Rethinking Afghanistan

February 16, 2018

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REGARDLESS of the larger geopolitical context and possible regional and global realignments and trends, the sharp downturn in Pakistan-US relations remains essentially centred on our tangled Afghan policy. This offers hope that relations can be salvaged and reset to a constructive and workable engagement. From this perspective, we can look at US interests in Afghanistan, our own experience and lessons and what a way forward might be.

The US intends to stay militarily in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. There is extensive discussion in Pakistan about US motives and goals. At times, these are explained in terms of US concerns about a rising China, and at times as part of plans to neutralise Pakistan’s strategic assets if ever needed. To contain China, the US will rely on its options and ubiquitous presence in the Asia-Pacific rather than on a residual beleaguered force in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the hypothetical, albeit insane, contingency for kinetic action against Pakistani assets will depend on space and cyber technologies with faraway command and control than on paratroopers stationed next door. Another argument is that the US intends to stymie China’s Belt and Road project, in particular CPEC. These projects are in progress despite the turmoil in Afghanistan and will receive a boost if Afghanistan settles down which is the ostensible US objective.

A simpler view is that great powers are averse to erasing their military footprint once established. Also, Washington cannot countenance a collapse or defeat in Kabul; its prestige is at stake. Failure to achieve the minimal objective of stabilising Afghanistan has frustrated US policymakers especially the defence establishment which had traditionally supported Pakistan.

What must follow is an honest and frank conversation with Washington and Kabul.

Arguably, all blame cannot be placed at the doorstep of Pakistan. It is impossible to explain the dysfunction of the Afghan army and the government in terms of alleged Taliban operations from “safe havens” in Pakistan. There have been monumental initial US policy errors when the US lumped the Afghan Taliban together with Al Qaeda, disregarded the ethnic realities of Afghanistan and then shifted focus to Iraq. Yet, the US and Kabul accuse Pakistan of propping up the Afghan Taliban, and of deception and duplicity. Pakistan has its own catalogue of errors. Since the days of the Mujahideen infighting and the Taliban rule, Pakistan’s policy was caught between Afghanistan’s notorious ethnic fault lines. Non-Pakhtun factions did not trust Pakistan. The US intervention catapulted them into power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding public denials about ‘safe havens’, one justification of Pakistani backing of the Taliban rests on the premise that they are the only Afghan faction friendly to Pakistan. On the other hand, Kabul courts India with encouragement from Washington which is giving rise to a two-front situation, anathema to Pakistan, based on good evidence of collusion between the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. Apparently logical, this argument is self-contradictory. Perceived Pakistani support for the Taliban only pushes Kabul into the embrace of Delhi and lends credence to the Indian and Kabul narratives that Pakistan uses non-state actors as instrument of its policy. To counter Indian subversion from the Afghan soil, Pakistan will have to work with Kabul and Washington.

Today, Pakistan insists on recourse to political reconciliation which Kabul and Washington dismiss as a tactic to deflect pressure. Reconciliation has turned into a chimera riddled with contradictions. Of late, Washington and Kabul reject talking to the Taliban, whom they call ‘terrorists’, and look to a long haul to whittle down Taliban strength.

On the other hand, the Taliban want dialogue only with the US and that too for the withdrawal of Nato forces. Outside parties such as China and Russia can hardly infuse life into the process. Pakistan can commit little beyond exerting efforts to persuade the Taliban in case there is a meaningful offer on the table. Washington and Kabul demand that Pakistan hand over Taliban leaders if it cannot deliver them to reconciliation on Kabul’s terms. The recent Taliban-claimed carnage in Kabul has only hardened this position. Meanwhile, the US has blocked all military assistance to Pakistan, including the amounts due under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), and threatens sanctions.

CSF was an unsavoury arrangement and the source of escalating American demands to ‘do more’. Its demise should cause no lament. Still, Pakistan should look for normalcy in relations with the United States based on a better understanding of each other’s concerns rather than on aid. Pakistan’s equanimity in response to the rude New Year tweet and aid cut-off, and its decision to keep open the air and ground logistics are sound policy. What must follow is an honest and frank conversation with Washington and Kabul.

For that, we need clarity in our position. If the Taliban leadership has shifted inside Afghanistan, we must credibly prove our contention. Otherwise we need to revisit the issue and ensure that operations inside Afghanistan do not originate from our territory. We cannot hand these leaders to Kabul for obvious cultural reasons and concerns over a religious right-wing backlash. But we must do all we can to prevent abuse of our territory, consistent with our position not to allow the Afghan war to be fought on our soil.

We must at the same time ask for an end to Afghan-based subversion against Pakistan. Our engagement with Washington and Kabul should bring clarity to each other’s red lines. Besides reconciliation, other issues include management of the border, the fence, Afghan transit trade facilities and fair compensation for logistics support to Nato and countering the emerging militant Islamic State group. This is time for active diplomacy. Our friends can help. But success will rest on the clarity of our position.

Pakistan’s four decades of involvement with the Afghan conflict has been enormously costly. We missed out on opportunities offered by globalisation, ascendance of geo-economics and the opening up of Central Asia. Our aspirations for becoming a hub of economic activities for surrounding regions remained just a dream. Instead, we have been sucked into the vortex of extremist and religious violence and obscurantism ravaging the region especially the greater Middle East. Now we have pinned hopes on CPEC, but for realising the potential of that great enterprise, we need to rethink Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and an author.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2018