Pakistan and Afghanistan: Neither friends nor foes?

Aisha Saeed

“Afghanistan will be a brother of Pakistan. Afghanistan will never betray a brother.”  -were once the words of Hamid Karzai about Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s role in the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation progress slowly made headlines as the US drew closer to a withdrawal in Afghanistan.  A recent statement made by Pakistan’s foreign office says that Pakistan will continue its efforts to facilitate the Afghanistan Peace Progress through a comprehensive and inclusive political solution. Even the outgoing US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells lauded Pakistan’s commitment to the Afghan reconciliation process.

Despite the calm on the diplomatic front between the two countries – Pakistan is determined to complete the fencing of its 2,640 km border with Afghanistan; a move long despised by the Afghan government. 

But here at the border is where the years of mistrust between the two brothers emerge in a physical form. Ever since the first invasion of Afghanistan; Pakistan was pulled into a regional storm that kept brewing for decades. Pakistan’s priorities since then have changed.  The geopolitical storm made Pakistan bear the harsh consequences of its difficult choices. By then, Afghanistan had become a playground for proxies and display of military might. Pakistan could no longer trust Afghanistan.

During its extensive war on terrorism, Pakistan felt betrayed by Afghanistan’s intensions and non-seriousness towards its security concerns. The unregulated border provided an escape route to the very terrorists Pakistan was fighting against – fueling the mistrust between the two neighbors. But both the US and Afghanistan blame Pakistan for what happened in Afghanistan.

 As a recent published Brief of the Congressional Research Services says “The neighboring state widely considered most important in this regard is Pakistan, which has played an active, and by many accounts negative, role in Afghan affairs for decades.”  This third party influence on the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has caused long term damage on both sides.  So far, Pakistan amongst all those involved, truly desires a stable Afghanistan more than anyone else.

The internal situation of Afghanistan since the US withdrawal was announced has plummeted further into chaos and ambiguity. While the US made a deal with the Taliban, the Afghan President Ghani is now in a deal of sharing the chair with his opponent.

For Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan remains as tricky as it was before the deal. The recent political and violent events are a reminder that the conflict in Afghanistan remains multi-pronged.  The players and their dynamics may have changed and this where Pakistan should exercise great caution. Pakistan cannot undermine the concern for its own national security.

The Indian element in Afghanistan has remained a concern for Pakistan.  For India, if it cannot persuade the Taliban against Pakistan; may attempt to support other groups such as ISIS.  The Afghan government has also held a soft corner for India which has affected its relationship with Pakistan over the years.

To clear the confusion and draw a straight forward policy for Afghanistan, Pakistan must decide on who it needs to back in a bid to support the political solution in Afghanistan.  While the US may have asked for Pakistan’s help in bringing Taliban to the negotiation table, Pakistan must re-evaluate its end game in Afghanistan. With reports of the Taliban leadership reaching out to India, Pakistan must seek clear answers from Taliban and not support the peace process if the intensions of any party are malicious towards the stability of Pakistan.

India has always been eyeing a pivotal role in Afghanistan and their alliance with the Taliban could become a major concern for Pakistani security and the regional situation. In India’s objective to counter China and Pakistan, its presence in Afghanistan is essential. If Taliban or the Afghan government backs India’s plans in the region, Pakistan’s efforts in the Afghan reconciliation process will become insignificant.

 The power sharing deal remains an internal development for Afghanistan – neither the two “democratic” leaders of the Afghan government hold good views regarding Pakistan.  This poses a great dilemma for Pakistan if it remains undecided on who to support in Afghanistan. To battle the multi-pronged political challenge, Pakistan must develop multi-pronged political and strategic policies.

Pakistan needs to up the ante on its narrative front about Afghanistan. It must seek a transparent cooperation with the United States over its concerns.  Pakistan must also reach out to the individual stakeholders in Afghanistan to discuss its relationship with the future leadership of Afghanistan. Pakistan can also support Afghanistan in battling COVID-19 by providing testing kits and other medical assistance.  Pakistan can provide Afghanistan the opportunity to join CPEC and become a part of China’s larger One Belt and Road Initiative.  Afghanistan needs support in uplifting its socio-economic status and by already using Pakistan’s routes for trade and other activities; Pakistan must use this tool of soft power to remain in the good books of Afghanistan.

 However, if Pakistan fails to adapt to the fluctuating political situation in Afghanistan; it can have serious implications for the security of Pakistan.  The tensions at the Pakistan –Afghanistan border, incidents of cross -border terrorism, the rise in the support of anti-Pakistan and pro- separation movements may increase twofold.  With India’s surreptitious activities along Pakistan’s and China’s border; Pakistan is not in a position to face the reversal of its peaceful venture in Afghanistan.

Pakistan along with other countries welcomed the three day Eid ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government yet it must devise a proactive Afghan policy. While the Taliban may no longer pose an immediate threat to Pakistan- the rough history between the two may be exploited to disturb Pakistan.  Due to the turbulent situation in Afghanistan – the country failed to develop meaningful bilateral relations with Pakistan. For as long as the players in Afghanistan deem Pakistan as a threat and remain engaged in the proxies against Pakistan – the two countries can never see each other as brothers. As of now, Afghanistan is neither a friend nor a foe for Pakistan.

Aisha Saeed is an independent analyst on media and foreign policy of Pakistan. She tweets @MsAishaK.

Originally posted on Matrix Mag.

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