Is there a shift in US/NATO Policy on Afghanistan?

By – Imtiaz Gul

ashraf-ghani-nawaz-sharifThings are changing rapidly in Afghanistan, leading to a number of important questions. Is a US-led NATO rethink on Afghanistan and Pakistan underway? Has the Indian policy of “isolating” Pakistan outlived its temporal utility following some immature moves by the Indian prime minister and the Afghan President? These critical questions flow from a flurry of some overt and covert high-profile foreign diplomatic visits to Islamabad between Jan 27 -Feb 7, mostly focused on Afghanistan and its security situation.

These meetings brought with them many questions, and wondered as to a) whether and what Pakistan do to help revive the Afghan peace process, b) whether the high-level changes in the Pakistani security establishment offered a new window of opportunity for the Afghan peace talks, and c) will Pakistan tag along Russia and China for pursuing the Afghan reconciliation process. Important questions, yet hard to answer at this point in time.

Another big question emerging from the interactions with the foreign dignitaries revolved around the continued western support for the Afghan government; is unqualified US-NATO support for Afghanistan and the unchallenged acceptance of the Kabul narrative on Pakistan resulting in “indifference and inaction” by the current government?  Looks like we shall have to convey in categorical terms that the Trump support for and the NATO commitment to Afghanistan’s security and development is not an open-ended affair, said a US official.

Most visitors also wondered as to whether brazen terrorist attacks reduce pressure on Ashraf Ghani for action on the peace front. Terrorist attacks are condemnable, we expect Pakistan to curb the flow of militants and criminals from its side, said a European official,  but it certainly cannot be an “excuse for inaction” by Kabul. And can the government really sustain itself by refusing to indulge in talks with the Taliban as political opposition or can it really afford  to play on the military option? Also, another realization that one could discern from these interactions was that “we can hardly change the Pakistani security establishment’s matrix.” “ We tried it for over a decade but now everybody realizes that it wont,” said another one.

That is true as well; for nearly 15 years, the US-led NATO members blew hot and cold on Pakistan for “duplicitous approach” on Afghanistan. For too long did they empathetically heed the Indo-Afghan narrative on Pakistan.  But the GHQ went by its own calculus. The fact that now both China and Russia have embraced Pakistan and the Russian foreign minister Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Feb 8 to host a meeting in mid-February with representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran and India also amount to a growing accommodation of the Pakistani view point on regional issues such as Afghanistan and Iran.

The Moscow meet in mid Feb would be a sequel to the Dec 27 Pak-China-Russia meeting in Moscow. And the good news for all stakeholders is that Salahuddin Rabbani, who sat next as Lavrov made the announcement for the next meeting, will represent Afghanistan.

If the meeting materializes, it would be an extremely good news for the people of Afghanistan. At the same time it could be another blow to the Indian efforts to “isolate” Pakistan through  countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Earlier, Modi suffered similar setbacks at BRICS summit in Goa in October and Heart of Asia conference at Amritsar, when both China and Russia refused to incorporate the “Indian” phrases on terrorism into the joint declarations. In fact, foreign diplomatic community was at a loss to understand the insult that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had hurled at Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs,  Sartaj Aziz at Heart of Asia conference at Amritsar.

“We need to identify cross-border terrorism and a fund to combat terrorism. Pakistan has pledged 500 million dollars for Afghanistan’s development. This amount, Mr. Aziz, can be spent to contain extremism,” Ghani had said, pointing finger towards Aziz during his address.” This gesture not only upset the Pakistani leadership including prime minister Nawaz Sharif but also triggered critical questioning by the outsiders, particularly the diplomats based in Afghanistan.

We are all keen to get the intra-Afghan dialogue revived as a matter of collective interest, said one of the visitors. And for this we are expecting all stakeholders to embrace engagement as the primary tool for reconciliation, he argued. Pakistan, he said, must do whatever it can to build confidence vis a vis President Ghani. While it addresses questions on terrorist sanctuaries raised by Afghans and Indians , it should step forward to facilitate the Afghan process.

Pakistani civilian and military officials, on the other hand, insist they are doing whatever they can to encourage Taliban into talks. Following pressure by the civil society,  policy on refugees has been revised, doctors have been placed at Torkham border to facilitate Afghan patients’ trouble-free entry into Pakistan. Quietly, visas for students, spouses and businessmen are being dealt with under a new policy regime (which unfortunately still awaits prime ministerial approval). Also, Pakistan is about to open Ghulam Khan border crossing in North Waziristan as a third formal trade transit point (after Chamman and Torkham). Pakistan is also pressing ahead with the reinforcement of the frequented border posts to Afghanistan as a means of a realistic border management mechanism.

For too long did we keep this border open to every body. In view of the security challenges and for the sake of documentation of the inward and outward flow of people and cargo, we will do whatever we can on our soil, said Tariq Fatemi, the special advisor to the prime minister. Recalling his meetings with foreign diplomats and guests, Fatemi said almost all of them concur with and support Pakistan’s approach on border management. Secondly, if discussions with civil and military officials were any indicator, Pakistan would like the Afghan leadership to speak for themselves instead of appearing as advocates for New Delhi.

One would hope that the Moscow moot next week not only turns a new leaf in the regional approach to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, but also opens opportunities for both Kabul and Pakistan to work towards normalization of relations. If both fail in forging a new dialogue, their people will be the biggest losers. But if talks resume, the dividends are immense and both can benefit from the new opportunities flowing from China’s One Belt One Road initiatives.

The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). 

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