Will They Ever Be Friends?
The love-hate relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be a permanent feature in the region
Still seething from an uneasy and fairly volatile relationship with President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan was eager for a change in Afghan leadership perhaps anticipating a more pliant successor. Pliability is critical in the Af-Pak relationship given Afghanistan’s strategic value to Pakistan and the looming “threat” on its eastern border. A docile and amenable Afghan President is in the best interests of Pakistan, however, the intensity of influence Pakistan enjoys in the Afghan political sphere is fast waning.
Upon assuming office President Ghani publicly prioritized Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan thus ushering in a new era of mutual cooperation. Initially, Ghani publicly praised Pakistan’s efforts at addressing terrorism in the region going so far as to also acknowledge the country’s hostility with India and remaining careful to not playing both sides against the other. In his visit to India, Ghani attempted to maintain a balance and paid careful heed to how his statements would be received in Pakistan. To term this as a show of noble intentions or anything less than a shrewdly calculated move would be naïve. Within the geo-political realm, as US troops gear up to withdraw, Afghanistan needs Pakistan more than ever. An amicable relationship between the two was essential in initiating the embryonic peace process (that has since been abandoned) deemed critical to ensure any level of political stability that Afghanistan could strive for. Marking a break from his predecessor, Ghani sought Pakistan’s support in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating
table rather than militarily eliminating them. An arrangement such as this would have allowed Pakistan a certain level of engagement which it craves out of its own strategic ambition to ensure that India does not establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan. Ghani had few options to exercise and by default they worked towards Pakistan’s favor. Intelligence and military exchanges bolstered the relationship and Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb operation targeting militant safe havens seemed to be showing the much needed military progress that was required.
However, reality has since changed. Pakistan could very well have seized this brief window of opportunity and reciprocated the interest shown from the Afghan side by not only engaging deeply but also showing greater military commitment to peace and stability in the region by bringing the Taliban to the table. However, this is where the problem lies. While Pakistan may have been committed to the negotiation process and playing its role in convincing Taliban members, its capacity to do so is over-estimated. A combination of fighters who fled North Waziristan into Afghanistan as a result of the military operation along with the growing presence of IS have already muddied the waters. Furthermore, the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death has thrown the Afghan Taliban into disarray with further fragmentation and an on-going battle for leadership. The new chief, Mullah Mansoor, faces severe criticism not only in his accession to the coveted position but also for his readiness to participate in the peace talks and welcome Pakistan’s initiative.
Both the Ghani government and the Taliban leadership now find themselves on the defensive, with each trying to distance themselves from Pakistan and first maintain their own footing. Mansoor has played to the gallery, as he should, and after a momentary delay of the talks, has publicly stated that the Taliban will not be participating at all. The leadership does not see any significant returns from participating and Pakistan will face an uphill task trying to convince them otherwise. Already facing defections, Mansoor will need to first earn his legitimacy and prove his worth in order to retain the strength the Taliban hope to command once the Americans leave. Alienating Pakistan for some time will undoubtedly be necessary. The presence of IS in Afghanistan provides a ready alternative for those seeking greater ambitions and feeling betrayed by the new Afghan leadership. IS is clear in its narrative mostly because it does not have a history of depending on Pakistani patronage.
Ghani’s government (accused by Pakistan for releasing the information about Mullah Omar’s death in an effort to derail the peace talks) also finds itself struggling to maintain control. Anti-Pakistan sentiment is high in Afghanistan yet so are security concerns and militancy. Ghani hedged his bets in believing that Pakistan could be the key partner in exerting influence and ushering in a new era of peace and stability. Giving Pakistan the opportunity at the time (one that it missed), the dominant view is that it will discourage future leaders from making offers like this to Pakistan again. Ghani is already struggling to maintain the National Unity Government and with foreign troop withdrawal expected by the end of 2016, it is severely unlikely that the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be able to maintain security. Militant attacks in Afghanistan have mounted tremendously this year and are expected to rise as the country becomes yet another battlefield to a myriad of different groups vying for influence. In light of that, the strength and continuity of the government is absolutely essential. Pakistan’s role would have been central in ensuring a peaceful transition. However, that window has rapidly shut as realities on ground have catered to new militant groups and disenchanted fighters looking for new patrons. Pakistan may not be seen as a preferred partner at the moment as internal concerns take center stage. Facing strong pressure from his coalition government, Ghani too has adopted a harder stance against Pakistan arguing much like the US administration for Pakistan to “do more.”
The fact that Pakistan was handed the reigns to ensure that the Taliban come to the negotiating table also reveals the fragility of the current Afghan government and its sphere of influence. Pakistan for its part has certainly given the impression that it wields considerable influence; a degree which, now clearly, has been exaggerated. The Taliban will not come to the table, much less agree on a ceasefire, in the current environment of volatility and an on-going power struggle.
It is nonetheless essential that both sides understand that they need each other. With the entrance of ISIS, Pakistan cannot continue its policy of maintaining strategic depth in Afghanistan. Given the reshuffling of the Afghan Taliban, it may very well not be able to. A strong partnership and mutual cooperation between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan are truly essential to maintaining peace and stability in order to yield greater benefits for the longterm future. The Afghan government will desperately need Pakistan’s support as it continues to battle the insurgency waged within its borders. While publicly the two may maintain an acceptable level of political hostility, diplomatic efforts and intelligence sharing must prevail, even if covertly. The interests for both countries converge and better communication is in order. Before the stakes get too high, a prompt reevaluation of the current relationship is essential in order to get back on track and move ahead, together.