THE tripartite military talks held in Kabul between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US earlier in the week are a sensible development for at least three reasons. First, the high-level Pakistani delegation led by DGMO Maj-Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza demonstrated that the military establishment is indeed seeking continued engagement with Afghanistan and the US in the latest phase of the fraught trilateral relationship. President Donald Trump’s truculent words against Pakistan have caused consternation in policymaking circles and there is a danger that emotionalism could supplant rational decision-making. Yet, the perilous security situation and a seemingly permanent US military presence in Afghanistan are strong reasons for the three countries to continue with talks and cooperation. Suspending dialogue or whipping up domestic public sentiment against the US will only narrow Pakistan’s policy choices going forward.
Second, the dialogue between the military leaders is important because of the emphasis on border management. A great deal of the friction between them is because of militant sanctuaries on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan’s long-term aim of strengthening border controls, curbing the informal flow of people across the frontier and coordinating with security forces on the other side will necessarily make it more difficult for militants on either side of the border to cross over at will. In the meantime, if military dialogue can include intelligence-sharing for the identification and elimination of sanctuaries that all sides agree need to be tackled as a priority, it may help create the space necessary for deeper political engagement and a restarting of dialogue inside Afghanistan. For Pakistan, that will also mean greater coordination and policy dialogue between the civilian and military arms of the state. Given that it is Pakistan’s official position that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan, the state’s diplomatic and political arms will necessarily have to play a role in the establishment of long-term regional peace.
Third, the tripartite talks rightly identified action against the militant Islamic State group as a common goal of all three countries. Indeed, if there is one issue on which all groups inside Afghanistan and all external actors agree, it is the need to prevent IS from gaining space in the region. Not only is the group a common enemy that military cooperation is necessary against, cracking down jointly on the IS may help address some of the mistrust and suspicion that is preventing greater collaborative efforts in the region. Finally, the first drone strike in Fata since Mr Trump’s declaration of his administration’s strategy in Afghanistan is an early test of the likelihood of cooperation. If the strike was conducted with Pakistan’s knowledge, it would indicate pragmatic cooperation; if it was unilateral, the US may be sowing more trouble for itself in the region.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017