Riaz Mohammad Khan
Since 1979, the Afghan conflict has deeply impacted Pakistan and Pakistan’s foreign relations, in particular its relations with the United States. A brief survey of how the conflict has affected Pakistan and the region is necessary to analyze the current situation and examine what lies ahead.
The Soviet military intervention and the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s catapulted the Zia government into international prominence and forged close cooperation between Pakistan and the United States. This cooperation helped Pakistan meet many of its defense and economic needs. More importantly, the resulting environment provided enough room for Pakistan to cross the nuclear threshold. At the same time, because of its preoccupation with the Afghan Jihad and also for reasons of its own myopic internal and economic policy, Pakistan missed out on the opportunities offered by the phenomenon of Globalization that has transformed the world since the 1980s. Regionally, the Afghan Jihad contributed to the weakening of the Soviet Union which collapsed mainly because the closed Soviet system had become unsustainable in an era of information and technological revolutions.
During the 1990s, following the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan drew all the wrong lessons, ignoring the momentous changes in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Pakistan got mired in the fratricidal Afghan conflict in a bid to build its influence in an otherwise insular and war-torn Afghanistan, euphemistically described as “strategic depth.” This turned out to be delusional. Pakistan’s policy fell into the Afghan ethnic divide, especially after its pronounced support for the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, the US watched the Afghan developments with some concern but remained distant. Furthermore, Pakistan encouraged non-state actors/militants to abet an indigenous Kashmiri uprising, a policy which only damaged the Kashmiri struggle. A later course-correction resulted in the alienation of many of these militants who joined hands with other radical elements to wreak terror in the country.
9/11 once again changed Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban were routed, and internationally Pakistan lost its voice on Afghan matters. The sponsors of the Bonn process ignored Pakistan’s sound suggestion to ensure ethnic balance within the political and security apparatus needed for Kabul. Also, instead of bringing them into the fold of the Bonn process, the Afghan Taliban were lumped together with Al Qaeda. The error of judgment on this score continues to haunt the US-led-coalition in Afghanistan. Somewhat paradoxically, the need to access Afghanistan once again shaped a cooperative US relationship with Pakistan. But, differences over the Afghan Taliban widened as the latter revived and regrouped. The growing US frustration over failure to stabilize Afghanistan started to vitiate US-Pakistan bilateral ties which have come under further stress because of emerging realignment in the larger Asian region with deepening Indo-US relations. This fact notwithstanding, Islamabad will have to rethink its approach to Afghanistan for improvement in US-Pakistan relations.
This background helps us examine the principal features and main drivers of the low intensity Afghan conflict, the competing interests of outside powers and the resulting tensions. More specifically, before looking at the future, a reality check is needed on the plight of the Kabul government, the US military presence, the Afghan Taliban, efforts aimed at reconciliation and other external interests especially the role of India.
The Kabul government, put together under the Bonn framework, remains fractious and weak and is being essentially sustained by US military and economic support. The Afghan army is capable of defending urban centers in particular Kabul even though it is largely dysfunctional in areas where the Afghan Taliban have influence. The army also suffers from ethnic imbalance which goes back to its inception. The Afghan economy continues to be largely a war economy heavily dependent on US funds. On the plus side, education, public services and developmental activity of the past two decades have transformed the Afghan society enough to be able to resist the return of the Taliban rule of 1990s. Therefore, regardless of instability, the Bonn political dispensation will survive.
Similarly, despite US desire to reduce overseas burdens, a residual American military presence will continue for the foreseeable future largely because once established militaries are averse to erasing their footprint. Even Russia and China will tolerate such US military deployment as a check on Islamic militant elements. The arguments that the US military presence in Afghanistan is aimed at China or at Pakistan’s strategic assets are questionable. The US maintains military bases all around China in the Asia Pacific. As for Pakistan’s strategic assets, any US contingency, even though extremely improbable, will rely on space and cyber technologies rather than on paratroopers. At present, however, the US military presence is generally viewed as necessary for stabilizing Afghanistan.
Pakistani policy makers often express concern over India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. They see Washington encouraging a greater role for India in the country. Of particular worry is the suspected cooperation between the Afghan intelligence agency and its Indian counterpart for subversion in Pakistan. While Afghanistan has the sovereign right to build its relations with any country, Pakistan has a legitimate expectation that the Afghan territory is not used for anti-Pakistan activity. To ensure this, however, Pakistan will have to work through Washington and Kabul and not through the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan interest in overland transit of imports from India is complicated by the Pakistan-India tension. Nonetheless, it is in Pakistan’s interest to offer maximum facilitation for Afghan goods transiting overland to India or for its overseas commerce through Karachi. It can also be argued that free flow of overland transit trade, if it materializes, could create a stake for both Pakistan and India in the stability of Afghanistan.
The Taliban have proved to be a tenacious force. They revived largely owing to Pushtun disaffection following US military action and the early US diversion to invade Iraq. The Afghan Taliban have undeniable influence in rural stretches of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, but again and again they have failed to maintain their hold over urban centers. They could do so in the 1990s because at that time Afghanistan was isolated and, like the soldiers of fortune of bygone centuries, the Afghan Taliban could afford mobility and surprise maneuvers in large numbers. Now they are exposed from the skies. Nonetheless, while they cannot hope to overrun Kabul or any other notable urban center, they remain part of the Afghan political landscape something being grudgingly recognized by the US led coalition. This change may have been caused by the US frustrations in Kabul or perhaps the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan in the recent years.
The contact between US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells and the Afghan Taliban representatives last July is the first clear signal of American seriousness in promoting reconciliation that accommodates the Taliban. Following 9/11, for the Americans, reconciliation essentially meant surrender by the Taliban. Pakistan argued that it could not be asked to target the Taliban at the same time it is being brought to the negotiating table, however, the fuzziness of Pakistan’s position at the operational level spawned distrust and demands for “do more.” The unsavory Coalition Support Fund arrangement also incited the US demand.
Apart from the US reticence, Pakistan’s mistakes stalled early efforts for reconciliation undertaken following a nod from the Obama Administration in 2014. The Pakistani side faced an awkward position when prior to the Murree parleys, it failed to take the Americans or Kabul into confidence about Mullah Omar’s death. The present US-Taliban contact offers another opportunity.
The Way Forward
According to a statement by the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Joseph Votel in early October, the US expects Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban leaders residing inside Pakistan to cut off contacts with the Taliban commanders inside Afghanistan. Secondly, the US wants these leaders to come to the negotiating table. The second demand is at the heart of reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan. It points to the way forward provided we have clarity on two points. First, the status quo and persistence of conflict will continue to inflict huge costs on Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than on any other country in the world. Secondly, the chance of a clear Taliban victory is next to nothing.
As a first step, Pakistan should declare that it will welcome any contacts by the Afghan Taliban leaders with any party including Kabul and the Americans for the purpose of reconciliation and peace. Secondly, we must use whatever influence we have with these leaders to engage in reconciliation process. Undeniably, this influence is limited. Yet we have one clear responsibility: we cannot allow our territory to be used for operations inside Afghanistan. Such activity would militate against our sovereign control as well as against our stated policy not to allow the Afghan war to be fought on our soil.
We need to cross another psychological hurdle, a false argument that the Afghan Taliban are our only friends in Afghanistan and abandoning them is perfidious. This argument is often combined with another erroneous premise that time is on the side of the Taliban. Reconciliation is the only reasonable course for all Afghan parties. The Taliban can bargain to retain influence where they have it and possibly a share in the Kabul political dispensation. Take the example of Gulbadin Hekmatyar, who sits in Kabul today after having waged relentless military campaigns for power for nearly three decades. Like him, today the Afghan Taliban have contacts with Iran and some support. Iran may have been motivated by concerns about Daesh but certainly not by a desire to put the Taliban in the driving seat in Kabul.
For reconciliation, apart from Kabul and the Taliban, Pakistan and the United States have a key role. Other regional countries such as Iran, Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey can be helpful within and outside the several multilateral forums for that purpose such as the Moscow Format, the Quadrilateral Contact Group, the SCO Contact Group and the Heart of Asia initiative. Success will, however, depend on the seriousness and flexibility shown by the four key parties in pushing for a workable arrangement for peace. Once reconciliation succeeds and peace returns to Afghanistan, the outside parties, especially the US and China (provided they are not caught up in rivalry), can greatly contribute to the development of Afghanistan and the region. Pakistan must also proceed with the confidence that no one can supplant the inherent strengths of its relations with Afghanistan rooted in common geography, history and demographics.
Ambassador Riaz Mohammad Khan is the former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and the author of Afghanistan and Pakistan:Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity.