Pakistan’s Afghanistan Policy By Ashraf Jehangir Qazi

Pakistan’s Afghanistan Policy By Ashraf Jehangir Qazi

AFGHANISTAN’S internal developments are of importance to its neighbours, especially Pakistan. But far more important is Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy mess which is a direct consequence of Pakistan’s political situation.

Let us take a brief look at Pakistan’s external relations. Its relations with India are hostile largely due to India. Its relations with Afghanistan are strained because of strategic short-sightedness. Its relations with Iran are dubious because of US diplomatic and economic leverage over Pakistan. Its relations with China are stable but static because of its structural inability to avail of transformation opportunities. Its relations with Russia remain undeveloped due to Pakistan’s elite deference to the US and India’s continuing influence in Moscow. Its relations with the US, despite its elite deference, have declined because of its diminished strategic relevance as well as India’s rising strategic profile in Washington.

In this bleak situation, Pak-Afghan relations are crucial. The Taliban government, long considered a protégé of Pakistan, is no longer friendly. It sees Pakistan’s policy towards it as wavering between furtive support and kowtowing to Ame­rican demands. Its enemy at home is the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State. It cannot and will not treat the TTP as an enemy even though Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada has openly declared that attacks in Pakistan are not jihad.

Mullah Akhundzada also asks pertinent questions. Why out of Afghanistan’s six neighbours only Pakistan, which has fenced almost its entire border, complains of terrorism from Afghanistan? Is it because Pakistan cannot contain the TTP which actually operates from inside Pakistan with on and off support from certain quarters? Or is it because the other neighbours of Afghanistan are more committed to stopping TTP terrorism? The Taliban government of Afghanistan denies it allows TTP terrorism against Pakistan from its territory. However, it concedes it has not been able to stop it altogether.

Pakistan should invest diplomatically and economically in Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity.

The rest of Afghanistan blames Pakistan for having imposed the Taliban on them and for the vicious regime that oppresses them — especially women — in the name of Islam. They prefer India to Pakistan — and not just because of India’s economic assistance. Pakistan’s assistance to Afghanistan on a per capita basis has actually been more than India’s but it has not brought any political goodwill. This is the measure of the failure of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. It has allowed India to potentially develop a strategic pincer or two-front situation against Pakistan.

There is, however, a larger regional context that has to be considered. India seeks regional hegemony in South Asia. As long as Pakistan was perceived as a viable state its relations with China presented an impossible obstacle to India’s regional ambitions. This posed a strategic dilemma for it. The closer it got to the US against China, including a quantum jump in critically important military technology cooperation, the more the US would demand as quid pro quo that India move away from military cooperation with Russia, neutrality on Ukraine, and economic cooperation with China.

Why would India object given the importance of being a de facto non-Nato military ally of the US which would significantly advance its regional hegemonic aspirations? One, because India prizes its own status as an emerging great power which chooses its own strategic options; and two, because ironically a closer strategic alliance with the US actually reduces India’s options for regional hegemony in South Asia despite the dwindling strategic significance of Pakistan.

This is because China would be compelled by the US-India military alliance to dramatically raise its own strategic profile in the Indian Ocean and among all the neighbours of India, including Afghanistan which does not actually border India. Even with US assistance, India does not have the capacity to overcome such a Chinese challenge. India’s strategic planners know this and unlike their counterparts in Pakistan do not fool themselves.

Accordingly, they know India’s ‘efficient path’ towards hegemony in South Asia is a détente with China rather than an option-limiting strategic alliance with the US against China. Such a détente would incline China to view Indian hegemony in South Asia with less alarm and allow it to concentrate on countering US hegemony in East Asia.

Once a détente develops between India and China its momentum could carry it forward towards a possible entente cordiale and Pakistan would be strategically isolated. To think the US would or could prop up Pakistan against such a development would be foolish. It would still seek a close if less strategic relationship with India. It will not consider ‘balancing’ its relations with India and Pakistan, leave alone tilting towards Pakistan against India.

Accordingly, whenever Pakistan recovers from its current domestic predicament it should prioritise investing diplomatically and economically in Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity. This would progressively build goodwill among the Afghan people, eliminate the danger of a two-front pincer situation, and restore China’s confidence in its preferred option of Pakistan being able to counter India’s hegemonic aspirations in South Asia.

This could incentivise China to financially and diplomatically support Pakistan’s much more welcome influence in Afghanistan and transform the bilateral CPEC into a multilateral CAICAP (China, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and Pakistan) that would be book-ended by China and Pakistan. This would eventually enable Pakistan to negotiate with India on more equitable terms, and enable the CASA region (Central and South/Southwest Asia) to become a major force for peace, security and development in Asia.

Meanwhile, Pakistan needs to boost its own credibility by dissuading the Taliban government in Afghanistan — through incentives and disincentives — from becoming a global pariah, even in the Muslim world. It would need to make the Taliban aware that its pretence of being more Muslim than the rest of the Muslim world, and especially its human rights policies, could eventually lead to its isolation within the OIC.

Finally, an Afghan public opinion that regards Pakistan much more favourably will be far less disposed to accept Indian policies aimed at undermining Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Accordingly, instead of relying on installing a ‘friendly government’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan should concentrate on cultivating a friendly people in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2023

Pakistan’s Afghanistan Policy By Ashraf Jehangir Qazi


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