Pakistan's adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs stated recently that the time was not yet ripe for restarting the Afghan peace talks to which Pakistan, at the request of the Afghan government, had previously provided assistance. This message has a sub-text: the time is not yet ripe because of the current low level of trust prevailing between the two countries.
This is also confirmed by other statements emerging from Kabul. Recently, the Afghan interior minister accused Pakistan of promoting insecurity in Afghanistan. Thus, before reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban can take place, it is essential for the two countries to first resolve their differences. Another necessary condition needs to be met; that is the re-establishment of trust between the US and Pakistan. This mostly pertains to transactional issues such as the clearance of pending liabilities concerning Coalition Support Funds and refurbishing the aging military hardware for which Pakistani requests are pending with the US administration.
President Obama has revised his earlier stance of gradually withdrawing the remaining 10,000 US troops by end of 2016. Now he has declared they will stay put until the end of 2017. It is evident that troop withdrawal choices in Afghanistan are rarely determined by governments but by the situation on the ground. This is in line with the strategic wisdom that indicates that although states may enter the region of their own accord, their exit is dictated by other compulsions, unless they wish to see their gains vitiated. It is this moment that now prevails in Afghanistan and there may be more revisions of policy.
It is essential for Pakistan and Afghanistan to resolve their differences before resuming talks with the Taliban.
On a different issue, it is now well known that when a nation relies on proxies to do its bidding, it is impossible to lay down any hard rules for its conduct as the US now finds to its disadvantage in differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants in Syria. Similarly, the Pakistani establishment appears to be rethinking its future relationship with its private militia affiliates like the Haqqanis or the Quetta Shura.
The Afghan government wants Pakistan to banish its proxies. However, that may have been an option previously but will now be difficult after India’s recent indication that it will provide attack helicopters to Afghanistan. India’s involvement will further broaden the Indo-Pak proxy war in Afghanistan, making the use of proxies by both sides on the Pak-Afghan border a real possibility.
Nevertheless, one cannot blame the Afghans for seeking assistance from wherever they can after the trauma of the Taliban’s brief occupation of Kunduz in late September and the increasing level of attacks on the Afghan military that is suffering its highest attrition rate in casualties and desertions. Furthermore, it is becoming evident that the absence of air support earlier promised in the myriad international meetings on Afghanistan makes matters worse for the Afghan forces.
Secondly, the more battles the Afghan military fights, the weaker they become due to a high attrition rate. The weaker the Afghans become, the bigger the threat that Pakistan faces if the Afghan state collapses. Another corollary to this equation is that the closer the Afghans get to India, the higher the insecurity felt by Pakistan due to their rivalry — and the greater the reliance by Pakistan on its proxies, the higher the threat to the Pakistani state, as both governance and enforcement suffer when proxies are in the field.
But what are the best options for the Pak-Afghan battle zone that is also now witnessing a new actor emerging in the form of the self-styled Islamic State? This threat is marginal and IS will remain a flag of convenience used by dissident Taliban who contest Mullah Mansour’s leadership. But this new player should not be ignored, as it will be used more often as a handmaiden by criminal syndicates that have proliferated in the lightly regulated land spaces on the Pak-Afghan border and further afield in Central Asia.
Given these factors, useful policy options for Pakistan will lie in adopting the following measures. Firstly, it should review under the Istanbul process the implementation status of previous international commitments made by the US and Nato to support the Afghan state in security and development areas. Non-implementation of promises increases the risk of state failure in Afghanistan and consequently in Pakistan; what happens in Afghanistan today is likely to be repeated in Pakistan tomorrow.
Then, the Afghans should examine the provocations that led to the spoiling of its relations with Pakistan. In this context they must identify the elements who provoked agitation in the Afghan parliament regarding the MoU signed between the Pakistan and Afghanistan intelligence agencies on counterterrorism cooperation. Did it stem from the dynamics of the rivalry inherent in the structure of the national unity government or was it a planned move to sabotage the growing friendship between the latter and Pakistan?
While we still have time, Pakistan must engage Afghanistan bilaterally in taking the following further steps to restore trust between the two neighbours; (i) a reaffirmation by both countries of their sovereignty, based upon the principles of the UN Charter, (ii) the Afghans should address Pakistan’s security concerns regarding its allegations of support provided by India to Pakistani militants and dissidents via Afghanistan, (iii) as a quid pro quo, Pakistan should use its limited influence over the Afghan Taliban to force them to negotiate reconciliation with their government, (iv) it must use its influence with them to create a political commission as a permanent body to undertake serious reconciliation efforts institutionally, (v) it should impress upon all parties to cease hostile operations in the Afghan-Pak arena, (vi) Pakistan must clearly indicate that its commitment in principle to assist Afghanistan is not a matter of entitlement as it has been made to appear. No assistance in matters of inter-state relations is a right and has to be earned through proper conduct, and (vii) Pakistan should address similar Afghan concerns about the activities of the Haqqani group in Afghanistan.
Although Sartaj Aziz may not like to take any formal steps to re-engage in the Afghan reconciliation effort yet, the time should be used by Afghanistan and Pakistan to restore the trust that has been lost.
The writer is convener of the Pakistan Policy Group on Afghanistan under an FES project.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2015