Will They Ever Be Friends?

The love-hate re­la­tion­ship be­tween Afghanistan and Pak­istan seems to be a per­ma­nent fea­ture in the re­gion

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Arsla Jawaid Arsla Jawaid is cur­rently pur­su­ing a M.A in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at Columbia Univer­sity. She has pre­vi­ously worked with the In­sti­tute of Strate­gic Stud­ies, Is­lam­abad (ISSI) and has con­sulted for the U.S In­sti­tute of Peace (USIP).

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.