Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan post-2014

TALAT MASOOD

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THE planned withdrawal of US and NATO forces and the emergence of a new leadership in Afghanistan after the 2014 elections presents a fresh opportunity for Pakistan to establish stable and enduring relations with its western neighbour. Geography, history, religion, ethnicity and culture bind these two countries in an inextricable bond.1

In its short history of 67 years, relations between the two have had their highs and lows. The high point of the relationship was experienced when Pakistan fully supported the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and was a host to millions of refugees who still continue to reside in Pakistan. Problems arose when Pakistan was perceived to be siding with the Taliban, which was spearheading an insurgency against the Afghan government. Clearly, Pakistan’s military and government support to the Taliban in the past has been a major source of friction and cause of distrust between the two countries.2 Although it was not Pakistan that had assisted in the creation of Taliban, but its emergence at that time as a strong political and military force left no option than to cultivate a cooperative relationship.

Border security and troubled relations with India was also a factor. Besides, the Taliban recruited members from among the jihadi groups who were previously fighting the Soviets. Since the emergence of its own Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007, and responding to a changed regional and global scenario, Islamabad has gradually withdrawn its support to the Afghan Taliban, but nevertheless retains enough influence that could allow it to play a positive role in the reconciliation process and prevent any possible backlash.

There exists an erroneous impression among Pakistan’s detractors that the civilian leadership wants to maintain close ties with Kabul, whereas the military pursues ‘hedging strategies’. This may well have been true in the past, as explained earlier, but Nawaz Sharif and the new military high command under General Raheel Sharif want to establish close, wide-ranging relations with Kabul because both fully comprehend that Pakistan’s own security is closely intertwined with a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

 

There were other contributing factors in degrading Pak-Afghan relations. Former Afghanistan President Karzai’s aggressive posture and verbal salvos directed against Pakistan contributed significantly towards increasing mistrust.3 These were motivated by multiple overlapping considerations. It was considered smart tactics by Karzai to indulge in Pakistan bashing.4 In this way he conveniently deflected criticism of his own shortcomings. He also saw it as a way to build up his own image as a great nationalist, guaranteeing his place in history.

Karzai tried to convey the impression that all of Afghanistan’s problems were related to the Pakistan establishment’s tacit support of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militant groups who were using safe sanctuaries in the tribal belt for launching attacks on Afghanistan. He, of course, conveniently ignored the fact that the presence of these groups had a historical context – Pakistan’s support to the Afghan jihad against the erstwhile Soviet aggression, and the fallout from the US occupation of Afghanistan subsequent to the iconic events of 11 September 2001.

Karzai was also bitter with the US because he believed it opposed his re-election in 2009. Besides, he aspired to go down, not as a protégé of America but as a nationalist who stood against all foreign intervention, especially from Pakistan. The reality was, however, different. He came to power with full US support and it was only Washington’s sustained backing that kept him in power.

The recent power sharing agreement reached between the two contesting Afghan presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, has given rise to optimism and Pakistan’s leadership looks forward to working closely with them.5 The US played a critical role in bringing the Afghan leaders to agree to this complex power configuration. And even if it were to falter, the US and other western countries will keep pushing because they continue to have high stakes in Afghanistan’s future. Credit also goes to the maturity and prudence of the two leaders who, despite their deep differences and different political orientations, agreed to a compromise political formula at a critical time in Afghan history. Despite these encouraging developments, the political and security environment in Afghanistan remains fluid and unpredictable.

 

Pakistan too has some genuine grievances that Kabul needs to address for the two countries to seek a new beginning. There were specific instances when deliberate, planned attacks were launched on Pakistan’s border by the Afghan security forces. Moreover, the hosting of Pakistan’s militants along the Afghan eastern provinces, foremost among them TTP leader Mullah Fazalullah with his band of terrorists, had been a great irritant in the relationship. Apparently, this policy had India’s backing as well and was conceived in response to Pakistan’s alleged support to militant groups like Mullah Omar’s Shura, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network, allegedly responsible for the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2009. The US too deliberately remained indifferent to Fazalullah’s presence, as his guns were directed at Pakistan and not Afghanistan. All this will have to change now if genuine cooperation in fighting insurgency and other areas of mutual interest is to be achieved.

It is encouraging that President Ashraf Ghani has not only decided to revisit Afghanistan’s policy toward Pakistan, but also affirmed his commitment for improving relations. He is also committed to remove the sanctuaries that are being used to launch attacks on Pakistan. PM Nawaz Sharif has already accorded a high priority to strengthening relations with Afghanistan on the basis of mutuality of interest. To gain confidence of the people and government of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leadership is making sincere efforts at eradicating the erroneous concept of strategic depth that presumed Afghanistan as its backyard. This was a brainchild of the military leadership of the 1980s and did great damage to Afghan-Pakistan relations. It reinforced the impression that Pakistan has a patronizing attitude towards Afghanistan, which naturally alienated the government and its people.

 

Future relations between Islamabad and Kabul would largely depend on how each country interprets its interests and what level of convergence is possible. The blame game and mutual distrust must be replaced by a fresh chapter of cooperation that the present leadership of the two countries seem committed to. Pakistan today is far more sensitive to Afghanistan’s concerns and seems prepared to go an extra mile to address its grievances. PM Nawaz Sharif and President Mamnoon Hussain have both visited Afghanistan to build goodwill.6 It also released senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and some others. However, this gesture failed to create the expected impact because these individuals preferred to stay back in Pakistan until the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes.

 

One of the first tasks of President Ghani on assuming office was to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA),7 which will assure continued commitment of Washington and western countries for economic, military and political support. Pakistan initially had reservations about the BSA as there were indications that the US may be using the treaty to establish a long-term presence in Afghanistan and that in turn would provide the Taliban justification to continue the insurgency. The US has since expressed its intention of leaving by 2016. Pakistan has now endorsed the treaty and feels that the presence of 12000 US and NATO troops will prevent Afghanistan from slipping into anarchy. More importantly, it does not want to give the impression that it is meddling in Afghan affairs. However, there are apprehensions that whereas the strength and role of US and NATO forces will be substantially reduced, private security forces on contract will still be as many as 30,000.

International support to Afghanistan is vital, but its future depends primarily on how the two leaders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, handle the main transitions – political, security, economic and administrative. Each of these transitions pose formidable challenges and are interlinked. No doubt the two leaders have the requisite credentials in terms of experience, educational background and international exposure to lead the country. Ashraf Ghani was a former finance minister in Karzai’s government and interestingly, while serving in the World Bank, was responsible for Pakistan and knows the country and many of its leaders. Abdullah Abdullah is a former foreign minister and a highly experienced politician. And both have a broad support base, although it is sharply divided – President Ghani among the Pashtuns and Uzbeks and Abdullah favoured by the Tajiks.

 

A judicious representation of the main ethnic groups in the power structure is absolutely necessary for building political stability. For a successful transition, these two leaders and their respective team of politicians will have to set aside past rivalries and work for a higher purpose. Failure to work in unison will reverse the gains made so far and allow the Taliban and the warlords to reassert themselves with catastrophic results. Internal dissension will also slow down international support. Nonetheless, a fracture in the coalition cannot be ruled out due to the complex nature of the power sharing agreement, or a resurfacing of past animosities between different warlords, who still bear deep grudges and animosity against each other.

The ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to gel as a cohesive entity that is above ethnic and tribal divisions and has the professional competence of holding its own against the Taliban is crucial. Desertions have decreased but the problem of morale remains, and gelling as a national army will happen only when the ethnic balance is fully restored both in the officer class and general rank structure. Any fracture in the ranks could lead to the formation of militias joining different warring factions. As reports indicate, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has made modest progress and given a good account of its performance in recent combat engagements. But there have been occasions when they suffered heavy casualties and had to abandon their posts.8 A real test of their combat capabilities would arise once the bulk of US forces are withdrawn and the Afghan Army is operating totally on its own. Clearly, the Taliban are not in a position to defeat the Afghan security forces and capture power, but could seize sizable areas especially in the eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan. We are already witnessing a change in their tactics as they undertake well planned major attacks. The Afghan Taliban are more nationally oriented unlike Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

 

The foremost weakness of the ANA is the high percentage of illiteracy, lack of education in the army ranks and inadequate period of training recruits. To counter the Taliban offensive, the Afghan Army would need continued US air and surveillance support for some years. Any fracture in the ‘unity’ government could weaken the ANA, leading to factions along ethnic and tribal lines, which in turn could embolden the Taliban to step up its campaign. In all the three transitions, Pakistan would be prepared to cooperate as a willing partner.

Good military-to-military relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan based on mutuality of interest, will be a key factor in combating militants and stabilizing the border. Regrettably, relations in the past have been coloured by mutual distrust and frequent border violations. There is a common perception in Pakistan that the Afghan Army is close to India. A large number of Afghan military officers and other ranks have been trained in India and are influenced by their thinking. It is not surprising that a similar psyche that pervades between India and Pakistan is sometimes reflected in the behaviour of Afghan Army officers towards Pakistan. Pakistan wants to work closely with the ANA for achieving common security goals. General Raheel Sharif during his visit to Kabul offered to extend maximum training facilities to the Afghan Armed Forces. If a certain balance is maintained in utilizing military training facilities between India and Pakistan by the Afghan Armed Forces, it will go a long way in reducing distrust.

 

One of Pakistan’s main concerns post-2014 is to have a stable and secure border with Afghanistan. It has suffered enormously due to the spillover of instability from the western border. The offensive launched in North Waziristan to clear the terrorist sanctuaries is a major effort on the part of Pakistan to strengthen its side of the border before the US and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan. Pakistan expects that Afghanistan will likewise undertake measures to clear sanctuaries close to the Pakistan border. The future of Pak-Afghan relations will be contingent on border stability that in turn will require the intent and capacity of regaining control over their respective borders and cutting off all support to militants that are residing in these havens. The goal should be to develop a strong state to state relationship rather than rely on militants as proxies.

Pakistan realizes that it is in its vital interest to increase the level of cooperation with Afghanistan and the recent decision to establish working groups on security and border control is a manifestation of that policy. But much would depend on how effective these groups will be in cooperating, considering the current lack of confidence. During this critical period, close cooperation and coordination between the two militaries is imperative to defeat the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan and weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan. If, however, the two governments fail to work together, as was the case in the past, then the only beneficiary will be these militant groups and their affiliates. In addition, there is the perception that the Afghanistan leadership is reluctant about cooperating on tightening border security because it might weaken its position on the Durand Line. This is a fallacious logic as both sides exercise border control and have manned posts on the demarcated boundaries. Pakistan is hosting nearly three million Afghan refugees; their safe repatriation will contribute to strengthening Pak-Afghan relations, and reduce the burden on Pakistan’s economy.

 

Afghanistan currently does not have a viable economy. The US and NATO allies finance its nearly 300,000 large security force. About 90% of the Afghan budget is foreign sourced. Major restructuring is necessary to make it compatible with the requirements of globalization. The new president is eminently suited to bring about economic transformation provided political and security conditions remain favourable. Afghanistan is known to have huge reservoirs of coal and precious minerals. For its exploitation, foreign technology and investment will be a prerequisite and it would be forthcoming provided there is peace.

The real peace dividend will come only if Pakistan is able to use the Afghanistan land bridge to Central Asia for enhancing its trade and commerce. Similarly, if relations move toward normalization then Pakistan can open up the western corridor to India. Clearly, there is great potential to expand trade and economic relations to mutual advantage provided the countries of the region make determined efforts at improving the road and rail links and reduce bureaucratic hurdles. Despite these impediments Pakistan-Afghanistan trade has crossed 2.5 billion dollars. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to operationalize the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that both countries have signed for the construction of rail links between Peshawar and Jalalabad to facilitate trade and open up possibilities in Central Asia. The recently agreed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project is supposed to supply 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year. Of course, the viability of this project would depend on the security situation in southeastern Afghanistan and Baluchistan.

 

The new leadership in Afghanistan should also explore a peaceful way out with the Taliban and expect support from Pakistan. Islamabad would be willing to support the reconciliation process, knowing well that a blowback of a civil war or unravelling of authority in adjoining provinces of Afghanistan will severely complicate its own counter-insurgency operations. It is for this reason that Pakistan has attempted to persuade the Taliban to work for a peaceful settlement with the Afghan government.9 The Taliban, at least as of now, have not shown any inclination toward a negotiated settlement and are likely to exploit the presence of US forces in Afghanistan to retain and expand support for their resistance.

Of critical importance is how the India-Pakistan dynamic will play out in Afghanistan. In case relations between them remain hostile, their policy in Afghanistan is only likely to mirror it with both countries trying to undercut each other. This would have serious consequences for the region’s stability. Pakistan fears encirclement when Indian development assistance and security cooperation in Afghanistan increases. The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between Kabul and New Delhi in 2011 has brought the two countries very close on security issues. Islamabad also expects that such security collaboration should not be directed against any country, and the terms of the agreement should be transparent.

Pakistan has genuine concerns when India uses Afghanistan’s territory for harbouring Baluch dissidents or supports various TTP factions. Traditionally, Tajiks and other non-Pakhtun minorities have been close to India. The current Pakistani leadership has made a sincere effort at building bridges with Abdullah Abdullah and other national and ethnic leaders. The military is also making every effort to erase the impression that it plays favourites by reaching out to the Northern Alliance leadership. In the changed security environment, Pakistan’s interest does not lie in the Taliban succeeding as that would only strengthen the TTP. It would be in the common interest of all regional countries to adopt a mature policy of non-interference.

The major powers – US, Russia, European countries and China – are all interested in the stability of Afghanistan but have different priorities that could pose a challenge for the Afghan government. China has primarily pursued its economic interests. Islamic militants threaten China’s territorial integrity in the volatile Xinjiang province and Beijing is wary of the Afghan Taliban and the TTP.

If India-Pakistan tensions abate and there is progress towards addressing major issues, it will have a salutary impact on the stability of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. But their ability to calibrate security, economic and strategic interests that are not in conflict present a great challenge to interstate diplomacy and regional security.

 

Footnotes:

1. Munir Akram, ‘New Afghan Opportunities’, Dawn, 12 October 2014.

2. Michael E. O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, Toughing It Out in Afghanistan. Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2010.

3. Former President Karzai: ‘I want to tell Pakistanis to desist from harming our country.’ Independence Day speech at the Ministry of Defence, Kabul Radio Azadi, 19 August 2014.

4. Ibid.

5 Televised ceremony at the presidential palace on Sunday, 21 September 2014.

6. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul on 30 November 2013, and reiterated that achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s interest.

7. ‘Mending Alliances, US and Afghanistan Sign Long Term Security Agreement’, The New York Times, 30 September 2014.

8. Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the second in command for ISAF, in an interview to Stars and Stripes, 11 July 2011, said that he was cautiously optimistic about ANA’s performance, despite a skyrocketing casualty rate.

9. ‘Afghanistan: the Challenge Ahead’, The News, 14 October 2014.

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