Pakistan’s Afghan Conundrum

What if what’s been called the world’s most unstable and dangerous country were to take over the destiny of one of the world’s most impoverished, insecure and fragmented ones? The 13-year Afghan war is expected to wind down this year with the departure of the bulk of NATO troops, with the likelihood that Pakistan will assume a major role in its neighbor’s undertakings.

How that will work out is anybody’s guess. To a great extent, Afghanistan’s problems are playing themselves out in Pakistan, with thousands of destabilizing refugees and with Islamists radicalized in Afghanistan creating chaos in Pakistan’s cities. The Taliban, which now dominate the Afghan discourse, have long been thought manufactured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Afghanistan is, as it has always been, fiercely independent despite its complicated ethnic stew of tribes connected across borders that hardly exist – some of them in the Northern Alliance antithetical not only to the Pashtun southerners but to the Pakistanis as well.

However, it would be no exaggeration to say that a sort of regional pivot or “regionalization” of foreign policy has gradually emerged in Islamabad policy circles, leading Pakistan to engage more closely with its neighbors, including Afghanistan and India –with which Pakistan has not enjoyed historically good relations—and with Iran and Russia as well.

This shift has essentially emerged in response to the western withdrawal. By making this regional pivot, Pakistan hopes to facilitate its access to the vast energy resources of Central Asia as well as to secure long term gains such as increasing trade with India and other neighbors and making itself a corridor of trade and energy from Central to South Asia.

Consequently, Pakistan has started reaching out to the traditionally hostile non-Pashtun Afghan leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, and diversified regional and international relations—as is manifest in its increasingly warming relations with Russia and the Central Asian states, expanding strategic partnership with China, (as is evident in Pakistan’s handing the Gwadar port over to China), and also in limited energy-centric amity with Iran.

However, this new foreign policy outlook also certainly entails certain compromises on aspects of policy and objectives that were once considered to be of central importance. One glaring example is Pakistan’s previous India-centric “strategic depth” policy of dominating Afghanistan through Pashtun-Taliban ‘proxies.’

One of the major reasons for this new policy is the experience Pakistan had after the nine-year Soviet-Afghan War which ended in 1989, and the consequent imperative of avoiding prolonged civil war after the US withdrawal. Secondly, serious uncertainties associated with Afghanistan’s political transition and the US’s withdrawal have compelled Pakistan, given the internal politico-economic and social turmoil it has been experiencing since the commencement of the war, to fear its consequences in case of prolonged infighting.

As such, this particular calculation has pushed Pakistan towards making a realistic assessment, and taking out-of-the-box policy initiatives to co-ordinate a peaceful political transition. Third, given that Pakistan shares Afghanistan’s history, ethnicity, religion, and especially geography, in ways that none of its other neighbors do, it can therefore reasonably be expected of Pakistan to adopt a more pro-active role in terms of engaging constructively rather than destructively.

Fourth, Afghanistan’s radically changed political, economic and security situation in the post-Taliban period leaves it with little choice but to pursue its Afghan interests alongside other outside actors and without ignoring its new power wielders.

Unlike the 1990s, the international community is deeply engaged in Afghanistan. Since the downfall of Taliban regime in late 2001, the UN has helped build the Afghan state. China has invested billions in its mineral wealth. Scores of other countries, including regional players such as India, Iran, Russia and Central Asian states have consolidated their relations with Kabul.

NATO may be militarily exiting from Afghanistan in 2014, but the US has pledged to guarantee its security for a decade afterwards under its Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government. The international community has also committed multi-billion dollar assistance during the period. In other words, given Afghanistan’s internal situation, there is by default minimum room left for Pakistan to dominate the former the way it did in the second half of the 1990s.

These factors and considerations have led Pakistan to evaluate its past approach towards Afghanistan. It has led, first and foremost, to interpreting differently the notion of strategic depth against India. This new consideration primarily involves two further sub-conditions.

First, the Pakistani army has now come around to a view of India as a less immediate threat in the face of internal terrorism and extremism, and secondly, it has started viewing Afghanistan as offering a different kind of strategic depth that is based upon Kabul’s political stability than on its acting as a client state for Pakistan.

A stable Afghanistan means Pakistan has to focus less on its western border at least. The new outlook towards Afghanistan was articulated by the then Army Chief of Pakistan, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who in an interview to with the Washington Post was quoted to have cleared the basic difference between having strategic depth and politically controlling Afghanistan, while also rejecting the aspect of dominating Afghanistan as a non-viable strategic option under the current circumstances.

A similar sort of policy was articulated by Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Hina Rabbani, in London in 2010, when she stated that her country would support all initiatives which “are all-inclusive, that are Afghan led and Afghan owned and Afghan driven” thereby, emphasizing the aspect of Pakistan’s outreach to the entire political landscape of Afghanistan, not merely to Taliban.

The new approach has, as a consequence, also changed the very nature of Pakistan’s initiatives. As such, from pro-actively leading the peace process, Pakistan now intends only to be a part of that process and to play its role in reducing the gap, using its traditional relations with the Taliban, between Taliban and all major stakeholders, both regional and extra-regional.

As such, as indicated earlier, since early 2012, Pakistan’s leadership has been trying to cultivate goodwill among the non-Pashtun Afghan leaders including former minister Abdullah Abdullah and Ahmed Zia Masood, and Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum.

This was followed by another initiative that entailed the release of 13 Taliban leaders on a demand made by the Karzai government. Fifteen other Taliban leaders were also released in December 2013 in a bid to facilitate the peace process. An important step taken in this behalf was Pakistan’s agreement to implement the Peace Process Road Map to 2015—a five step process drafted by the High Peace Council (HPC), which has given it a central role in the Afghan reconciliation process. Very significantly, the very first step involves Pakistan’s role in facilitating direct contact between Afghan government and Taliban groups.

The intended goals of the roadmap 2015 may not be realized within the proposed time span, and tensions may recur in Afghan-Pakistan relations; however, the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan have officially joined hands for the sake of peace cannot be ignored. .

It is, however, also evident that the two countries have approached the path to reconciliation differently. The Karzai regime continues to insist that the Taliban office in Doha be used only as a point of contact between the Taliban and the HPC, and not for any other purpose. Pakistan, however, does not see any problem in Taliban leaders using this office for talks with the US and other Afghan groups, including members of the HPC too.

Kabul has been particularly critical of Pakistan’s preference for realizing “intra-Afghan consensus on the peace process,” with direct contact between Taliban and representatives from Afghanistan's multiple ethnic groups.

Notwithstanding Kabul’s reservations, this policy is a logical result of its new policy. According to a 2011 report of the US based Institute of Peace studies, Pakistan does not want a settlement in Afghanistan to have any negative fallout for itself. This essentially means that any government in Kabul should not be antagonistic to Pakistan nor should it allow use of its territory against Pakistan, that is, either by the US or by the Pakistani Taliban.

However, that doesn’t imply that Pakistan doesn’t want the Taliban included in any negotiated political settlement; exclusion of the Taliban would mean continued and prolonged infighting that can have serious consequences for Pakistan itself. There is very little to doubt that the prospects of the US’s withdrawal and the manner in which it is likely to take place is at the heart of Pakistan’s new policy. It perceives that a non-negotiated settlement can generate huge tides of conflict in the region.

Such anarchy would not only exacerbate Pakistan’s security dilemmas but also push more Afghans into Pakistan—hence more internal conflict in Pakistan. In other words, the presence of millions of Afghan refugees is one of the major issues that have triggered conflict in various parts of Pakistan such as Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub; and now, Pakistan does want to avoid a new influx of refugees by playing a constructive role in an Afghan peace settlement.

Pakistan does have to manage its alliance with the US as well, which is one of the major causes of conflict in Pakistan, not to mention how the US itself responds to Pakistan’s pivot, especially towards the conclusion of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan. Although Pakistan’s new approach is part of its regional pivot, there is little to argue otherwise that settlement of conflict in Afghanistan is at its heart; for, with conflict going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan also cannot hope to have peace at home.