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Path to progress

August 15, 2017

IN recent months, I have used these pages to warn of the possibility of a rupture in US-Pakistan ties because of disagreements over Afghanistan. I have advocated candid bilateral engagement at the leadership level to iron out differences. Some readers have demanded that I explain the specific contours of such engagement and suggest a realistic way forward.

The starting point for both sides must be an acknowledgement of the ground realities in Afghanistan. Three stand out.

First, neither side can get anywhere close to an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan if the other opposes it outright. Pakistan will always retain sufficient power to spoil an outcome that it deems counterproductive to its interests. But denying the US victory doesn’t equal an ability to dictate its own preferences. In fact, the more open the disconnect, the lesser the likelihood that the US will allow anything that favours Pakistan.

Second, there is no military solution in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban won’t be eliminated on the battlefield. Nor can they run Afghanistan over like they did in the 1990s. Still, an insurgency that has continued to sustain itself won’t give up unless there is an attractive enough offer on the table. At the same time, no Afghan government can afford to seek a deal with the Taliban if they continue to target innocent Afghan civilians. Charged public sentiment makes such a move politically suicidal for Kabul.

Third, for Pakistan, Indian influence in Afghanistan shall remain an anathema for the security establishment. But India is also set to persist as a US priority. Nor do the Afghans want to curtail India’s footprint in their country. Corollary: India is there to stay in Afghanistan.

A workable formula for Afghan peace is not impossible.

If both sides can accept these, a workable formula for the US and Pakistan to secure peace in Afghanistan can be envisioned.

It would entail a US strategy centred on a peace process that seeks to bring the Taliban into the political fold. Potent concessions to the Taliban could include their recognition as a political force, some share in power, and negotiations on the timeline for a US troop withdrawal. In return, they would agree to accept the Afghan constitution, end violence and operate strictly within the political mainstream.

Such a concerted negotiation effort would address Pakistan’s scepticism about US sincerity towards pursuing talks with the Taliban. But unlike previously, Pakistan will not be asked to bring the Taliban to the table and force them to agree to a deal. This was never a smart approach — the Afghans do not trust a Pakistan-led process and the Taliban detest being seen as Pakistan’s stooges. Asking it not to get involved would imply allowing any and every Taliban member that Kabul and Washington wish to engage to do so without fear of harassment. Such direct conversations will remove concerns about Pakistani micromanagement of the process while also eliminating Pakistan’s concerns of being blamed in case the talks fail.

The US demands for Pakistani action against the Taliban and Haqqani network would now be narrowly focused on irreconcilable elements working to scuttle the talks. Since Pakistan will be supporting the peace process, it’ll have a genuine stake in cutting the naysayers within the Taliban ranks to size. Still, the US would demand mechanisms to verify its actions, or even coordinate targeting, to ensure success.

Simultaneously, the US would have to find a way to address the elephant — the proxy battle between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. In the past, I have advocated a facilitated (jointly by the US and China) Pakistan-India dialogue on Afgha­nistan. To work, it’ll have to be a fairly cold-hearted negotiation, involving the intelligence agencies of the two countries, on a formula for coexistence in Afgha­nistan. Both sides would have to articulate their red lines and find means to verify compliance. Realisti­cally, both would want to maintain their spheres of influence in Afghanistan. The key would be for them to do so in ways that don’t threaten the other, much less require them to actively undercut each other’s interests.

All this is easier said than done. The good news is I haven’t plucked this vision out of thin air. These are contours of a framework that has consistently found takers among those who truly matter in the US and Pakistan. The bad news is that this is a compromise solution being floated at a time when attitudes on both sides are as uncompromising as they have ever been. Washing­ton’s discourse on Pakistan is consumed by finding ways and means to punish Pakistan; Pakistan’s US debate is focused on a percei­ved US effort to use Pakistan as a scapegoat in Afghanistan. Such jaundiced environments don’t produce visionary policy turnarounds, even if the need for one is clear.

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

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2017