Written By: Dr. Huma Baqai
Dr. Huma Baqai’s special note for Hilal based on observations and impressions after her recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s enduring security crises is a source of concern for the international community but it means a lot more to Pakistan and its economic future. The cordial relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are intrinsically linked with peace and security in Pakistan along with peace and security in Afghanistan. The trust deficit that exists between the two countries is very pervasive on the Afghan side. The broad overarching consensus is that Pakistan continues to play a role of enabler of violence in Afghanistan.
The recent desire, willingness and commitment shown by Pakistan to facilitate the peace dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban is also viewed with a lot of skepticism in Afghanistan. Very few in Kabul see it through the prism of Pakistan’s desire to bring peace in Afghanistan; largely it is viewed as a ploy by Pakistan to continue to manipulate the politics of Afghanistan and keep India out. Probably, the reality has not been able to take its due place!
Since 2014-2015, Pakistan has re-emerged in the calculation of the movers and shakers of the world as the key to peace in Afghanistan. United States, China and even Russia look at Pakistan to deliver Taliban to the Peace Process. This has come about after the endorsement of the stark reality by US, NATO and Afghan military officials, that after more than a decade of war with billions of US funds to build up an Afghan military force has not resulted in the defeat of the Taliban insurgency that remains a threat across the entire country.
On March 12, 2014, US General Joseph Dunford, then Commander of ISAF and US Forces-Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate. The security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration.” Almost all foreign forces left at the end of 2014, leaving only 12,000 administrators, trainers and US Special Forces door-bashing assailants who have done more than any other element to set ordinary Afghans against America. As forecasted by General Dunford, the “security environment” is deteriorating day by day. So, blaming Pakistan from Afghan side for the prevailing beleaguered security situation and violence is a very myopic view of things. The fighting winter and a very tough spring offensive was also the result of the failure of the Afghan security infrastructure to respond to the emerging ground realities of less foreign forces and operations in Pakistan.
Peace Process and Talks with the Taliban
Post-establishing Pakistan’s relevance to the peace process, Murree Talks took place. The road paving for it was also done by China and it had the blessings of many countries. It was seen as a major breakthrough at that time. The scuttling of the Murree Peace process because of Mullah Omer’s death leak was a huge blow to Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and has resulted in President Ghani losing out domestically. Most political observers are of the view that he has no political capital to take more risks by investing in good relationship with Pakistan.
In the conversation that the author had with Afghan civil society representatives, CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai, the joint narrative is that Pakistan cheated Afghanistan by not revealing the fact that Mullah Omar is dead and they are convinced that Pakistani establishment knew about it. In fact they go a step forward and say that before the Murree Peace Process, assurance was sought that the group representing the Taliban in Murree has Mullah Omar’s blessings and the same was assured.
Interestingly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah ridicules President Ghani for thanking a dead man for coming to the negotiation table. President Ghani had taken a huge risk by initiating the peace process with the Taliban (through Pakistan) and apparently it back fired.
Ex-President Karzai, now is very vocal about the fact that US, UK and Pakistan are bed fellows and that work for the promotion of the US interests in Afghanistan, which is not in the interests of Afghanistan. The spike in violence in Afghanistan post the breakdown of talks and the Mullah Omar’s death leak is also seen in that light. Pakistan’s stance may continue to be that the leak of Mullah Omer’s death was a conspiracy of the Afghan intelligence agency (NDS) or the doing of palace conspiracy in Kabul. The point remains that the Afghans showcase it as another nail in the coffin of trust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The pressure built by the proponents of the war economy and very active Indian lobby in Afghanistan are also the factors contributing to the deteriorating relations between the two countries. Serious internal rifts exist within the Afghan ranks, and unless an internal consensus on relations with Pakistan and about the policy on the Afghan Taliban is achieved, real progress on peace and security will remain unattainable.
The Afghans may want to talk to the Taliban for the lack of any other option and dwindling interest of the West to continue to bail them out but are very annoyed at the (alleged) existence of Afghan Taliban groups in Pakistan. They see them as tools which Pakistan continues to use to exercise influence and control within Afghanistan. The statement of the Indian Ambassador in Afghanistan Mr. Amar Sinha right after the meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ghani in Paris was that Pakistan is working towards giving leadership space to the Haqqani Network, which is on the verge of getting international recognition as the defacto Taliban leader due to Pakistani’s initiative has not helped the situation. The statements by the Indian Ambassador on relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan found very prominent space in Afghani newspapers. The fact that an envoy gives regular comments and advice on how the relationship of the two countries should progress is against all international protocols and tantamount to interference is never seen in that light in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has carried out Zarb-e-Azb against TTP and others that challenge the writ of the Pakistani state but at the same time, the Afghan perception is that they continue to facilitate, host and nurture the Afghan Taliban. To them Zarb-e-Azb, aimed at crushing Pakistani militants, has further undermined security situation in Afghanistan. The Afghan President said in the Heart of Asia Conference that the operation against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the wake of Army Public School attack in the city of Peshawar had created additional security challenges for their country. He also spoke of Afghanistan hosting 350,000 to 500,000 Pakistani refugees as a result of military operation resulting in civilian displacement. Ghani, although more categorical of his criticism of Pakistan in the recent visit, has once again shown his pro-Pakistan tilt, which is severely criticized in Afghanistan. The unprecedented gesture made by Pakistani political and military leadership, in giving President Ghani state welcome, is a step in the right direction but more has to be done. The most important being dispelling the impression that Pakistan continues to harbour, facilitate, nurture the Afghan Taliban that perpetuate violence in Afghanistan. The irresponsible statement by a former President and few others do not help the situation and are constantly brought up in discussions by the Afghans and the anti-Pakistan and pro-Indian lobbies in Afghanistan.
The soft power thrust and cultivation of Afghan political elite ‘through all means’ is the strategy used by India and the counter strategy of Pakistan on these fronts seems extremely weak or not delivering. Although Pakistan is crucial to Afghanistan, be it peace and security or regional connectivity, but it has failed on both fronts. Afghanistan seems more inclined towards Iran and India for the same.
The media in Afghanistan is also very pro-India and skeptical of Pakistan. The statement by a former Interior Minister that “India is main hurdle in normalization of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations,” has not been well received in Afghanistan. They perceive it as an interference and Karzai uses it to say that Afghanistan is all set to go under the thumb of Pakistan. Pakistan has to be more pragmatic and innovative in its approach towards Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. The continuous reference to ‘India in Afghanistan’ has not been able to make its desired impact.
Hopes for the Renewal of the Peace Process
The Heart of Asia Conference 2015 on Afghanistan has once again raised hopes of talks between Afghan government and the Taliban by the facilitation of Pakistan. The warm welcome given to President Ghani by Pakistan and the statement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy and that should be realized on ground, has once again raised hopes. An added term to address the concerns of the Afghans is “reconcilable Taliban” and commitment of targeted action against the Haqqani network.
General Raheel’s concerns shown in Washington on the sincerity and commitment of the Afghan security officialdom for peace process that they may thwart the renewed peace process and the agreement reached between Pakistan and the United States to work together for an early resumption of the stalled Afghan reconciliation process seem very real. However, right after the resumptions of commitment of talks, the Chief of Afghan intelligence agency (NDS) resigned, sharing his disappointment on Ghani’s initiative to start the talk with the Taliban. That indicates existence of such elements.
China Factor and Regional Cooperation
Coming back to Pak-Afghan relations, the major bone of contention perhaps is the international border (Durand Line) and Afghanistan’s relations with India.
Pakistan is all for Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace process. The long term economic vision of Pakistan to become a part of the regional economic turnaround by following the CPEC cannot see the light of the day without peace in Afghanistan and peace in Balochistan. Now regional cooperation to defeat terrorism is a policy that is intrinsically linked to the economic turnaround that Pakistan foresees for itself. This has to be showcased. As the new People’s Republic of China ambassador to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi has stated that his country’s “larger strategy is also economic development, i.e. construction of the Silk Road which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.” This approach was welcomed by both Pakistan and Afghanistan in equal measure. Karzai calls it the only ray of hope for improved relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan must impress upon the Afghans that the paradigm shift that has taken place on the Pakistani side from Geo-Politics to Geo-Economics. Pakistan has an economic vision which it sees being realized through CPEC. There is complete ownership and commitment for this. Pakistan is set to address all the issues that may emerge as impediments to it becoming a reality both internally and externally which include relations with Afghanistan, peace in Afghanistan, peace in Balochistan and defeating terrorism in the region.
A revisit of Pak-Afghan policy is need of the hour. No ‘safe havens’ to anyone against anyone. The irreconcilable Afghan Taliban are seen as enemies in Afghanistan and be treated similarly. So far, the lack of policy effectiveness has allowed India to acquire strategic political space in the polity of Afghanistan which it blatantly exploits against Pakistan.
Just a word of caution here – Pakistan may have abandoned the policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan but it can ill-afford strategic vulnerability, leading to the strategic defeat, emanating from its western borders, facilitated by its eastern neighbour.
The sustainable way forward for Afghanistan government and Pakistan is to address each others’ sensitivities and sensibilities without outside interference. The desire of some regional and extra-regional powers to pitch Pakistan and Afghanistan against each other to achieve their vested interests in the region should be identified, exposed and defeated. Pakistan needs to further pursue peace with dignity for its own reasons: stability and economy. The fact remains and stands that Pakistan can play a major role of peace driver in the Afghan peace process.
There exists a window of opportunity between now and spring 2016. These four months are very crucial for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to consolidate peace and defeat the forces working against the interest of both the countries. If a spring offensive happens in 2016 – post the winter, we will all be back to square one. It is only when the sitting Afghan government can achieve an internal consensus on the viability of talks with the Taliban as a way forward to peace. The dialogue initiatives and the resumption of talks with the Taliban can deliver the desired results. Pakistan is sincere and committed in its desire to broker a dialogue between Afghan government and Taliban to the best of its capability. The lack of consistency and commitment exists on the Afghan side.
The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences , IBA . She is also associated as a foreign and current affairs expert with Radio Pakistan and a private TV Channel.