Afghanistan’s Pak Dilemma

Published: January 14, 2016 - 14:39

The departure of Rehmatullah Nabil, as the head of Afghan intelligence, brings to the fore the internal rift within the government on the issue of ties with Pakistan

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Rehmatullah Nabil’s rather dramatic and uncharacteristic resignation from Amniat, the Afghan intelligence agency – otherwise known as National Directorate for Security (NDS) – came in the wake of the Taliban attack on Kandahar airport and yet another bout of suicide attacks near sensitive diplomatic quarters in Kabul.

Couched in a scathing Facebook post on December 10,  the resignation attacked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Stating “Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy” even while Afghans “in Kandahar airport, Khanashin district of Helmand and Takhar and Badakhshan were being martyred and slaughtered,” Nabil signalled his exasperation, adding, “1,000 litres of blood of our innocent people being shed, in the same red colour as the carpet that we catwalked on. (A reference to President Ashraf Ghani’s 2014 Pakistan visit.)…Thank God I am not part of it.”

The timing of the resignation put President Ghani on the defensive, as he prepared to attend the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan, being hosted by Islamabad, as it seemed to focus on the widespread opposition and disquiet in Afghan civil society, among students and the masses, about Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan since early last year, which has paid no visible dividends.

According to an Afghan diplomatic source, Nabil attracted the ire of an influential section of Pakistani generals in Islamabad and was forced to resign, just like his predecessor, Amrullah Saleh. Nabil may well have sensed that, if he did not resign, he would be sacked for the simple reason that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of President Ghani. A report in The New York Times on his resignation says that he was often kept out of meetings, especially those involving officials from Pakistan. 

For long, Pakistan has been complaining that Amniat, under Nabil, cultivated a section of the anti-Pakistan insurgents and had been carrying out operations through them. A document floating in Kabul, said to have originated from Pakistan, speaks of the need to clean up Amniat. The veracity of the document is yet to be verified.  

The 47-year-old Nabil was a Karzai appointee to the Amniat in July 2010, replacing Saleh, regarded by many in the Pakistani military-bureaucratic establishment from Musharraf downwards, as viscerally anti-Pakistan.

A protégé of Saleh’s then deputy, Engineer Ibrahim, and a Pashtun from Wardak, he was the first non-Tajik to have headed the NDS in a while. According to a former official in New Delhi who keeps a close watch on happenings in Kabul, in his initial foray Nabil settled in well enough in Amniat, gaining the confidence and trust of his peers through sheer professionalism and a reform-minded approach.

Lately, though, he had come under pressure for NDS failure to contain the Taliban takeover of Kunduz. Interestingly, a commission of inquiry set up by President Ghani under Saleh too had pointed to lapses of Amniat under Nabil’s stewardship.

Nabil had been a critic of the National Unity Government’s repeated attempts to placate the Pakistani establishment and go along with their promises that they would be able to bring the Taliban to the table for a constructive dialogue. Earlier, when Ghani’s government tried to sign an intelligence co-operation agreement with Pakistan, apparently on the insistence of the British and the Americans, Nabil had refused to sign. His deputy had to be roped in to hastily push the contentious document through. However, it had to be later revised and remained still born after opposition from the CEO, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

This was also the first time differences had come out in the open between the NDS and the National Security Council, headed by National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, said to be close to the British. Atmar was apparently in favour of the agreement which was being strongly opposed by Nabil and Saleh. Nabil’s resignation, according to commentators like Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, also strengthens Atmar’s hold over issues pertaining to national security.  

The resignation leaves India with one less friend in Kabul as he was appreciative of India’s efforts in the war-torn country.

However, according to a former senior Indian intelligence official, the Amniat seems to have reverted to form after his departure, with Massud Andarabi, his deputy, a Tajik from Baghlan, emerging as its acting head. “The Ghani establishment now has to go through the paces of crucial balancing and confirmation in yet another round of crucial appointments, the long-pending one of acting Defence Minister, Masoom Stanekzai, and the NDS chief,” he says.

According to this official, the imbroglio seems to have doused, for the time being, the new-found bonhomie between Ghani and the Pakistani Army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, and the DG, Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar. He points out that, apart from the general disillusionment with Pakistan’s persisting duplicity, these uncertainties may have contributed to the recent Afghan volte face, with Ghani sending both Deputy Foreign Minister Hikmat Karzai and Atmar to New Delhi to convey the message that Afghanistan wants India to continue its support. A similar message was conveyed when Prime Minister Modi visited Kabul on Christmas.

Sources say the Americans put pressure on Gen. Sharif during his recent US visit for a new round of talks with the Taliban which, according to latest reports, will be held in January 2016. However, it is not clear which section of the Taliban is going to come for these talks. Uncertainty surrounds the happenings at the reported intra-Taliban shootout at Kuchlak, near Quetta, on December 2-3 and whether the new Taliban Amir-ul-Mominen, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was injured, killed or survived, as did some other senior Taliban faction leaders opposing his elevation. Interestingly, Nabil was among the first to claim that the shootout may have killed Mullah Mansour, an assertion later strongly denied by Ghani.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have upped the scale of violence and attacks on the Afghan security establishment, in Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Badakhshan. “The Pakistani military has failed to curb them, despite their apparent hold over some factions, including over the Haqqani Network. This hardly augurs well for future stability in Afghanistan, at least in the short term,” the official says.   

The departure of Rehmatullah Nabil, as the head of Afghan intelligence, brings to the fore the internal rift within the government on the issue of ties with Pakistan
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Read more stories by Afghanistan’s Pak Dilemma

This story is from print issue of HardNews