Pakistan’s Afghan policy, if at all it has one, is in tatters. Traditionally, it has suffered from a surfeit of self-righteousness. But, in addition to that, it has also assumed the form of a self-destructive mould that refuses to let go. It has become repetitively monotonous, dreary and tiresome. The ongoing quadrilateral dialogue process is nothing but a demonstration of this lingering mindset: an exaggerated attempt to do things that are either not possible at all or would run counter to Pakistan’s perceived objectives of working for peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s position as a key player in this latest multi-country effort to forge peace in war and strife-torn Afghanistan is based on three principal assumptions: its much-trumpeted ‘influence’ over the Taliban, its interest for genuine peace in its neighbouring country and its perceived readiness to engage in combat with elements that refuse to come to the negotiating table – the so-called ‘non-reconcilable’ Taliban. These assumptions, and the hope associated with them, have either been blown away altogether or have been stretched thin, virtually to a breaking point.
It is so because Pakistan’s Afghan policy suffers from a host of paradoxes, the principal one being its inability to treat both the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban as enemies of peace. In its unique appraisal, although the former constitute a terrorist group that is engaged in fighting the state of Pakistan and has to be eliminated by all means, it has a diametrically opposite appreciation for a similar band of militants dubbed as the Afghan Taliban, who are engaged in dismantling the government in Kabul in a bid to impose their draconian and regressive writ in the country. It is not the former component that one is in disagreement with. It is the latter, which is tantamount to giving an outfit of brutal and obscurantist militants a status that is at par with the elected government in Kabul.
For an excruciatingly long period of time, Pakistan lived in denial of the presence of the Afghan Taliban on its soil. It was only recently that, in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz conceded the reality: “...now, we have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So, we can use these levers to pressurise them to come to the [negotiating] table.”
But he was quick not to assume the consequent responsibility of actually bringing them to the negotiating table, on which the whole quadrilateral effort hinges: “So that is the kind of leverage we have to bring them to the table. But to pressurise them and to negotiate will depend on the parties which are actually negotiating. We can advise the Afghan government, if they want our advice, on what might be acceptable and so on and so forth, but in this task, I think, and according to the road map, all three of us have to share that advice – US, Pakistan, and China – so that we collectively decide what is best”. In short, it is like saying: ‘Look, it is not our responsibility. It is a collective responsibility to be shared by all who are engaged in the effort of bringing peace to Afghanistan’. That literally pulls one pillar from under the very edifice of the quadrilateral process.
Pakistan’s interest in working for peace in Afghanistan is directly dependant on assuaging its concerns regarding the possible steps that could be taken to keep India from having any continuing stakes in that country. Unfortunately, instead of building on the natural homogeneity that exists in abundance between the people of the two countries, Pakistan has opted to follow a top-down policy, of either influencing the Afghan leadership to do its bidding.
This has not helped matters in the past and Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour have been like a bad dream, which is only likely to get worse with the passage of time, particularly as the fighting rages on in Afghanistan, generating indescribable pain and angst.
There is also the question of Pakistan not delivering on its promises and commitments. It is not willing to wage battle against the ‘irreconcilable’ Taliban, if the possibility of the initiation of peace parleys with the Afghan government no longer remains a possibility.
I am afraid that by refusing to come to a sustainable middle ground, Pakistan is gradually eroding its own relevance to the peace process in Afghanistan. This would, inevitably, create space for other players to move in, India being one of them. Consequently, it would be safe to conclude that in pursuing a zero-sum policy, Pakistan has actually damaged its own cause and also the prospect of peace in its immediate neighbourhood, which was, and remains, so essential for the realisation of its economic dream of the CPEC.
Much time has been lost to blighted pursuits. Unfortunately, not much remains for making amends in bringing about a fundamental change in the way Pakistan looks at its western neighbour. It is a question of engaging with Afghanistan, not controlling it. The sooner Pakistan understands that and reconciles with it, the better it would be for its interests within its own borders, and also throughout the larger South-Asian region.
The writer heads the Islamabad-based think tank, Regional Peace Institute.