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Pak-Afghan truth

September 24, 2017

IN his remarks on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly session, President Ashraf Ghani was sharply critical of Pakistan and of alleged militant safe havens there, whose elimination he said was essential to achieving peace in Afghanistan.

In his formal address, he called upon Pakistan to engage his country in a comprehensive dialogue on “peace, security and regional cooperation leading to prosperity”. The level of sincerity of his statement may have been unclear but the underlying truth was self-evident. Pakistan and Afghanistan needed to talk.

Both have been facing a moment of truth ever since the announcement of President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. To its credit, Pakistan has projected its case well, energised its contacts in the region and held its ground in dealing with Washington.

Already the ice seems to have been broken in relations with the US. And Kabul, too, may have taken note that the road to peace passes through Islamabad. Yet all this does not solve Afghanistan’s problems or those of Pakistan. Public relations is not a substitute for policy.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a tortuous shared history that has left a complicated legacy of a divided ethnicity straddled along a disputed border. They now face serious challenges in the form of extremism and terrorism to which both have contributed. The problems of each are now tied to policies and conditions in the other country. These can only be addressed by fundamentally altered Pakistan-Afghanistan relations which will require serious action. Not just Pakistan, Afghanistan too needs to put its house in order.

Public relations is not a substitute for policy.

Packaged inside Trump’s rhetoric and the China-supported BRICS statement have been some harsh truths that Pakistan especially should take note of. The Chinese have long felt a wake-up call was overdue for Pakistan. The message was clear. China would defend Pakistan against US pressure but not necessarily its policies, especially those impacting its own interests. China is invested too heavily in Pakistan, particularly through CPEC, not to be worried about the shadow cast by the militant groups on the stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

China recognises the importance of the US role in stabilising Afghanistan and the need for Pakistan to support that role in its own interest and that of China. This is one reason China would like Pakistan to retain its linkages with Washington. Not to mention Pakistan’s testy relations with Washington will further embolden India and make its attitude even more hostile towards Pakistan. That would make it still harder for Pakistan to bring about any course correction, and for China to hover over Pakistan-India issues to maintain its relationship with India which is important in its own right.

The spillover of the failed Afghan war has indeed caused horrendous problems for Pakistan. And the US and the Afghans were largely responsible for this failure. But Pakistan ought to admit that it too had contributed to the situation, and not just through Taliban sanctuaries.

Truth is the war’s failure was inherent in the situation developing over decades in Afghanistan and in the border areas, as a spin-off of the American-led Afghan Jihad, which merged with the jihadist currents long flowing in Pakistan since Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation and the creation of militant outfits.

In the end, it was chaos waiting to happen once this new Afghanistan war started. Arguably, there would have been no Pakistani Taliban had there been no Afghan Taliban.

The most serious national challenge for Pakistan now is its internal security and what is happening next door in Afghanistan. Pak­is­tan and Afghanistan need to reach a shared perception of the Afghan Taliban and how to deal with them — no mean feat.

Only China and the US, the two countries with the most stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can bring them together. China wants a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan for the realisation of its One Belt, One Road vision. And the US is concerned about its national security to which terrorism poses a serious threat.

But the war to deal with that threat has gone horribly wrong. And Pakistan, Washington feels, is not being helpful. Trump has tried intimidation and pressure. To its credit, Pakistan has stood firm making a point that the relationship should serve both countries’ interests and not just of one. Having made this clear, Pakistan must reflect and realise that much of what is being asked of it, crudely by the US and subtly by China, may after all be in its own interest too.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown University and Maxwell School of the Syracuse University, US.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2017