Paradigm shift?

May 19, 2015


The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

THE Pakistani civilian and military top brass was in Kabul last week. This wasn’t a normal visit. Nor was what came out of it. The visit was meant to comfort Afghan President Ghani. As one Pakistani interlocutor described it to me, Ghani “is pulling his hair out” because of his frustration with lack of tangible deliverables from Pakistan.

On offer from Pakistan was an unprecedented statement by Prime Minister Sharif who in Kabul characterised Afghan Taliban attacks in Afghanistan as “terrorism”, denouncing their spring offensive, and promising to outlaw the Taliban and go after the sanctuaries through “direct action” if any were found.

I don’t remember any previous Pakistani statement having gone nearly this far. Indeed, if you are an optimist, you could read this as a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s position. And if you are Ghani, you desperately hope it is nothing less since you need more than just words from Pakistan.

Ghani is in a bind since he has staked his entire political capital on the reconciliation front on Pakistan. His diagnosis of the underlying problem, in his own words, is “an undeclared state of hostility between our two countries”. He feels that if he gets Pakistan on his side, the Taliban piece of the puzzle will automatically fall in place.

Therefore, undoing Karzai’s antagonistic stance vis-à-vis Pakistan, Ghani has gone out on a limb to address Pakistan’s concerns. He has prioritised Pakistan over India. Despite having Abdullah Abdullah as a partner in government, there are no signs that he is using the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan. Inherent in his approach is a central role for Pakistan to promote reconciliation; and Ghani’s principal ask from Pakistan has been to get the Taliban to the table through whatever means it chooses rather than stipulating a specific demand for any military offensive against them. Each of these is exactly what Pakistan had been asking for years as quid pro quo for a more constructive approach in Afghanistan on its part.

Despite the PM’s new resolve in Kabul, progress has been slow.

Ghani’s approach is not without costs. It has made him politically vulnerable at home. And this feeds into his desperation to see Pakistan come good by getting the Taliban to curtail their violence, and instead talk seriously with Ghani.

Pakistan has disappointed so far. The folks in Pindi promised they could at least get the Taliban to the negotiating table. This was the basis for their demand for a role in the reconciliation process. And indeed, in recent months, Pakistan has worked closely with Kabul to make this happen. More than we know has taken place in terms of communication. But nothing of substance has evolved primarily because the Taliban are split from within as to whether it makes sense for them to openly engage in talks or if they should hold out and see if another fighting season can force the Kabul government’s collapse.

The fairly strong perception in Kabul and elsewhere that the unity government may not hold indefinitely is allowing the naysayers within the Taliban to be the loudest voices at the moment. Corollary: Pakistan’s efforts to persuade and cajole have achieved little.

Be that as it may, Ghani is rightfully looking to Pakistan to tell him what it plans to do next. Ghani needs results, not words.

Pakistan can no longer play the delaying game. Mr Sharif’s statement in Kabul was significant but the massive Taliban attack on the Park Place guest house in Kabul the next day provided a perfect example of why it can’t be enough.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Pakistani efforts at persuasion are not delivering. Violence levels in Afghanistan continue to rise. On the other hand, there is little doubt that the Pakistani state will do anything possible to avoid opening an all-out military front against the Afghan insurgents given all the other fires it is dealing with.

The answer therefore must lie in pursuing the middle course but doing so seriously and immediately: arrests of Taliban operatives; tightening the noose around their families; banning them formally; genuinely seeking to expel some of them from Pakistan to raise the stakes; providing direct intelligence on them to Kabul; and most importantly, undertaking targeted action against any who are involved in acts of violence inside Afghanistan from now on.

The Taliban should be forced to rethink their strategy to prioritise violence over talks. Only genuine pressure from Pakistan can make this happen. This is not only about Pakistan owing it to Ghani for the trust he has reposed in Pakistan. Forcing the Taliban to give up violence and agree to some settlement within Afghanistan is as crucial for Pakistan itself. Failing this, the insurgency will persist, as will chaos in Afghanistan. Amidst this chaos will exist increasing opportunities for anti-Pakistan insurgents to find sanctuary across the Durand Line.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2015

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