The story of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations is a saga of perpetual confrontation without any apparent cause.
When Ashraf Ghani replaced Ahmad Karzai as Afghanistan’s president, it was hoped that it would mark the turning of a new leaf in Af-Pak relations. Karzai had been openly hostile to Pakistan. Ghani extended an olive branch. He visited Islamabad at the first opportunity. There was a new atmosphere of camaraderie generated by the visits of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif to Kabul and reports of vows of mutual cooperation.
According to ex-diplomat Munir Akram, “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief were sincere in desiring normalization. The implicit bargain was that Pakistan would deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table while Afghanistan would act against TTP leaders and militants hiding in Afghan territory.”
But that was sheer wishful thinking, for, never has Afghanistan delivered any tribal who sought sanctuary there. This is a hallowed tradition since British India.
Meanwhile, Af-Pak relations once again suffered a nosedive following a Taliban attack that killed 56 people in Kabul. Ghani telephoned Nawaz to complain. The latter suggested a highlevel meeting.
Ghani also called a news conference where he fulminated against Pakistan, saying, “The last few days have shown
that suicide bomber training camps and bomb-producing factories which are killing our people are as active as before in Pakistan, We hoped for peace but we are receiving messages of war from Pakistan.
“In my telephone call with Pakistan prime minister,” Ghani went on, “I told Pakistan to see terrorism in Afghanistan the same way it sees terrorism in Pakistan. I ask the Pakistani government if the mass killings of Shah Shaheed had happened in Islamabad and the perpetrators were in Afghanistan, what would you do?”
In its immediate reaction, the tone of the Pakistan Foreign Office was conciliatory. "The people and the Government of Pakistan can feel the pain and anguish of the brotherly people and the Government of Afghanistan over the recent wave of terrorist attacks, which have resulted in the loss of many valuable lives and injured scores of people," the spokesman told newsmen. "Terrorism is our common enemy and a cooperative approach is needed to combat this menace."
But later the attitude hardened. Islamabad gave a “cold shoulder” to the high-level Afghan delegation led by Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and including Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar and acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai and lectured the visitors to mend fences with the Taliban.
The delegation met the prime minster but was not received by the army chief. The Pakistan Foreign Office statement issued after the meeting contained the usual blah-blah about “close contact to promote bilateral cooperation, address all issues of common concern, and evolve a strategic consensus to respond to security challenges of the region,”
Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s dialogue with Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, stalled after the first round at Murree due to reports about Mullah Omar’s demise. The Afghan president said he was no more interested in pursuing the talks.
This was the not the first incident of its kind. In fact, it would seem that Pakistan is to Afghanistan, roughly, what India is to Pakistan. For instance, Pakistani troops fire into Afghanistan as much without provocation as Indian troops fire into Pakistan. Kabul summons the Pakistani ambassador and Islamabad summons the Indian High Commissioner to register protest.
Amazingly, even though the confrontation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is even older than the Indo-Pakistan standoff, no political analyst has attempted to delve into its causes. No one has tried to find the answer to the question as to why all Kabul governments have traditionally been closer to India than to Pakistan. It was only during the brief interlude of the Taliban rule that the situation was reversed. Otherwise relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been tenuous.
In the case of the Indo-Pak standoff there is a casus belli: Kashmir. But Afghanistan and Pakistan have no such dispute, Yet, Afghanistan has been always hostile towards Pakistan. Afghanistan was the only country to oppose Pakistan’s application for UN membership When Pakistan became independent. No government in Afghanistan, not even the Taliban, with whom Pakistan had the most cordial relations, ever recognized the Durand Line as the international boundary between the two countries. Though Pakistan was the first country to recognize the Taliban regime, but when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan detained Mullah Zaeef, the Taliban envoy to Pakistan, without formally severing diplomatic relations and handed him over to America where he remained, incarcerated at Guantanamo for a number of years. Yet, Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have remained cozy.
Pakistan is irked at the spread of Indian influence in Afghanistan and fears being encircled by India. But it does not attempt to compete with India in courting Kabul, perhaps because it cannot match India in resources. India had invested US $10.8 billion in Afghanistan as of 2012. It is working on a number of projects, including roads and other infrastructure, while more projects are in the pipeline, such as “setting up iron ore mines, a 6 MTPA steel plant by Steel Authority of India Limited, an 800 MW power plant, hydro-electric power projects, transmission lines and so forth.
If Pakistan could not afford giving economic assistance to Afghanistan, it could at least have explored other fields, such as training the Afghan military and police personnel. But it is India where they go for the purpose. Pakistan could at least have espoused Afghanistan’s entry into SAARC to demonstrate that it cares, but here, too, it failed to take the initiative and left the field for India to score another point.
It seems Pakistan relies on bullying and violence but attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul and its consulate in Herat, or even the latest Taliban attack can achieve no purpose. They have not forced India to close its embassy or consulates or halt its work on reconstruction projects. Nor has the latest Kabul attack compelled Ashraf Ghani to surrender power to the Taliban.
Violence cannot endear Pakistan to the Afghans. It is perceived as a country that nurtures terrorists. While Tajik and Uzbek elements, represented, respectively, by the CEO, Abdullah Abdullah and the warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum, are openly opposed to Pakistan, even among the Pashtuns, represented by the Taliban, Pakistan’s stock is not very high.
Pakistan holds the Afghan Taliban tightly in its embrace against the Kabul government, while India has signed a sheaf of MoUs with Kabul during the last few years. Three such MoUs relate to strengthening cooperation in the fields of rural development, education and standardization between the Bureau of Indian Standards and the Afghan National Standardisation Authority. In 2011, Afghanistan signed its first strategic pact with India.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s policymakers are comfortable with the thought that without Pakistan’s assistance there can be no peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s assistance has a price tag, though. It wants the Taliban to be back in power, because that is the only way to check India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. This, however, is easier said than done.
The good old days are not going to return. At best, the Taliban might be given some share in power which may not satisfy Pakistan. But hard attitudes will push Afghanistan into civil war and Af-Pak relations will remain unfriendly.
Policymakers are comfortable with the thought that without Pakistan’s assistance there can be no peace in Afghanistan.