From a formidable ally in the Global War on Terror to have done ‘not a damn thing’ and playing ‘double game’ for years, the American narrative regarding Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan keeps oscillating. It is indeed a question that confuses many in Washington, which in turn, results in US employment of both coercive and cooperative mechanisms to push Pakistan to ‘do more’, finally yielding a ‘no more’ from the Islamic Republic. However, America’s harshness against Pakistan, cannot deprive the latter of its critical role in reaching a settlement in Afghanistan, currently the biggest and perhaps most immediate US concern in the region.
Today, Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture once again, with US desperate to end its costly campaign in the impossible terrains and the Taliban at their all-time strongest position since 2001. The fact that the US agreed to direct negotiations with the Taliban, without making Afghan government a stake-holder, has shook the US backed Ghani regime in Kabul, whose survival, and not just legitimacy, is now pretty much at stake. With the power struggle ensuing between Kabul regime and the Taliban only producing a stalemate and that too with all the US support, the role of Pakistan has become even more complex and critical in resolution of the bloody conflict.
The oldest Islamic Republic led the resistance against USSR in 1979 on ground via its Inter-Services Intelligence in collaboration with America’s CIA; training some 80,000 Afghan Mujahideen and Later in 2001, earned the title of America’s non-NATO ally. It also provided intelligence, air space and logistic support to USA against the Taliban. Despite such a heavy involvement, the fact that Pakistan has not completely lost influence over the Taliban who possess greater leverage in the Afghanistan equation at the juncture, supports the argument that it is Pakistan which has to play the lead role. But what Pakistan is actually up to in Afghanistan, is a question that demands a deep insight into Islamabad’s strategic calculation and security concerns.
There four key stake-holders mentioned above will determine what the outcome of the ongoing peace process will be. Notwithstanding the fact that each has its own interests and role as per its relative power position, the two foreign powers i.e. Pakistan and United States are the most critical in determining the outcome of the ongoing peace process. The biggest challenge, however is that the two are faced with a dilemma of clashing interests. The US wants cessation of hostilities with some credible check on the power of Taliban while Pakistan wants an assurance that the Post-America Afghanistan will stop fomenting trouble in Pakistan, particularly the Pashtoon belt. In the aftermath of 9/11, the two had agreed on mutual cooperation in Afghanistan, in which Pakistan was to play a role of a facilitator. The situation after a 17-year long conflict, with Taliban’s resurgence, is very different today.
Among those who have convincingly shed light on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Steve Coll, in his bestseller ‘Directorate S‘ published last year, made a great attempt. He addressed what the Pakistani intelligence is up to in Afghanistan by taking into consideration, the futuristic aspects which the United States, after a 17 year long military conflict, is not very keen to prioritise and which Pakistan can not at all ignore amid its war for national survival.
Moving forward with Coll’s view, the Pakistani assessment mentioned above emanates from a key assumption, backed by a pretty accurate calculation, that United States has been failing in defeating Taliban. A report published by Special Instructor General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in January last year claimed that the Afghan government controlled around 56% of the total Afghan territory. The remaining 44% is either under Taliban control or is contested. Pakistan also believes that the Taliban are endorsed by a significant chunk of the Afghan population, which is one of the reasons why United States has had a very tough time in the Afghan terrains.
The American record has not been good in Iraq and Libya either, which became messier after withdrawal. Keeping in view the loss of around $120 Billion and more than 60,000 lives already suffered by Pakistan since 2001, it is very much rational of Pakistan to fixate at the Post-US Afghanistan. Once United States withdraws, Pakistan will be the very first neighbour to feel the heat of whatever the end looks like. In the light of above facts, it is very much rational of Pakistan to fixate at the power equation in the Post-US Afghanistan. Once the United States withdraws, it is Pakistan which is the first country to feel the heat of whatever the end looks like, of course after Afghanistan itself.
Pakistan’s biggest security concern in Afghanistan is the government, which it does not look upon as representative of all stakeholders. The fact that the current regime is highly dependent on US support for its survival, makes it a regime subservient to US interests and not the interests of Afghanistan. If history is any guide, the problem for Pakistan here, is that governments barely surviving with foreign assistance in Afghanistan always hurt Pakistan.
The two countries share an almost 2500 km long porous border with Pashtoons living on both sides. The relations were marred since the inception of Pakistan when Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations in 1947 on the grounds that it did not recognise Durand Line, the International border between the two countries .
From regimes of King Zahir to President Najib in Afghanistan, bilateral relations between the two Islamic Republics remained tensed owing to the former country’s blunt support to Pashtoon separatism in the latter. The Afghan government even claimed Pakistan’s ‘Balochistan’ along with modern day’s ‘KPK’ in 1952, pretty much in line with the idea of Loy Afghanistan or Lar aw Bar Afghanistan (Greater Afghanistan). Pakistan’s counter came in 1973-74, when General Naseer Ullah Babar of the Pakistan Army trained a militia force against Afghan president Daud Khan’s regime.
In the recent times, the Afghan government has been providing refuge to anti-Pakistan TTP and ISIS-K militants and providing support to the Pashtoon ethno-fascist movement in Pakistan. The Afghan government, whose survival is at stake, believes it has more to gain by partnering with India than with Pakistan which is ironic particularly when the landlocked republic is heavily dependent on neighbouring Pakistan for its transit trade. India, on the other hand, is seeking a strategic partnership with the Afghan government, to keep Pakistan on its toes, sand-witching it between East and West. This security threat triggers Pakistan to seek assurance that the Afghan soil would not be allowed to be used against it. An American withdrawal without Pakistan earning such a guarantee, poses a great security threat to Pakistan, let alone to be in the interest of it.
The Complex Role
Afghanistan is a battleground of interests among the above mentioned four actors, of which Pakistan is a critical one. Pakistan, at one time a front line US ally against communist expansionism and then terrorism, is unsure of US guarantees. This factor adds complexity to its role as a facilitator in the Afghan war. President Musharraf in his memoir In the Line of Fire, argued that Pakistan was forced to act as facilitator in the War in Afghanistan, which means that the state wanted to pursue other means but strategic calculations showed that it was left with limited rational choices. Pakistan never wanted to declare war on the Taliban regime, neither become a belligerent in the war, since it knew the dynamics of the impossible Afghan terrains better than those sitting in Washington, pouring money and weapons for Afghan Jihad.
It is unfortunate that the US policy makers have failed to understand Pakistan’s role in the Afghan settlement and have not moved beyond rhetoric. It also unfortunate that the Current US Special representative for Afghan Rehabilitation Zalmay Khalilzad, is the man who had published an Op-Ed ‘Its Time to End Pakistan’s Double Game‘ in January 2018, following president Trump’s lead, blaming Pakistan for US failures in Afghanistan.
Accusing Pakistan of playing a double game when it has lost more than 60,000 lives and above $120 billion after US launched War on Terror in 2001, shows that the US government has developed a naive understanding of Pakistan’s role. What needs to be understood is that; while perhaps USA can get away with befriending, killing and then befriending, Pakistan cannot afford it. Pakistan is a sovereign state and has complete right to behave like one. The reason why USA attacked Afghanistan back in 2001 is not dissimilar to why Pakistan cannot afford a US backed government that is willing to assure its own survival at the cost of Afghanistan’s stability and peace. Policy Makers in Washington and political analysts around the world, once again need to recall Mandela’s famous response to a question regarding praising Arafat, Gaddafi and Castro, “One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies.”
Pakistan’s contact with the Afghan Taliban was repeatedly targeted by the American administration and American media in the past, however, the same contact maintained with the Taliban has now paved a way for initiation of dialogue process. Pakistan sincerely responded to US request to help broker negotiations with the Taliban. Due to Pakistan’s involvement, both US-Taliban talks and intra-Afghan dialogue are heading in the right direction. For the first time in the since 2001, a ray of hope for peaceful settlement can be seen, which emanates from Pakistan.
To encourage a peaceful solution, there is a dire need to decrease trust deficit between Pakistan and United States as well as the different Afghan stakeholders, which is not possible without putting an end to blame game. For a positive outcome of the Afghan peace process, it is inevitable for the White House to stop fluctuating its narrative regarding Pakistan’s role and appreciate its efforts. The Walk to peace demands a cautious approach, which the blame game will ruin. The propaganda machines in the West need to take a break and allow the power of appreciation to prevent things from going South from here.
About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale-47. He Studies International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.