Syed Ali Zia Jaffery
Doha, a city in the thick of geopolitics of the GCC since 2017, played host to several rounds of talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. After 17 months of negotiations, dilly-dallying and suspensions, both parties signed an agreement in Doha that will pave way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Though not the be-all and the end-all for peace in Afghanistan, the deal is being termed as a significant step towards ending America’s longest war. By all means, the biggest hurdle in bringing about peace in Afghanistan was the deadly military confrontation between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban. In order to put Afghanistan on the long road to enduring peace, it was important to bring both warring parties to the negotiating table. This gargantuan task was accomplished by none other than Pakistan, a country that has borne the brunt of America’s second Afghan (mis)adventure. Islamabad pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of convincing both antagonists, especially Washington, to choose dialogue over bullets, by singularly pushing its peace narrative: there is no military solution to the Afghan imbroglio. After being dubbed a provider of safe havens to the Taliban (terrorists) in President Trump’s New South Asia Policy of 2017, Pakistan was thanked for all its help in peace negotiations with the very Taliban in 2020. Pakistan’s peace narrative prevailed, eventually. This is something that could and should change the discourse on Pak-U.S. relations. This turn of events is repugnant to popular perceptions about Pakistan and its Afghan policy.
‘Let’s Do More, Differently’
Literature on Pak-U.S. relations has often termed Pakistan as a duplicitous ally that has marred U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan. Analysts and practitioners alike believe that absent Pakistan’s support for its alleged appendage in the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. would have had its way in the land-locked country. Be it Bob Woodward’s book or Steve Coll’s, the Taliban are labeled as the strategic asset of the Pakistani generals who want to counter India’s rising influence in Kabul. Admiral Mike Mullen went on to call the Haqqani Network as the “veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI”. Perhaps, Pakistan was prescient in rejecting these allegations as some nine years after Mullen’s remarks, Haqqani Network’s chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani penned a piece in the New York Times in which he detailed his version on the war. Pakistan had long maintained that the application of military force is not the panacea for Afghanistan. Pakistan also renounced the do-more mantra and called upon other stakeholders to do more, and that too, differently. However, the U.S. did not budge, and continued relying on a military-heavy policy in Afghanistan. Such an approach emanated from Washington’s faulty understanding of the enemy and the war it was fighting.
Brute force only made the Taliban more brazen and tenacious in their fight to flush out the Americans whom they called “invaders” and “occupiers”. The U.S. ascribed Taliban’s war-fighting capacity to the alleged support they received from Pakistan. The U.S., however, brushed aside criticism on its wrong approach towards the issues of Afghanistan. Pakistan detested at being scapegoated, and time and again offered to play the role of a facilitator of direct talks between the Afghan Taliban and Washington.
That the U.S. took it seriously was a welcome departure from the past. It was more a sea change in Washington’s behavior rather than in Islamabad’s that helped better sense prevail. Islamabad had, it must be noted, remained consistent in its position on how the war has to and ought to end in Afghanistan. This created a window for both countries to mend fences. During the Doha parleys, Pak-U.S. ties were marked by a personal rapport and ‘friendship’ between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Donald Trump. Also, Pakistan’s concerns including those related to India and Kashmir received traction. The breathing space had risen hopes of resetting this topsy-turvy relationship.
‘Doing more, differently’ helped change Pakistan’s perception in the White House, at least. A temporary breakdown in the peace process sparked fears that both countries would spar and that the recently-created goodwill will come to nought. That did not happen. Engagements between PM Khan and President Trump continued. Pakistan implored the U.S. to resurrect the peace process, for it believed that continued war in Afghanistan was an anathema to peace, stability and prosperity in the region and beyond. Pakistan was doing all that at a time when its vital foreign policy concern i.e. the Kashmir issue, was back to the fore after India illegally annexed the already-occupied Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). While many pundits thought that Pakistan would blackmail the U.S. by scuttling the peace process. Rather than create roadblocks in the peace process in order to pressure the U.S. into helping it over the Kashmir issue, Pakistan was instrumental in getting the process back on track. This amplified that, despite investing in much-needed political and diplomatic capital on the Kashmir front, Pakistan did not renege from its promise of helping the U.S. extricate from Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s behavior before and after the signing of the deal in Doha repudiated analyses that portrayed Pakistan as one undermining the government in Kabul at the expense of the Taliban. Last year, by ramping up engagements with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, opening the Torkham border for trade and refraining from meeting the Taliban due to the sensitivities of the Afghan government, Pakistan showed that it was not in any way abandoning Kabul or touting for a particular group. After the Doha accords, Pakistan has yet again lent support to the government of Ashraf Ghani. Pakistan has welcomed President Ghani’s second term in office, opened the border crossings in Chaman and Torkham on humanitarian grounds, despite the outbreak of COVID- 2019. All this has been done in spite of constant tirades and outbursts of the Afghan government against Pakistan. Also, Pakistan has not taken advantage of the precarious situation Ashraf Ghani is in due to domestic political upheavals and tensions with the U.S. after Secretary Pompeo’s latest visit to Kabul.
One of the reasons why Pakistan was lambasted in the think tank, policy, academic and government circles in the U.S. was the allure and fantasy of winning in Afghanistan. Pakistan was blamed for something the U.S. was ill-equipped to achieve. After 19 years of bloodshed and carnage, it should be clear that it is not Pakistan but inability of the U.S. to come up with a strategic approach towards Afghanistan that led to its failure in that country. It must be stressed that only after the U.S. has opted to give dialogue a chance, has a major step been taken for peace in Afghanistan. Washington erred at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. Force was used without an appreciation of the adversary or the terrain – the end-state was vague. Most importantly, the U.S. wanted to restructure a country that it did not understand. Broadly speaking, these reasons along with reticence to mix politics with the use of force were responsible for the mess that Afghanistan is in. It is noteworthy that Islamabad, all along, had cautioned against against these very steps.
All this, coupled with the fact that the biggest impediment in peace in Afghanistan was removed by following what Pakistan prescribed long ago, is reason enough that merits revisionism that apportions blame based on facts and understanding rather than regurgitate old cliches about Pakistan. Now that Pakistan has delivered against all the odds, it is about time that perceptions are changed and labels revisited.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is Associate Editor, Pakistan Politico.