Ebb and Flow
There is a constant love-hate relationship that marks ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan Pakistan. Termed sometimes as conjoined twins twins, the two countries continue to have difficulties in coexistening peacefully. Will they ever be friends?
Afghanistan has been in a mess for a long time. The Americans invaded the country in 2001. The last of them are still around and will stay on till December of 2016. and their 15 years of occupation is gradually tapering off. Since 1995, the Taliban ruled, which in itself was a serious anomaly because of the nature of their rule and social vision. It was likened to the stone-age and wasn't far from the truth. Before then, Afghanistan was literally at war within and this divided into ungovernable factions. The war of 1979-89 against the Soviet Union left in its wake regional commanders and warlords each with their own army.
As the larger civil war after 1989 manifested itself between the Persian speaking non-Pashtun Northen Alliance and the Pashtun Taliban, the local warlords with their respective armies changed sides to suit their advantage. That embroiled the entire Afghan society into an unending feud. Things aren’t any different now, if you care to look beyond Kabul .
The Karzai years were in effect the American years with Karzai a puppet who owed his position to their pervasive presence. Forget his blow-hot, blow-cold diatribes against the Americans and everyone else who was in Afghanistan. His special attention was always reserved for neighbor Pakistan because it was easy to pin blame on them with the entire world shouting duplicity. How far was that true is another matter, but it left a Pakistan that was bruised and vulnerable to any who wished to seek culpability. As the American mission to Afghanistan faltered, they too found fault with Pakistan. When things are not going well for a nation, as indeed was the case with Pakistan, it tends to become an easy fall-guy for everyone.
In the last couple of years of the Karzai rule, everyone waited for him to go; he was so widely hated – even by his benefactors, the Americans. The Indians who found him amenable and worked well with him in his years were equally embarrassed with that association and Karzai became quite a clown in the end. But he did leave his mark on Afghan thinking as well as on the direction that some Afghan institutions took under him and which they still find difficult to shed.
Ashraf Ghani’s advent as the new leader was like fresh air for most of the world. Although he had been in Karzai’s cabinet for all these years he was open to looking at the situation differently; he appeared more pragmatic and a realist. True to his professional grooming in the World Bank, having lived long in America with clear impressions of the purposefulness in policy and objectives, he launched himself differently and refused to become anyone’s poodle. He knew what was needed foremost for Afghanistan – durable peace and social cohesion – and began working towards it.
He had, however, a major handicap: he wasn't a clear winner. Like the previous election where Karzai had to be force-placed as the President with American intervention and his competitor Abdullah Abdullah told off to wait for his next chance, this time too, the elections produced fractious and contentious results. Ghani, the declared winner refused to be accepted as such by Abdullah Abdullah, who felt cheated. This wrangling produced a composite Presidency, where if Ghani was the President, Abdullah was the Chief Executive. This equation hasn't
really settled in despite the year that has gone by. The government remains fractious and loyalties are suspect. There is no integrated and cohesive direction that the Afghan government can live by. The genesis lies again in the antecedence of the two principals.
Abdullah Abdullah, while a half-Pashtun himself, largely represents the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance and its interest in the government. Ghani himself is a Pashtun with only tentative roots in the community because of the long years he has lived abroad. He, however, is a consummate technocrat who will still offer Afghanistan a better chance at finding its direction which must be inclusive, cohesive and widely shared. Abdullah, on the other hand, has a desire and a role to establish his ow own standing in the government. The Af Afghan intelligence organization, NDS, ha has historically been run by non-Pashtun members from the former Northern Alliance. Some have openly declared theirh animosity for Pakistan and continue to hold reservations on any effort by th the Afghan government to establish im improved relations with Pakistan and its in institutions. The Afghan Army, though largely l ethnic proportion Pashtun representing of the population, the large has an officer corp. that is non-Pashtun. Most of the Intelligence people and the officer corp. are trained in India as their preferred source.
This makes for a contentious mix. Even when President Ghani wishes to have a more cordial relationship with Pakistan, as their futures are conjoined in a symbiotic relationship of not only a long territorial border but common cultural and ethnic ties, plus the historical experience of having been impacted by a continuous run of wars since 1979 with their respective fallout, his efforts remain stunted by a tradition of excessive external intervention that impacts Afghan policy. This manifests in how the relationship gets shaped between the two neighbours. India’s dominant relationship with Afghanistan is traditional as well as opportune which it leverages to foment trouble in Pakistan. Iran has its own influence with the Persian-speaking and Shia communities of Afghanistan. Regional influences complicate Afghanistan’s already precarious fragility.
The recent outburst of President Ashraf Ghani a la Hamid Karzai was against the run of events between the Afghanistan and Pakistan. After an auspicious start, Ghani literally tore into Pakistan for the numerous terror incidents that shook his country in recent weeks. The language that he used to express his outrage was the language of the NDS. This surely would have, in addition, pleased India no end.
Ghani has been under pressure from the largely vocal Kabul elite for giving into too much of the expected Pakistani affability without a suitable return in the form of the promised Peace Dialogue with the Taliban. He began showing his impatience with the lack of progress. If indeed Pakistan had promised him delivery of the Taliban to the negotiating table, it surely was a larger bite than what Pakistan could easily chew. Over time, Pakistan had lost such lien over the Taliban, spawning instead a faction that had taken on the state of Pakistan itself. The talks, however, did take place, first informally in China and then in a more formal round in Murree, Pakistan. The results were promising. The Taliban were moving towards accepting the possibility of mainstreaming themselves back into the Afghan constitutional fold. But with the second round on the cards, a bolt from the blue struck.
The Afghan government leaked to the media that Mullah Omar was no more; that he had died a couple of years back in Pakistan, and that the Taliban movement in his name had faked his control for the last two years. Who informed the Afghan NDS is not known. It turned out that the news was true. It also triggered an immediate war of succession that fragmented the Taliban, indefinitely putting on hold any future talks. What the Pakistani state seemed to have gained in terms of ensuring positive leverage and encouraged the dialogue towards peace for Afghanistan and Pakistan was lost. The opportunity to repair Pakistan’s battered image over the years of strife in Afghanistan also lost traction. Pakistan desired peace desperately for its own stability and for improving the prospects for instituting the proposed China-backed economic corridor so vital for Pakistan’s own economic rejuvenation close to Afghanistan’s border. These opportunities were set back in time and Pakistan was the net loser.
The NDS released the information about Mullah Omar while President Ghani was out of the country. This was a great embarrassment for Ghani since it found him wrong-footed even as he sought improved relations with his neighbor. Did Abdullah, as the chief executive, clear the release? Was it intended to sabotage the peace process and President Ghani’s policy to improve relations with Pakistan? Given the orientation that the NDS has over time displayed in its anti-Pakistan rhetoric, it is not difficult to surmise how this single event has impacted Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
Mullah Mansour, Omar’s replacement, is still opposed by a faction. He has had to do a couple of things to establish his credentials: one, he has had to prove his tough stance against the Afghan government to gain popularity and acceptability across the Taliban spectrum by resorting to some entirely uncalled for bombings in Afghanistan, and two, he has had to put on hold the peace talks. Both have regressed the region in its aspiration to find early stability. This impacts Pakistan adversely in equal terms. Ghani’s diatribe against Pakistan was based around a frustration in his inability to move forward in seeking peace and forging a societal cohesion. The fractures in his government have tended to override a unison in policy – especially security which defines the future viability of the state.
IS beckons in the Afghan turmoil and many grown in the terror economy are finding refuge in such association. The usual recourse of Afghan inability to control its internal dynamics must find an expression which traditionally is Pakistan: hence on Afghan urgings, the US also reminded Pakistan that there is still the unfinished business of the Haqqanis which could place the provision of the Coalition Support
at Fund in jeopardy. Pakistan rushed into the business of clearing the last Taliban redoubt on the borders with Afghanistan in the difficult terrain of Shawwal. But merely Pakistan clearing its precincts may hardly deliver Afghanistan its desired peace. A concerted effort with dialogue will.
To that end Afghanistan will need to stop bidding external agenda in its policy, else the days of further turmoil in Afghanistan will only extend. The state will have to find its own balance and within that seek peace. The time has already come when all foreign interests and influences that could help Afghanistan have exhausted their patience. Some influence will remain but those are competitive in nature using Afghan soil for respective foreign policy ends. Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan has mutated over time and is now entirely defensive. The country will have to fight the aggressive use of Afghan soil for fomenting trouble in its territories. A weak afghan government is incapable of keeping such malfeasant influences out. That will test Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan. Iran too brought into the picture may just complicate the scenario further. Testing times for Afghanistan are not yet over and it isn’t entirely the fault of its neighbours.