Recent media reports reconfirm the pragmatic orientation that has been underway in Pakistan’s Afghan policy for quite some time: the country that uniquely shares ethnicity, history, geography and religion with Afghanistan is reportedly reinforcing links with its traditional foes among the non-Pashtun Afghan political elites. Such policy transformation on Pakistan’s part makes realistic sense. For it has no other option in view of the unprecedented havoc that local Taliban factions have played with civic peace inside the country and the growing uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan beyond NATO combat troops’ withdrawal deadline of 2014.
Pakistan’s traditional support to Afghan Taliban, who are essentially Pashtun, has been a lingering concern for non-Pashtun Afghan leaders, including Abdullah Abdullah, Rashid Dostum and other Uzbek, Tajik , Hazara leaders as well as a segment of Pashtun leaders associated with the Karzai government. The reason for extending such support was arguably two-fold: one, to address the country’s age-old security dilemma with India, as friendly Afghanistan was perceived by Pakistani security establishment’s perception to provide strategic depth in a future conflict with India; and two, to pacify Pakistan’s own restive Pashtun population living across the border regions with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s post-9/11 realities—marked by the presence of a variety of regional and international forces and their respective interests as well as the emergence of new power elites –have overtime limited Pakistan’s ability to pursue strategic depth policy in Afghanistan. More importantly, however, following the nuclear tests of 1998, the whole concept of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan became irrelevant—as acquisition of strategic depth became synonymous with achieving second-strike capability. Yet the internal Pashtun factor remained relevant to the country’s regional security approach, resulting in a softer attitude towards Afghan Taliban and a counter-terrorism policy premised on calculated ambivalence or alleged duplicity.
In recent years, however, with domestic terrorism reaching unprecedented levels and its regional ramifications causing mounting outside pressure, Pakistan’s civilian government and security establishment have in unison started to take a paradigm shift in the country’s regional security outlook. The visible progress in India-Pakistan peace process in the last over one and a half years is a tangible proof of such policy transformation after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. If relations with India are peaceful, then the need for strategic depth in Afghanistan certainly vanishes. And even if future relations with India continue to be denoted by some sort of security dilemma, peace in Afghanistan leading to a peaceful Western border will suit Pakistan.
At the same time, the severity of the domestic terrorist threat posed by Pakistani Taliban since the summer of 2007 has brought Pakistan’s civilian and security leadership on the same page in so far as the country’s approach vis-à-vis the ongoing Afghan war or future Afghan conflict resolution is concerned. The success of Afghan Taliban in the war, or the possibility of Afghan Taliban ruling in Afghanistan once again, is perceived to only further fuel internal security quagmire at the hands of home-grown Taliban groups. In retrospect, Pakistan may still seek a Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan after 2014, but not an Afghanistan led by the Taliban.
It is for this reason that Pakistan’s declared Afghan policy is to secure a phased NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 and to facilitate a viable conflict resolution process in the war-torn country that is “Afghan-driven and Afghan-owned.” This explains why since the start of this year, Pakistan’s prime minister, foreign minister and envoy in Kabul have reportedly been involved in an extensive outreach campaign to reconcile the non-Pashtun leaders such as Abdullah. Even on the eve of last presidential elections in 2009, the country was open to dealing with the former Afghan foreign minister as a future Afghan leader.
Pakistan is preparing for the same eventuality, as President Karzai is not constitutionally empowered to contest the next presidential poll sceduled for April 204. Unlike previously, Pakistan does not see any problem in cultivating support in Afghanistan’s new political power elites, since it is they who will lead Afghanistan while sharing power with compromise-prone figures in the Afghan Taliban movement.
It is also an outcome of such refreshing outlook on Afghan politics that Pakistan has shown increasing willingness to use whatever clout it has over Afghan Taliban to kick start a viable Afghan reconciliation process. It has joined the Unites States to set up working groups to identify which Taliban leaders would be open to reconciliation and to ensure those holed up on Pakistani territory would be able to travel to the site of talks. For the purpose, Pakistan has also reached out to the Karzai regime to revive the Joint Commission, which was set up in early 2011 and has been dormant since the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani later in the year.
While a clear-cut shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy is visible now, one major area of concern that may sabotage the growing Pak-Afghan amity is considerable hostility towards Pakistan that still exists in Afghanistan’s power corridors and public opinion. Its most recent expression was the massively negative Afghan response to a recent statement that Marc Grossman, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, made in Kabul on the Durand Line, terming it as “the international border” in the US policy for decades. So much so, that a spokesman of the Afghan Foreign Ministry called Washington’s position on the issue as “irrelevant,” while adding: “The status of the Durand Line is a matter of historic importance for the Afghan people.”
Rather than showing such belligerence, the Afghans should be grateful to Pakistan for playing host to millions of Afghan refugees in the last over three decades—and suffering enormous economic, social and security consequences for shouldering this great humanitarian responsibility. The deep mutual distrust and suspicion that exists between the two countries has a valid historical context, in which each side has genuine claims—and stands that are not so right. If Pakistan is ready to bury the hatchet so should the Afghans. An outreach campaign by one side will be meaningless if it does not have a corresponding response from the other side.
Not necessarily the Afghans alone, all the stakeholders in Afghanistan—local, regional and international—must rethink their respective positions and revise their outlooks in accordance with the current uncertainties pertaining to current war and future peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role in the last over ten years of the Afghan war has, indeed, been problematic, especially in terms of the alleged duplicity in its counter-terrorism approach. Yet the country cannot be made a scapegoat for the military and political failures of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Moreover, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism role cannot be seen in isolation from its own external expectations and domestic compulsions; and its duality seems to have more complex causes associated with the growing role of religion in state and society since independence and the consequently aggravating crisis of national identity.
In the end, what matters the most is the viable resolution of the Afghan conflict, which will be a win-win situation for every local, regional and international players having interest in Afghanistan and its future.
This commentary can be accessed at weeklypulse.org