Improved ties

Published December 23, 2014
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.

THE Peshawar incident has shaken us. I don’t remember the nation being moved this way since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Not even when Swat was under Fazlullah.

Thankfully, the state also seems united in the carnage’s aftermath. True, responses such as hangings, enhanced intelligence sweeps and military strikes within Pakistan have been controversial but the intent to send a ‘we mean business’ message is clear.

Equally uncharacteristic was the state’s attention to the external dimension: within hours, the Pakistani side had contacted Kabul and the army chief flew in the next day with evidence implicating Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan.

Also read: Afghan forces launch operation in areas bordering Pakistan

The hitherto norm had been an immediate blame game after any major attack. This time was different. By all accounts, Raheel Sharif was not on a point-scoring mission. Rather, the conversation was constructive; evidence provided and assistance specific to the leads sought. Kabul was forthcoming.

Also encouraging, Pakistani decision-makers have been talking about Afghan efforts in a much more nuanced manner. Despite probing, I haven’t gotten anyone to question President Ghani’s intent since his trip to Pakistan. This is a potential game changer, because the future of stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain intrinsically linked to relations between these two countries.


Pak-Afghan positivity will be brief if actions don’t follow words.


For years, we have been missing the point by treating reconciliation in Afghanistan somewhat separately from the state of Af-Pak ties. The real problem has always been the divergent outlook of the powers that be in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Pakistan hasn’t delivered fully and won’t unless it is comforted that Kabul is not playing footsy with Delhi. And Kabul can’t satisfy Pakistan until it believes that dividends in terms of Pakistan pressing and squeezing the Afghan insurgents operating from its soil will be forthcoming.

Much else will begin to fall in place if Kabul and Islamabad/Pindi begin to believe in the sincerity of the other side.

We have a start. The post-Peshawar conversation was only made possible because of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s trip: his signals that he wants to reset ties; his message that the two countries need to move beyond their spoiling roles; and the understanding reached during his visit that a new beginning will be made, and immediately. Easier said than done, but there isn’t another option. Continuation of Machiavellian policies will only ensure that neither side is able to tame their respective Taliban and their affiliates. That is how significant the external link is for both.

First, the positivity will be short-lived if words are not converted into action. Kabul is watching. Pakistan has promised it will take an indiscriminate approach in going after the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban. From what one understands, some of Pakistan’s steps are being appreciated privately by Kabul and Washington, but more has been asked and must be done before Pindi is seen in a different light. Similarly, what Afghanistan can actually deliver on the Peshawar incident will be telling.

Second, both sides must keep expectations realistic. Both have proactively created and worked off anti-other narratives over the past decade. You’ve therefore got a pervasive belief in Afghanistan that the ISI micromanages the Afghan insurgency and can turn off the tap when it wishes. In Pakistan, the loudest voices only see Indian and Afghan intelligence connivance behind TTP presence in Afghanistan.

If neither side accepts that their views are exaggerated we are in trouble. Pakistan can and must do more but it can’t end the violence in Afghanistan. And we can blame the TTP safe havens on Kabul, but it will be foolish to overlook Mr Ghani’s real capacity constraints.

Third — and this is my biggest worry — the media space is out of control. There are too many vested interests on both sides that stand to lose from a genuine Af-Pak partnership.

Kabul has any number of Karzai regime remnants who are blasting Mr Ghani for going out on a limb vis-à-vis Pakistan. This constant pressure will shrink Kabul’s space exponentially unless Mr Ghani can show real gains from his partnership with Pakistan over the next few months. In Pakistan too, the media’s role is negative. Case in point is the Peshawar attack: Gen Sharif’s visit was painted as evidence of the ‘external hand’; hawks got busy bashing Kabul and Delhi; and press reports signalled options of unilateral Pakistani action inside Afghanistan. All this when the conversation between the two sides was fairly constructive.

Both states must inject a positive narrative to undercut the spoilers. At the same time though, they’ll have to ignore the public rhetoric and not use it to build pressure on the other side. Meanwhile, they must keep proving their sincerity to each other — through actions rather than words.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peacebuilding Lens.

Published in Dawn December 23th , 2014

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