Afghan-Pakistan ties: Aligning policy with reality

Published February 21, 2015
Ghani's unprecedented outreach will likely snap under domestic pressure if Pakistan does not move quickly to reward it. —Reuters
Ghani's unprecedented outreach will likely snap under domestic pressure if Pakistan does not move quickly to reward it. —Reuters

President Ashraf Ghani's outreach is but an effort to normalise relations with Pakistan, though it may seem a bit drastic in view of the often skewed nature of relations between the two neighbours, who share much in common.

Less than five months into office and in what appears to be a hard-headed calculation of Afghanistan's priorities and constraints, Ghani has broken the ice on the entrenched foreign policy traditions that have bogged down the country for over a decade under Hamid Karzai's leadership.

Also read: Ghani dubs Pakistan 'important pillar' of Afghanistan foreign policy

The Afghan government has apprehended a number of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in the wake of TTP's massacre of children in a military-run school in Peshawar, arguably acquiesced to the delivery of captured TTP operative Latif Mehsud and his associates to Pakistan, resumed border security cooperation which had been suspended due to Karzai's dislike of the word "border" instead of "Durand Line" in the proposed cooperation agreement.

It has additionally taken up Pakistan's longstanding offer to allow Afghan army cadets to train in Pakistan and arguably even put on hold Karzai's earlier request for weapons from India.

Ghani's seemingly bold moves, which enjoy the support or at least the passive acquiescence of his Government of National Unity (GNU) partner Abdullah Abdullah, seem intended to align policy with reality.

The pivotal decision reflecting this realignment of policy is manifest in Ghani's direct engagement with the military establishment as the real powerbroker in Pakistan. It sets in sharp contrast with his predecessor's delusional policy of seeking to bypass the military establishment through "brotherly" ties with Pakistan's ineffective civilian leadership.

Also read: Ashraf Ghani says Afghan forces now in charge

Although not clearly spelt out in any statements, the new Afghan leadership seems to have taken the designation "neighbouring countries" literally; for what it truly represents — states that share common borders with Afghanistan.

If accurate, it is a departure from the longstanding Afghan policy of including India in that description, which does not share a common border but was always treated as such under the rubric of having historic ties with Afghanistan.

The challenges India has faced to complete its flagship project – the Salma hydroelectric power plant in the Herat Province – many years past its original schedule is but a poignant reminder of the obsolescence of its honorary status as a neighbouring state for practical purposes.

The wider implications of the matter presumably are not lost on the new Afghan leadership as they will have parsed the inevitable question of how well India's support to Afghanistan could possibly fare.

Also read: Ghani seeks Chinese investment in first foreign trip

Ghani's trips to China and Pakistan, but not yet to India and Iran arguably serve to highlight the order of importance he likely attaches to servicing relations with these countries. His relentless promotion of the so-called "Lapis Lazuli route" envisaged to connect Afghanistan through Turkmenistan and the Caucasus region to Turkey and Europe cannot be decoupled from his policy of de-escalating tensions with Pakistan either.

India is reportedly interested in the development of Iran's Chabahar port as it provides an alternative to Pakistan's Karachi port for India's trade ties, delivery of heavy machinery for development projects and possibly even military equipment to Afghanistan.

India has also built the Delaram-Zaranj Highway which connects Afghanistan's National Ring Road with the Iranian border, but Ghani's emphasis on the Lapis Lazuli route appears to have put the Indian-supported Chabahar route on the back-burner for the time being.

So far, Ghani's policy seems to have steered clear of his predecessor's convoluted approach of seeking to recruit third party arbitration in negotiations with Pakistan, rather than engaging with it directly at the bilateral level.

Also read: Afghan-Pakistan ties 'never better', Nisar tells Kerry

The direct engagement seems to recognise the reality that bringing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey or even Britain in trilateral talks with Pakistan would do little to advance Afghanistan's interests as Pakistan exercises greater influence with these countries.

Why bother to involve third parties that are more susceptible to your counterpart's influence in multilateral negotiations?

In the domestic context, Ghani's new policies have effectively reduced the so-called High Peace Council (HPC) to a position of irrelevance, which had little influence anyway.

Karzai had created and used the HPC to keep afloat a charade of "peace process" since the international support to his successive leadership claims had been largely premised on the notion that he was better-positioned than his rivals to win over the Taliban through a reconciliation programme. The HPC also served as a convenient venue to accommodate rival politicians who would have otherwise rallied or strengthened political opposition to Karzai.

The irony of the so-called peace negotiations with the Taliban through the HPC had been all the more evident in the Afghan government's own relentless assertion that the Taliban represent little more than a proxy entity at the behest of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Reduced to irrelevance, the HPC's chairman was recently appointed as foreign minister and the office of national security advisor is primarily responsible for overseeing any issues related to negotiations with the Taliban. This fits in well with the hard reality that the HPC has proven to be an utter failure and addresses the concern of the Afghan intelligence chief, who has attributed this failure – including the assassination of the first HPC chairman Borhanuddin Rabbani – to lack of consultation with the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in negotiations with alleged Taliban representatives.

Also read: Afghan Taliban’s Doha office revived: Pakistan officials

As with all major changes that challenge the status quo, the GNU's outreach to Pakistan has not been without anxiety among sections of the political class.

Karzai, a long-time friend and beneficiary of support from both India and Iran, used the reports of a purported interview by an Iranian news agency with the Pakistani interior minister to insinuate that the attempt at rapprochement with Pakistan has come at the cost of violation of Afghanistan's "territorial integrity, national sovereignty and independence".

The Iranian news agency had quoted an appreciative Pakistani interior minister as saying that the Pakistani security forces had conducted a joint operation with their Afghan counterparts against the TTP inside Afghanistan.

Both the Pakistani foreign ministry and the Afghan government dismissed the veracity of the reports and denied that the Pakistani interior minister had made such remarks in the interview.

Amrullah Saleh, former intelligence chief and a fierce critic of Pakistan, launched a social media campaign for the return of the handful of Afghan army cadets and the failure of their training program in Pakistan.

He has also accused the government of giving "unilateral concessions" and accepting a junior position in "unequal relations" with Pakistan. Influential leader Abdurrab Rasoul Sayyaf condemned the "strategic change in Afghanistan's relations with neighbouring countries and the world without consultation with the nation" as an "illegitimate" and "dictatorial" step.

Ghani's efforts seem sincere and meaningful, but their sustenance very much depends on Pakistan seizing the opportunity to reciprocate with bold and meaningful measures of its own.

If Pakistan's early initiative to return the favour with tangible and visible rewards is absent, Ghani's unprecedented move will likely snap under domestic pressure.

Worst yet, it will be held out as exemplified folly of making good with Pakistan for many years to come.


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