Afghanistan intelligence has foiled a plot hatched in Pakistan to assassinate President Hamid Karzai. An Afghan government spokesman identified six Afghani citizens – including one of Karzai’s bodyguards – who were recruited by two Arab nationals based in Pakistan, to carry out the attacks. The men confessed that the Haqqani network was behind the plot.
Computers seized by authorities also revealed the group planned several other attacks, including targets in Kabul, Europe, and the US. And the revelations come on the same day that President Karzai signed a surprise security pact with India, further complicating relations with Pakistan.
The UK Telegraph is reporting that the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, was tipped by a source in Pakistan. The men arrested were a university professor, three university students, a Kabul resident and an employee of the presidential palace, believed to be a presidential bodyguard. They planned to attack Karzai on one of his frequent trips to the provinces.
This is the third serious assassination plot against President Karzai. In 2002, another presidential bodyguard opened fire on Karzai but missed him, killing two others and wounding an American special operations member who was guarding the president. And a 2008 attack by Haqqani during a military parade Karzai was attending came close to succeeding when several bystanders near the president were killed.
The revelations regarding the plot come on the heels of charges made by the governments of Afghanistan and the United States that the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has close ties to Haqqani, as well as other charges made by Afghanistan tying the Haqqani network specifically to the assassination of the government’s peace envoy to the Taliban, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Several other high profile assassination attempts in Afghanistan have succeeded recently, all tied to either the Taliban or Haqqani. In addition to the death of Rabbani, which has resulted in the suspension of peace talks with the Taliban, the president’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was killed by his own bodyguard in July. Less than a week later, Jan Mohammad Khan, a senior aide to the president, was killed in an attack on his home in Kabul. The Taliban is suspected of having a hand in both assassinations, with the possible knowledge of the ISI.
And as if the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan couldn’t get any rockier, President Karzai’s surprise trip to India on Wednesday to sign a security pact with New Delhi, will no doubt roil the already tense relationship with Islamabad. According to the Washington Post, the pact will “step up cooperation in counterterrorism operations, training of security forces and trade.” The pact will also increase cultural and political exchanges as well as offer assistance to Afghanistan in stabilizing the country.
The security pact will no doubt anger the civilian government of President Zardari in Pakistan, and cause great concern in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Any move to draw closer to India by Afghanistan is likely to be seen as a betrayal in Islamabad. It is also the realization of the Pakistani military’s worst nightmare; a more independent Afghanistan with close ties to their mortal enemy India.
“[A]ny military or intelligence role for India will not be tolerable for Pakistan,” said former ambassador Maleeha Lodi in an interview last summer. While no active role is seen for India in peace talks, Karzai’s move to engage with New Delhi on security matters will worry Pakistan, who wishes a weak, compliant vassal state after America pulls out in 2014. In effect, Karzai is showing Islamabad that he has some diplomatic and military cards to play as well. If Pakistan continues its attempts to destabilize Afghanistan through the use of their proxy terrorists in Haqqani and the Taliban, the Afghan government won’t hesitate to expand their ties with India.
While there are many factions and groups in Afghanistan who would be suspects in any plot to kill President Karzai, the dots connect most easily to the ISI. Tribal jealousies, rival warlords, and other political factions all might have a reason to get rid of the president, but it if Haqqani is indeed involved in the plot, the chances are very good that ISI’s fingerprints are all over it as well. Why this is so has as much to do with the US as it does President Karzai’s brittle relationship with Pakistan.
The US has been gradually tilting toward India in recent years, seeing the world’s largest democracy – and budding economic superpower – as a natural ally on the sub-continent and southwest Asia. A nuclear deal approved in 2008 lifted the decades old moratorium on nuclear exchanges with India and was seen as an important change in Washington’s relations with India. India’s historic anti-Americanism has been tempered somewhat since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the US now sees India as an important counterweight to the growing power of China.
This nuanced tilt toward India has not been lost on Pakistan’s leaders who have accused America of favoring New Delhi in the conflict over the province of Kashmir. While this does not appear to be the case, Pakistan may see the India-Afghanistan security pact as being encouraged by Washington. This may be true to a certain extent since President Obama has been urging India to do more to stabilize Afghanistan, although it is doubtful we are behind the security pact. This is a surprise move by Karzai, and Washington – struggling with their own problems with Pakistan – would almost certainly not have chosen this moment to exacerbate tensions in the region.
Karzai is assuring Pakistan that the security pact is not a threat to them. Referring to Pakistan as Afghanistan’s “twin brother,” Karzai said in a speech in India:
“This is to strengthen Afghanistan, this is to strengthen a brother of Pakistan,” said Karzai. “To train our police for us, to train our army for us, to train thousands of Afghan youth who are right now sitting in India, and if Pakistan and other neighbors of us want to offer the same what we have taken, we would be delighted to take it, so let us be emphatic here, that neither India nor Afghanistan intends this to be beyond the two countries.”
Karzai’s personal relationship with Pakistan’s leaders have a checkered history. His visit to Washington in 2006 to meet with President Bush and Pakistan’s President Musharraf was a frosty affair as the two men refused to even look at each other much less shake hands. His relationship with President Zardari is marginally better, but he has made no friends in Islamabad with his government’s direct charges of Pakistan’s involvement in assassinations and terror attacks.
It seems clear that Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan is at low ebb and the almost certain involvement of Pakistan’s security forces in this latest assassination attempt will do nothing to improve ties. This is dangerous because both countries need each other: Afghanistan needs Pakistan’s investment in its economy and help in dealing with terrorism while Pakistan needs a stable, economically viable Afghanistan on its border.
But if Pakistan continues its clumsy attempts to eliminate the Karzai regime and install an Islamist puppet government in Kabul, believing that Afghanistan would be more pliable and easier to control, they will be playing with fire that is liable to burn out of control and consume them as well.