IN his final State of the Union address, US President Obama predicted a decade of instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Af-Pak was always a bad construct for policy formulation. There are obvious security linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the circumstances and prospects of the two countries are significantly different.
Predicting continued instability in Afghanistan is an easy call. The Kabul government is beset by internal division and an insurgency that has momentum. Given the preconditions posed by Kabul, the recently created quadrilateral forum will find it difficult to get the Afghan Taliban to the table let alone secure an agreement for peace. A turbulent and fractured Afghanistan is the most likely prospect for the foreseeable future.
Pakistan is a different story. It has undertaken a massive and comprehensive counterterrorism campaign targeting the TTP, sectarian groups and political gangs. Action has now been taken also against a rogue pro-Kashmiri organisation. Terrorist and criminal violence has been dramatically reduced.
There are several external drivers of violence that need to be neutralised.
Unfortunately, as illustrated by the assault on the Charsadda university, it is premature to celebrate. To break the back of terrorism in Pakistan, the kinetic campaign will need to be continued for a considerable period and the social, economic and other components of the National Action Plan fully implemented.
However, national actions will not be sufficient to defeat terrorism. There are several external drivers of violence that need to be neutralised.
The TTP is the self-confessed culprit in the Charsadda terrorist attack. With 180,000 troops deployed on its western borders, Pakistan has crushed or chased out most of the TTP militants from most of its territory. Small groups hide ‘in the open’, in inaccessible valleys or in Afghan refugee camps. However, the major threat arises from the infiltration of TTP terrorists from their safe havens in Afghanistan.
While Pakistan has offered to help in promoting reconciliation between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, there is little evidence of reciprocal action by Kabul to eliminate the TTP safe havens or to control cross-border infiltration. Kabul has refused to even revive the coordination mechanisms for border monitoring that were created with the US-Nato command.
Certain circles in Kabul, such as the National Directorate of Intelligence, are known to have collaborated with the TTP and sponsored Baloch insurgents to destabilise Pakistan. They were also responsible for scuttling the Murree talks and then blaming Pakistan for escalated insurgent attacks from Kabul to Kunduz. Now, they are asking Pakistan to attack the Afghan Taliban unless they agree to come to the negotiating table. This would bring Afghanistan’s war to Pakistan.
Islamabad must reassert its demand for action against the TTP by Kabul and its international patrons. If such cooperation is not forthcoming, Pakistan will need to consider unilateral actions to eliminate the TTP safe havens in Afghanistan. Peace and security within Pakistan is also influenced by the policies and actions of several other external powers.
Historically, the US has contributed, wittingly or unwittingly, to Pakistan’s destabilisation since the anti-Soviet Afghan war. The rump US-Nato force in Afghanistan is essential to prop up the tottering Kabul government. Obama is wisely averse to resuming a larger military role in Afghanistan. A Republican president, however, may be more adventurist, especially if driven by the misplaced desire to counter China’s growing influence and interests in the region. In this context, it is relevant to evaluate whether the US shares China’s vision that peace and prosperity can be promoted in Pakistan and the region through the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
India’s policies are more predictable. It has openly opposed the CPEC enterprise and is chary of China’s growing role in the region. Notwithstanding the Lahore embrace and the likely resumption of the Comprehensive Dialogue, India remains the godfather of anti-Pakistan elements in Afghanistan and can be expected to continue to encourage and support them in their use of the TTP and Baloch dissidents to spread mischief and turmoil in Pakistan. Since Pakistan is now constrained from playing the ‘Kashmir card’, it cannot hope to neutralise India’s subversive activities on the negotiating table; they will have to be defeated through direct action against the militants and muscular diplomacy with Kabul and its patrons.
Given Pakistan’s denominational composition, Iran’s policies will have an impact on Pakistan’s internal stability. Following its nuclear agreement with the major powers and the removal of international sanctions, Iran can be expected to remain on good behaviour on issues which do not affect its core interests. Tehran’s priorities are to retain its dominant influence in Syria, Iraq and the Levant; neutralise Saudi-led Sunni strategies, and maximise the economic benefits flowing from the lifting of sanctions. Iran can benefit from CPEC connectivity and closer linkages with China. However, Iran has a strategic relationship with India. A US-India-Iran axis is improbable, but not inconceivable. Pakistan needs to engage Iran and ensure that it does not try to play the sectarian card in Pakistan or attempt to forestall Pakistan’s emergence as China’s strategic link to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
The GCC states have been Pakistan’s closest friends and benefactors. Relations were unfortunately frayed by the clumsy manner in which Pakistan spurned the Arab coalition that has intervened in Yemen. Since then, Pakistan has mended fences with Saudi Arabia. Similar conciliation with the UAE is outstanding. Some have conjectured that the UAE would consider Gwadar’s role in CPEC as a threat to Dubai’s commercial pre-eminence. In further exchanges with the GCC states, Pakistan should reassure them that CPEC will add, not detract, from their prosperity. But Islamabad’s first priority should be to secure an effective end to the flow of funds to sectarian and extremist groups from certain Gulf states.
It is only through such full-spectrum diplomacy, defence and deterrence that Pakistan can prove Obama wrong and achieve the peace and stability which is indispensable to implement the CPEC, realise rapid growth and emerge as Asia’s newest economic ‘Tiger’.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2016