Afghanistan sits, along with its various elements contributing to the turmoil, in a proverbial strategic stagnation. The road ahead is unclear and uncharted yet, other than three determinants: one, the US and Nato will hand over active combat operations to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014 and vacate, leaving behind only some elements of special forces and possibly a detachment of drones to assist in counterterrorism operations; two, the US has a ten-year strategic agreement with Afghanistan to continue assistance and retain its involvement there to enable sustained stability; and three, the US has asked India to assist in the training of ANA elements and provide requisite support in nation building efforts; India is the second largest donor in such assistance in Afghanistan.
Yet to be determined, and declared, are the following: contours of a proposed framework for peace in Afghanistan – there is none to show in this direction; what role if any will the region have in enabling and ensuring stability in Afghanistan – that includes the various ambiguities that ride the role of Pakistan as perhaps its most important neighbour with longest territorial contiguity and the foremost US ally in the war on terror; and finally, when and if a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will be signed between Afghanistan and the US, and what will such an agreement entail. SOFA will determine the right of the US forces to probably redeploy on some three to five bases at the time of their need and in fulfillment of their own strategic interests. It is likely that the Strategic Agreement already signed between the US and Afghanistan is the precursor to the Forces Agreement.
Two deductions are safe to make.
The US has residual strategic interests that it may need to deal with in due course, with force if other means do not deliver. Pakistan and Iran stand out as the more likely recipients of American attention in medium to short term based on how these states and their societies deal with politico-religious inclinations leading to continued radicalism and extremism; and in the case of Iran it’s perseverance with the nuclear route reinforcing the perceptions of defiance to the American challenge to desist from that route.
And second, if Afghanistan ever slides again into political turmoil resulting in the Taliban’s ascendancy, and a possibility of it becoming a haven again for terror groups, the US will likely intervene to arrest control and redirect Afghanistan back towards a more managed existence. This will become more probable when the US has ridden through her current fiscal difficulties and conditions in Afghanistan present such a challenge. America’s fairly robust presence in neighbouring Central Asian states, in influence as well as in the form of bases, though mitigates the absolute essence of unqualified control over Afghanistan for such a revisit. Iran and Pakistan, if indeed one or the other becomes a cause of worry, could be handled with the American forces stationed in the Gulf with support from bases in Central Asia and elsewhere in the region.
Deductively then the most testing scenario for Pakistan relates to the country not improving on its current socio-religious trends internally, or finding itself aligned against the US in a way that it is seen to be standing opposite to the current geopolitical trends in Afghanistan. Or, when a cumulative decay within Pakistan, both within the polity and the society, points to an immediate collapse of order. Pakistan’s first opportunity to correct the course is implicit in America’s planned exit from the region as the war in Afghanistan winds down giving Pakistan a little more space to sort itself out without the persistent pressure of the US to ‘do more’. This remains Pakistan’s most compulsive and primary internal task.
While America’s return from the region of its bulk is almost established, there are two residual consequences that Pakistan will have to contend with. Having sided with America for most of the war and paid its price in both men and material, such disassociation as is now evident is putting to waste the sacrifices made till date. Two, an estranged relationship with the US, however, spells serious trouble for Pakistan’s subsequent need of multilateral support to keep itself financially buoyant. This remains Pakistan’s most imperative external challenge.
In contrast, Pakistan seems to have cornered itself with ill-considered policy enunciations which are difficult to breach through by a politically weak government; these include the delay in reaching a decision on Nato supply routes, and the unnecessary preconditions that are linked to reaching an executive decision on the issue. Here is a way to gallop across the seemingly unbridgeable spaces in policy conception and regain the lost place: Afghanistan, for its own sake, for the sake of the region, and that of Pakistan essentially as an overriding motive, desperately needs a peace strategy which should be comprehensive and sustainable. Just as India has taken the initiative to seek a regional solution to build Afghanistan through a collaborative effort, Pakistan too should step ahead and claim the vital political space available in leading a reconciliation effort to bring peace to Afghanistan – an area of work hitherto unattended over which Pakistan can make a significant contribution.
There are three separate elements of a proposed peace framework for Afghanistan.
One, the need for an internal effort to bring all Afghan factions on the same page towards a common future which needs to be inclusive and participatory with all elements of the Afghan society finding representation in the political mosaic of Afghanistan. Pakistan should encourage the factions that it has influence with including the Haqqanis to find accommodation within such a framework. The alternate should be to suggest to them the need to find an alternate home for themselves.
Two, the US has already secured its most essential interests with Afghanistan with a Strategic Agreement, to be followed with a likely SOFA, making it imperative for Pakistan, in its own interest, to obviate the need for any such revisit by the US with deployments that may take permanence. Pakistan will need to begin an assiduous effort to fight radicalism within its own society, while Afghanistan must of essence evolve into a more inclusive and secular denomination in its political system. Pakistan and Afghanistan must conclude a bilateral understanding dilating on the various steps needed to begin a simultaneous effort on these counts in their respective countries.
Three, the need for a regional compact between all neighbours of Afghanistan, including India, built around inviolability of Afghanistan’s sovereign right to determine its own future and non-interference by any of its neighbours in Afghanistan’s affairs. Such an undertaking will forge the all important framework for peace that will ensure primacy to Afghanistan’s own direction to seek normalcy.
To move along these lines with a view to regain relevance in the closing stages of the Afghan war, Pakistan will, one, need to take cognizance of the vacant political space in the reconciliation and peace process, and two, step beyond a self-restraining bind which seeks a secondary role in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned effort. Pakistan must shed this escapist strategy and be seen to be counted in this effort to bring peace to Afghanistan. Akin to the Irish peace talks that brought peace to an intractable Irish strife, there exists the political space for Pakistan to take the lead and reestablish its image in a positive light through formulating, proposing and negotiating a peace framework for Afghanistan. The shackles of a paralytic inaction though will first need to be broken.
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff. Email: shhzdchdhry@ yahoo.com