together against international terror are actually fighting against each other. So this is a very, very bad scenario. The U.S. soldier who was killed was killed in a peace mission. They were trying to lessen the tension. So the U.S. is doing that on the ground, military-to-military and person-to-person. Also, the U.S. has supported what is called the "peace jirga" -- which is supposed to bring Afghan and Pakistani tribes together with government people. U.S. President George W. Bush tried to bring Mssrs. Musharraf and Karzai together in the White House last September (2006) -- mainly to lessen the tension. And also just last month, Turkey's President [Ahmet Necdet] Sezer tried to bring them together. So there have been attempts on different platforms and on different levels as high as the U.S. president. So far, unfortunately, they have not yielded the results that everybody wants.

RFE/RL: Is there any way now to repair the damage that the border crisis has had upon relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Tarzi: Even if Mssrs. Karzai and Musharraf come to an agreement personally, I do not think that Karzai controls his own security forces who like to have tension with Pakistan, or that Musharraf fully controls his own intelligence and the Islamists. Because they see their goal as the long-term stability of Pakistan and making sure that Afghanistan does not become too nationalistic and too powerful.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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