The Afghanistan-Pakistan relations remain under thick clouds. It seems that nothing is going to change, albeit in the context of peripheral matters. The poisoned fault lines burdened with contemporary geostrategic rivalries are likely to remain untouched. This does not augur well for both countries.
Incidentally, this time more than Afghanistan, Pakistan made concrete efforts to break the ice with the Afghan leadership. In April, Pakistan rushed three powerful delegations to Kabul one after the other, raising the anticipation that the London peace mechanism as agreed between the two national security advisors in the presence of their host British counterpart would be implemented to defuse mounting militancy in both the countries. It was the highest-level face-to-face discussion between representatives of the two countries since Islamabad closed down border crossings with Afghanistan, plunging their relations to a new low in February.
In the aftermath of the London meeting, prospects for bonhomie seemed promising; a hot line was established and a five-tiered mechanization was agreed to repair the relations. Visit schedules included important delegates from civilians and the military from Pakistan. Consequently, military delegations headed by the Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lt Gen Bilal Akbar followed by DG ISI Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar visited Kabul and held a meeting with their counterparts. Apart from the interaction between the military and intelligence leaderships, Pakistan, for the first time, sent a powerful parliamentary delegation comprising members of the Senate and National Assembly led by the Speaker of the National Assembly. President Ghani termed the visit a “new chapter in the bilateral relations of the two countries”. He also commended the Speaker for his mediatory role and hoped that the visit would pave way for a lasting peace. Former President Karzai welcomed the delegation, terming it a turning point in the bilateral relationship.
But rebuilding trust and confidence proved more challenging. Once again, it was established that their relations could not break clear of the sinister activities of militants based and operative on their respective territories. Apparently for protocol reasons, Ashraf Ghani declined to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to visit Pakistan. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also chose not to make any public statement whether he would be able to pay the long overdue visit.
The downward drift soon started off when the Afghan side resorted to unprovoked firing at Chaman border as a reaction to a population census exercise. Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry said it had warned Pakistan against conducting population census in villages in the border area, which remains disputed. The Afghan side claimed the villages as part of their territory. Swift retaliatory action by Pakistan resulted in causalities and closure of the border. Local commanders from both sides finally managed to resolve the differences and open the border.
In Afghanistan, a sense of insecurity is no doubt rising and the authority of the government continues to shrink. Should we keep reminding Ashraf Ghani that his national unity government controls only 50 or 60 per cent of the country and the high level of corruption among its government officials? The plain fact is that the strife ridden National Unity Government needs someone to blame for its unending failures. Pakistan is the only convenient target. Iran and the Russian Federation are not considered the default enemies. Relations with them can still be managed, in regional set-ups or bilaterally.
No doubt, all sorts of militants, proxies and rivalries are at work in Afghanistan. These elements have no scruples. Fighters from Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the Haqqani Network, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban are all intermingling in Afghanistan and, sometimes, cooperating with each other. From Pakistan’s point of view a factor, publically admitted by Indian leaders, is the unrestrained use of Indian-backed militant groups against targets in Pakistan.
The outcome is a diabolic mix, well beyond the known capacities of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of the 16 years continued war, Afghanistan has grown into a very complicated place. Mere reiteration of pious hopes, tired clichés, nice diplomatic rhetoric and halfhearted efforts would not bring peace to the region. The minimum that all regional countries must do is to abandon their proxies. Would they do it? That is a million dollar question.
At present at least it seems impossible, given the realpolitik and the associated warfare strategies being pursued by all stakeholders. The situation is likely to get messier with the strong message of Trump’s strategy entailing a coalition against Iran and Shiite proxies with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The coalition, military in nature, would try to neutralize Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and also in Afghanistan. The summit unified Sunni Arab states against Iran raising the specter of sectarian violence in multi-sectarian states like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The Trump administration may send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan but signs are that it would not help ease the situation for Ashraf Ghani’s government. This policy may ramp up US involvement in training and rehabilitation programs but would not solve the broad objective of bringing Taliban to the negotiating table. Taliban are too strong and remain fiercely committed to draw out a fair share in the power structure for them. They know that with the shifting geostrategic alliances in the region they are in a better position to set out what is a fair share in their opinion.
Taliban no longer trust Pakistan as the only force which can bail them out. Aware of their internal dissension and local commanders’ fledgling loyalty to the supreme Taliban leadership, they have been cultivating links with Iran, China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics. Nevertheless, they are convinced that the Americans are not prepared to engage them in a direct war. With Russia, China and Iran getting more active to fill the void being created by a reluctant US, Taliban feel confident that sooner or later the US administration would come around to accept them as a credible political force rather than what Trump said about them in the US-Arab Summit the other day.
The US has to give up its flawed policy to reject truly a balanced regional policy where legitimate stakes in peace and development are not disproportionately addressed. No military surge will be good enough to restrain the Taliban from defeating a dispirited Afghan National Army. They do not feel the pressure. The weak Kabul government, which is “corrupt, consumed with internal and external rivalries, and unable to deliver services, jobs, reforms and modernization”, has lost the trust and confidence of people. More fighting and more ground held by Taliban now, than ever before, have effectively eroded the ability of the Afghan Government to carry out any real reform and good governance. The homecoming of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his appeal for peace failed to hold off determined and resurgent Taliban.
As stated above, no one with any sense of the Afghan entanglement will believe that ISIS, Taliban and other insurgents, can operate in a vacuum. Similarly it is hard to perceive that those who have unleashed proxies will close their shops without securing their minimal interests. What could be minimum for Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India, US and its allies is hard to guess. Developments involving new understandings are happening so rapidly that one remains uncertain.
One thing, however, is certain. The US is not in a position to put more pressure on Pakistan to reign in its sympathizers in Afghanistan for three reasons; First, sharp decline in US security assistance to Pakistan since 2011, (73%, Congressional Research Service); Secondly, Afghanistan’s unacceptable close relationship with India and allowing Indian activities on its soil against Pakistan; and thirdly, a very high profiled role for India by US in an Afghan settlement.
With sectarian proxies on the rise, prospects for peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to complicate rather than recede in the near future. The US’ hope that politically bruised Nawaz Sharif would easily succumb to its pressure may not realize. Neither his government nor the people would accept India-sponsored Afghan government foiling Pakistan’s connectivity plans involving China and the Middle East.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.