Pak-Afghan Relations | Saleem A Sethi

Address issues, forget blame game

The terrorist attack on Badaber air base has brought into focus both the internal and external dimensions of the war on terror Pakistan is currently fighting. It has exposed our weaknesses on the one hand and has highlighted the necessity, importance and fragility of the Pak-Afghan relationship on the other.

As usual, different kinds of justifications were offered for negligence, failure and lack of preparedness on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well as at policy-making levels. An effort was made by the trigger-happy among the media people and politicians to shift the blame solely on Afghan side. It was, however, encouraging to see that Pakistan once again restrained from officially accusing the government or state of Afghanistan of involvement in the attack though it is trying to build pressure on Kabul to do something about terrorists who ‘plan and control’ such terror acts inside Pakistani territory from their soil.

Though Pakistan’s reaction, so far, is mature and cautious, Afghanistan’s attitude appears to be stubborn. Though not without some real and alleged, past and present, reasons, this policy does not auger well for the future and needs a review. Let’s see why.

Despite Pakistan extending a friendly hand to Afghanistan in recent years, things didn’t move the way the leadership on this side of the Durand Line expected. And Dr Ashraf Ghani, who was considered a no-nonsense man and one of the most balanced leaders on the Afghan spectrum, also started talking like his predecessor within a span of just one year.

Things moved well and relations between the two countries improved during this past one year but then a downturn occurred. So, what went wrong? Is this all a manipulation of the pro-India lobby within the Afghan power corridors, as is reflected in the electronic media’s portrayal of the situation? Or are there some other ground realities and reasons which must be taken into consideration before jumping to conclusions or suggesting a change in the course of action to Pakistan’s foreign policy managers?

It seems relations between the two countries started deteriorating due to two factors: one, number of terror attacks escalated dramatically in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan when a peace process was in progress behind the scenes; and two, when the news of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar’s death came to surface two years after the actual happening, and just before the start of the second round of the Murree peace initiative which Pakistan had put a lot of effort into.

Despite Pakistan extending a friendly hand to Afghanistan in recent years, things didn’t move the way the leadership on this side of the Durand Line expected. And Dr Ashraf Ghani, who was considered a no-nonsense man and one of the most balanced leaders on the Afghan spectrum, also started talking like his predecessor within a span of just one year

That’s a fact. But there are questions to be answered before reaching a specific conclusion. The first among them is: Can there be a ‘deliberate’ effort from the Pakistani side in the escalation of violence in Afghanistan, and for what purpose? If the purpose of it is not causing long-term destabilisation in Afghanistan, as promised with Afghan leadership by Pakistan at the highest possible level, then what can be its short-term objectives?

There are many explanations available, all of which appeal to mind in varying degrees. The first is that the recent spate of terrorism in Afghanistan is an effort by different groups of Taliban to prove that the government there is vulnerable after the withdrawal of international/foreign forces. Another is that this is the result of factional infighting among different Taliban groups to prove their strength and superiority vis-à-vis the others after the supremo’s departure from the scene. But it doesn’t hold much ground because the current mayhem started before the death news of Mullah Omar became known.

There are other plausible explanations too, like, though not being a part of the previous policies of keeping Afghanistan permanently unstable, the move is more likely an effort of the Taliban to have an upper hand on the negotiations’ table against the Afghan government. And this brings in the issue of Pakistan’s possible role.

The Afghan government feels betrayed by Pakistan on two important counts: looking the other way and ignoring the Afghan Taliban while targeting domestic ones in Operation Zarb-e-Azb; and of concealing the news of Mullah Omar’s death from them. Though both are conjectures reached not on the basis of some solid facts – or may be due to ignoring some others — the Afghan side is using the logic of ‘circumstantial evidence’ in its favour to allege that Pakistan has some role in the recent increase in attacks on its soil. Beside others the foremost reason that seems at work is the historical experience that Afghanistan has had with Pakistan but that’s not a valid reason for the current Afghan leadership to adopt such a stubborn position.

Pakistani reaction to such accusations and suspicions, though not declared officially in so many words, is that it couldn’t antagonise different Afghan Taliban (foreign) groups at a time when its army was moving against domestic elements that ironically share same ideological moorings with them. Problems could be created and things may get difficult if Afghan Taliban at this juncture tuned against Pakistan and ganged up with the local militants; this is a technical compulsion.

But this is just one aspect of the whole argument. Looking at the situation from a foreign policy and technical standpoint, escalation in violence in Afghanistan seems to be aimed at making a bigger room on the negotiations’ table and securing a disproportionately bigger berth then their actual strength for the Taliban in the future power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. It is conventional wisdom that a larger role for Taliban in future Afghanistan may be beneficial to Pakistan’s strategic interests; hence, the suspicions and allegations against Pakistan.

But despite all previous bad experiences, Afghanistan should not shun the olive branch Pakistan has offered to it because the recent friendly overtures towards Afghanistan are not from the civilian side alone which is generally considered irrelevant when it comes to important foreign policy issues, especially, Afghanistan. The embrace from Pakistani side is army-led, which is the real formulator of anything that is related to that country. Ashraf Ghani or Afghan government’s persistence to talk hard (and publically so) will be taken as some kind of ‘personal affront’ to those who really matter here. Put simply, this (combined with other related factors) can undermine the army’s top leadership image on home front which may put it under pressure to adopt a belligerent position to recent Afghan overtures. The civilian government will have no other option but to follow what is being told to it by the GHQ. That will bring everything to square one and will be unfortunate.

The second important fact that points to the futility of the current Afghan posture is that it may not garner as much support from the US/Western allies as Dr Ashraf Ghani may be expecting. This is because the West, at present, has adopted a wait-and-see policy before reaching a conclusion to blame Pakistan of playing double game again. Though reluctantly but they seem to realise and agree with the Pakistani position that antagonising Afghan Taliban will result in serious on-ground problems to army’s operations. This is not just confined to Operation Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas or dealing with Haqqanis or Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban; Pakistan’s march against religious extremism and sectarianism and its grand anti-terror drive elsewhere is under rigorous international watch. And they are keeping their fingers crossed as Pakistan is gradually moving from one big target to another, sometime to the surprise of domestic as well as foreign spectators. So far, its progress is deemed satisfactory – despite some stereotype apprehensions – and is tacitly approved if not explicitly appreciated. But, contrary to India and Afghan understanding, this apparent silence of the West is not ‘disapproval’.

There appears to be two reasons behind this silence: one, the international community really desires Pakistan to ‘do more’ against the Afghan lot; and second, public Western approval or support normally backfires inside Pakistan, as right-wing religious lobbies then start terming everything a Western agenda, mounting public pressure on the government and security apparatus.

As about the suspended talks between Taliban and Afghan government, time is running out though situation is apparently ripe for meaningful outcome if resumed in all earnest and sincerity. However, there should be a word of caution for both sides. For the Taliban side to demand something that may neutralise Western gains in Afghanistan will be unacceptable. Exerting pressure to that end through acts of terrorism will not only harden Afghan government’s stand but also turn public opinion against the peace process, thereby increasing domestic pressure on Afghan government to abandon it. In such a situation, US and NATO may be seen empathising and sympathising with the Afghan side and start pressuring Pakistan to the extent where its relations with the West are strained once again.

It is imperative for Pakistan not to be seen on the wrong side. It exerted considerable pressure on the Taliban to start talking; in fact it was the only party that can be credited with playing the most important and crucial role to make the peace process a reality

Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot afford to stick to its current unreasonably hard position for an unreasonably long period of time because; a) it can result in negative reaction from the Pakistani side and, b) it will push the Taliban side to harden their position and opt out of the talks process — its indication can be seen in the new Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s Eid message to his followers on September 22. That won’t be a good omen for prospects of peace in Afghanistan and in the region. The policy of turning a blind eye to the activities of runaway TTP leadership on its soil – a policy which Afghanistan has been accusing Pakistan of following — will also not yield anything positive as far as defeating terrorism is concerned. It is obvious that it will have to heed to Pakistan’s demands of going hard on Mullah Fazlullah and Khalifa Umar Mansoor, etc.

At the moment, it is of utmost importance that matters between Pakistan and Afghanistan should be addressed at diplomatic/foreign office level; and that foreign policy issues should not be played out in the public/media – at any cost. And last, but not the least, both the countries shouldn’t publicly accuse each other of harbouring terrorists at this juncture.

It is imperative for Pakistan not to be seen on the wrong side. It exerted considerable pressure on the Taliban to start talking; in fact it was the only party that can be credited with playing the most important and crucial role to make the peace process a reality. But it is also a fact – from a purely Afghan point of view – that concealing Mullah Omar’s death for two years has cast doubts on its real intentions. This has certainly created a trust deficit, no matter how forcefully it tries to establish its aloofness from the matter. Secondly, giving credit to it for bringing different Taliban groups to the talks’ table also burdens it with a more robust future role and using its full potential to compel them to talk sense and be realistic in their demands.

It is clear the Afghan side thinks that after the death of Mullah Omar, Taliban are most vulnerable and that their different groups are in disarray which can be fragmented to the point of extinction. It thinks Pakistan can do it, and it wishes Pakistan to do it for them. On the other hand, Pakistan cannot and may not do it for them; that can aggravate its own problems and this may deprive it of some important foreign policy options. But it can’t plead total helplessness, either. Flexibility and adjustment are what is required of both sides to build on the goodwill that was achieved through much effort between both the countries during the past one year. It shouldn’t go to waste at any cost.

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