Hope over experience

Published March 20, 2016
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

THE launch of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US) is the latest attempt by outsiders to pacify Afghanistan. Like a second marriage, it represents the triumph of hope over experience.

Alexander the Great’s armies languished in Khorasan for a decade. The British Empire failed in three wars to control the Afghans. The Soviet Union withdrew ignominiously after nine bloody years. And, Afghanistan has been America’s longest war.

The QCG, despite its infelicitous name, was a clever device conjured by Pakistan to concentrate the capabilities of the four members and distribute the responsibility to achieve Afghan reconciliation. The exclusion of Iran and Russia, both of which have influence over Afghan events, may have to be rectified if the mechanism becomes operational.

It appears that everyone wants a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, except the Afghans themselves. The Ghani government came into the process with doubts and conditions. The Afghan Taliban have now refused to return to the table. Mere repetition of the mantra of an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace process will not bring it any closer to realisation.

The ‘unity government’ in Kabul is anything but united in its commitment to the negotiating process. There are known power brokers who have introduced unrealistic preconditions and deadlines for progress in the peace process. They remain averse to ‘sharing’ power with the Taliban. They resent Pakistan’s influence over Afghan events. They seem to believe that if the talks fail, and insurgency escalates, their foreign patrons will not abandon them. They expect to retain control of their own ethnic regions — and Kabul.

It appears that everyone wants a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, except the Afghans themselves.

For their part, the Taliban have been consistent in their refusal to talk to the Kabul government which they consider a US puppet. They want to talk directly with the Americans. The quadrilateral mechanism sought to square the circle. But the present is a bad time to expect the Taliban to join a dialogue process. Mullah Mansour has yet to consolidate his leadership. Most of his commanders, including those challenging his succession to Mullah Omar’s mantle, believe they are winning the military struggle against Afghan security forces. Several districts fell to the Taliban even before their summer offensive. Mullah Mansour no doubt fears an internal revolt if he agrees to talks which can arrest the Taliban’s momentum.

It is unclear why adviser Sartaj Aziz was so confident in publicly asserting that Islamabad could convince the Taliban to join the talks.

In the endeavour to prove its sincerity to the major powers, Pakistan seems to have created the worst of both worlds for itself. As Sartaj Aziz declared, Pakistan gathered some Taliban leaders to persuade them to return to the negotiating table. This public revelation has enabled Pakistan’s detractors to validate their long-standing allegation that the Taliban are Pakistan’s proxies. During recent Security Council discussions, the Afghan ambassador said that Sartaj Aziz’s statement “speaks volumes for Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban”.

Experience should have advised against such bold assertions. Even at the height of its close relationship with Mullah Omar’s regime, pre- and immediately after 9/11, Pakistan was unable to convince the Taliban to surrender or expel Osama bin Laden. Islamabad was unable even to persuade Mullah Omar not to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas. Today, after a decade of cooperation with the US-led war in Afghanistan, Pakistan can hardly expect the Taliban to accept its demand to take a course of action they consider contrary to their military or strategic objectives.

The threat to expel the Taliban leadership from Pakistan’s territory if they do not heed its demand to join the talks, could transform a tactical error into a strategic blunder. This is an empty threat. The Taliban now control vast territories within Afghanistan and no longer need the ‘refuge’ some of their leaders sought in Pakistan after the US military intervention. If Pakistan carries out its threat, it will lose whatever influence it still has with the Taliban and gratuitously add to the list of its enemies in Afghanistan. There are other neighbours, including Iran, which would be happy to enlarge their present and future influence within Afghanistan.

Clearly, Pakistan’s Afghan policies should be guided by its own national interest. Preserving the goodwill of the major powers, particularly China, is essential. But Pakistan’s primary objective should be to eliminate the TTP’s ‘safe havens’ in Afghanistan and shut down the ‘western front’ which Indian agencies in collaboration with known elements in Kabul have opened against Pakistan. It is surprising that Islamabad has not imposed a tighter connection between its help in Afghan reconciliation with action by Kabul and its Western patrons against TTP and its cross-border attacks against Pakistan. Equally, Pakistan can and should strongly demand that the Afghan Taliban break all links with TTP.

Pakistan’s calibrated policy must also anticipate the likely denouement of events in Afghanistan. While the effort to promote Afghan reconciliation is propelled by hope, experience indicates that, at least in the near term, this endeavour is unlikely to be successful. Kabul’s security challenges are formidable and once the Taliban launch their summer offensive the survival of the regime could be in question. As the UN secretary general’s special representative stated in the Security Council, for Kabul “survival in 2016” would be an achievement.

Unless an incoming Republican US president, or a muscular Hillary Clinton, decides to launch another military surge in Afghanistan, rather than withdraw the remaining foreign forces, the insurgency will gather force. The Taliban may not be able to conquer Kabul, especially if rump foreign forces remain, but they are likely to gain full control over the east and south of Afghanistan. As in the 1990s, before the advent of Mullah Omar’s Taliban, the country may once again be carved up into rival fiefdoms.

Pakistan’s priority then, as now, will be to insulate itself from the Afghan chaos and eliminate the TTP or at least halt its cross-border attacks against Pakistan. To do so, Pakistan will need friends especially in areas adjacent to its borders. It is not difficult to identify who is likely to control these adjacent areas and ensure that Pakistan enjoys a friendly relationship with them. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, the lessons of history are seldom learnt; thus, it has a habit of repeating itself.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2016



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