Balancing Critical Choices in Afghanistan – Mian Sanaullah

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Credit : GSD Magazine

What are the key factors in sustaining workable stability in Afghanistan in the wake of dwindling US interest to back up financially and militarily the war-ravaged country? With each passing day, the question is assuming more urgency due to the unpredictable Afghan policy of the new US administration and the recent traction in India–Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan.

The India, Pakistan and Afghanistan triangle is widely considered critical in firming up an acceptable framework for shared governance by all Afghan factions. This school of thought believes that India and Pakistan’s proxy war is the main hindrance in raising the prospect for national reconciliation between the Afghan Government and Taliban. It may not be the whole truth when seen in the backdrop of the recent re-set in regional alliances such as Pakistan aligning itself with Russia and China, and the U.S. supporting full steamed Indian role in Afghanistan.

More complication sneaked into the Afghan dilemma when Afghan National Unity Government reversed its policy and started promoting India as a replacement of Pakistan in the strong hope that India would help bring peace in the country. Missing from this debate, however, are the deft diplomatic moves of Taliban towards Russia, Iran and tactical area adjustments with different rising ISIS groups against the Afghan Government and U.S. troops. In this context, the development to watch is how tribal affinities and Narco money will outmaneuver political loyalties among Afghan political elites and warlords.

Based on my interaction with Afghan members of the Parliament, university teachers and students as well as representatives of civil society in the last two months, “Pakistan averse” elements are far greater in number across all ethnic communities in Afghanistan.

Though public anger has acquired momentum of its own, its sustenance hugely depends upon negative statements of Afghan leaders. However, more than in the past, public is ready to accept the government propaganda that Pakistan does not want stability in Afghanistan. No one is there to question what benefits Pakistan would accrue by perpetrating instability in Afghanistan. Even those Pakistan friendly Afghans who fondly recall generous Pakistani hospitality do not hesitate to overstress harassment of the returning Afghan families at the hands of petty police officials as if it were the government policy of Pakistan.

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Credit: NDTV

Despite saner voices and steps from Pakistan, adverse rhetoric in Kabul, instead of fading, is rising. The Afghan Government apparatus tends to smell a rat in all proposals and actions Pakistan has so far suggested to the Afghan Government. For instance, border management is no good scheme. If border is closed in protest over burning of a Pakistani flag, it is branded as an anti-Afghan trade move; whereas an MOU on sharing intelligence between national security agencies is denounced as a sell-out.

There is now new political configuration of the Afghan Government. Ethnic lens is no longer the only factor through which Afghanistan can or will adjust its relations with its neighbors. Important people around the Afghan President are mostly non-Pashtun and they are either the remainders of the former Hamid Karzai administration or new class of young educated people who are more tuned to western values and administration than conservative local traditions.

President Ashraf Ghani will have to carry them with him while formulating policies. Whenever he has acted on his own, he failed to receive their support. It happened when in 2014 he tried to sign a memorandum of understanding for intelligence sharing with Pakistan.  Even now, when he has thrown his weight to embrace India as a close friend, he is facing problems within the ruling elite.

The favorite Afghan narrative these days in Kabul is that Pakistan has created a void, which India filled as a sincere friend by providing weapons, military training, economic assistance, etc. Hence, relations with Islamabad determined Afghanistan’s approach towards India, not the other way around, as claimed by Pakistan.

The fact is that, of late Afghanistan has not been able to balance its relations with its neighboring countries. Pitted against rising Taliban and ISIS elements, the Afghan Government increasingly finds itself battered and helpless in curbing territorial gains by insurgents. In panic, it grabs any hand extended to it without thinking too much about the underlying intention and dangers associated with this kneejerk policy.

In the recent past, when Afghanistan indulged in Pakistan bashing and initiated firing at borders, which even threatened Pakistan’s security and national interests, it was ignored. In 2011, when Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with India, their partnership was not taken as a hostile act. Pakistan accepted that Afghanistan, being a sovereign state, could choose its friends or enemies.

Now that the Indian Prime Minister is hell bent to isolate Pakistan globally and has publicly admitted to the support for separatists in Baluchistan, the expanded friendship between India and Afghanistan in the face of aggressively offensive rebukes from Kabul is not acceptable. Hence, in a way the argument in “A deadly triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (Washington: Brookings Institution)” that ‘hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan’ is proving correct.

Apart from many other things, India is stoking the settled issue of Durand Line. Oddly and insolently it insists on recognition of McMahon Line – similar demarcation between India and China – while on the Durand Line issue it prompts Afghanistan to raise territorial claims on Pakistani territory.

How has India deepened its influence in Pashtun areas? India pursued primarily diplomatic and security relations with the central government.  In addition, apart from some large infrastructural projects, it focused on small developmental projects in Pashtun-dominated areas. Indians knew that more often large projects are symbolic and short in public utility. On the contrary, development fruits of smaller projects trickle down to grassroots level. India, thus, reaped a rich pro-India harvest in public perception in Pashtun areas.

The Indian strategy was largely discussed in political and security sense by Islamabad which failed to realign and evolve its own economic response. Thus, Pakistan inadvertently gave political space to India to build its image. However, the situation is still redeemable. Despite is highly positive image, India so far has not been able to assume more than a smart negotiation card for Afghanistan to deal with Pakistan.

The Afghan-Pakistan relations are touching the rock bottom. No ray of hope is in evidence for any improvement in bilateral relations. Some hope maybe pinned on the long delayed visit of CEO Abdullah-Abdullah. Even when the visit takes place and succeeds in generating positive vibes, in all probability, it will not be able to diffuse the political split over what kind of relations will be developed with Pakistan among Afghan political elites. They will continue to oscillate from largely hostile to measured diplomatic approach. Much will depend on how India and USA continue to play their cards in order to shift the blame for their failure to defeat Taliban and the ISIS.

Only when Pakistan is seen taking credible actions against terrorists, without any distinction between good or bad Taliban, Afghanistan is likely to prefer Pakistan against other countries in the region, including India. Pakistan is militarily strong and confrontation with Islamabad may not be a viable option for Afghanistan. CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) further reprieves on account of refugees’ repatriation while a helpful bilateral Transit Trade agreement, too, could be another factor which could weigh heavily in Afghans’ renewed friendly relations with Pakistan.

The situation will go haywire if US-China relations become unmanageable. In such a situation, India will be the biggest beneficiary, followed by Afghanistan. Apart from the interplay of US, Russia, Iranian-Taliban collaboration and the rise of ISIS, the role of the Afghanistan’s new elite within and outside the government is critical in promoting national reconciliation.

The Karzai-government philosophy of “India a friend and Pakistan a brother” is not likely to resurface for years to come. Neither Ashraf Ghani’s cold shoulder to India appears a plausible expectation. Also for obvious reasons, Pakistan cannot exploit India’s focus on the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern parts of the country. Though the growing anti-Pakistan sentiment is worrisome but it remains unclear whether this amounts to be a permanent feature carrying deep influence in Afghan security reckonings. Pakistan’s involvement, despite being conceived as problematic, is central to the Afghan quagmire. Nonetheless, Pakistan has to repackage its Afghan policy, an essential part of which would be to accept regional solution to terrorism.

Pakistan by virtue of its contiguity and Jihad against Soviet intervention has played a central role in Afghanistan’s domestic political stability. Sustaining hostility with Pakistan will be costly for Kabul. Kabul understands that it alone cannot effect national reconciliation. It also understands that in this quest, Indian role will be peripheral. What rational choices are there for the Kabul to follow?

Rest assured, the US forces are not likely to depart any time soon. So those who are in power in Kabul and are responsible for the security and stability of Afghanistan have to reset their policy priorities differently to effectively deal with the complicated political situation in the wake of the Taliban’s confident resurgence. Even the key factors for instability are too many. The beleaguered Kabul Government and the weak state of Afghanistan do not have the luxury to squander the global support for national reconciliation plan leading to the return of peace and stability.

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The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at mian.sana@gmail.com.

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