On August 18, Pakistan’s newest prime minister, Imran Khan, will wake up to the reality of a live western border with Afghanistan. One hopes that his first day at work doesn’t begin with a skirmish or an attack on a Pakistani post or an IED or a bomb going off either side of the border soon to be followed with allegations against the other country.
Welcome to the helm, prime minister. Hope the above doesn’t happen but it soon will – and the reality of a strategic bind will bite. Pakistan is at war, sort of. Call it hybrid or any other name; it is a war where unsuspecting people will lose lives.
One assurance though: the last four prime ministers and a few presidents have survived its test and Imran Khan will too. How these men in power impacted the war remains moot; in fact, the answer is: very little. There are two ways of looking at it. One, that neither had any control over the direction the war took as Pakistan reacted to what was being imposed from the outside. Two, could they have brought an end to it even if they so wished? Or, could Pakistan alone close the war, having suffered disastrously in blood and treasure?
Perhaps their inability to intervene meaningfully exhibited in their frustration with the mechanics of the war ultimately abdicating the responsibility to the army as it pervaded over time. That gave reason to the growing noise of Rawalpindi arrogating to itself the power to shape the country’s foreign policy entrenching dissonance as a permanent feature of the popular discourse. Either way, the country bled at its core, sapping the nation’s vitals in dealing with a complex strategic environment even as it had little control.
This is where the popular view, even if misplaced, found root in the genesis of the civil-military disequilibrium and lack of civilian supremacy. It placed the army in the dock with allegations of expansionism in Afghanistan by keeping the war alive through proxies and sponsored elements – exactly what Ashraf Ghani et al proclaim. Surely, Imran Khan is no stranger to this school of thought and may even have subscribed to it at one point in his political journey. It remains an own-goal which is music to the ears of those in Afghanistan.
This motley collection includes the Americans who brought the war to Afghanistan and have only added fuel to the fire with their presence. It also includes the Indians as they ostensibly rebuild Afghanistan after it was demolished by their American cousins and in its guise ensure fruitful returns for their effort by imposing on Pakistan its second front through skilful manipulation of inimical forces in situ. Then there are intelligence outfits from various nations who either pursue what is dear to them in Afghanistan or assist the bigger players, or both; the Iranians who have their own interests to secure; the Chinese who avidly follow their strategic economic ends; and the many groups which have changed nomenclature from Al-Qaeda to the Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani), and now Daesh in concurrence which has moved there in large numbers as space closes on it in Syria and Iraq. Add to this the manifest interests of the extended neighbourhood from the Sunni-Arab and Shia-Iran principalities, and decide who was Ghani representing as he spoke to Imran on the eve of the latter’s electoral victory? If one can crack this code, the war in Afghanistan can be better understood.
Yet peace must be sought in Afghanistan both for its derived benefits to Pakistan and for forging a stable and economically prosperous neighbourhood. CPEC will only bear true fruit if its extensions, east and west, can be operationalised. Despite the foundational imperative of such a need, executive authority remains constrained in wringing strategic corrections due to the complexity related to the nature of war. This translates into frustrations which then find voice in domestic framing of the military whose handling of the war may have imposed such a strategic bind. The Talibs and their cohorts were pushed into Pakistan by the US’ 2001 riposte in Afghanistan. By 2015, Pakistan had pushed them back after having had to bear with them for 15 years and after their demonic mutation against the host itself. What once was the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani Network now exists as a unified force within Afghanistan fighting its battles for the control of Ghazni and ungoverned spaces.
To continue to lash Pakistan with allegations of coveting proxies is insidious, whether from within or without. Within, it is used as a convenient tool to flag the perceived civ-mil imbalance, while without it just is such a convenient scapegoat to which our internal debate adds credence. IK will be tested from the word go on his ability to bring this baby – the Afghan policy – back into the civilian domain from the (wretched) hands of the military. And this will then be whipped into a perpetual tussle which will be forced upon him as a litmus test of his effectiveness above and beyond all else, distracting him from the doable within our national capacity. This game has gone on for too long and needs to stop.
Given the perplexing nature of the war that Afghanistan has become, it will need a dual approach towards some resolution. Understanding that bringing peace entirely around Pakistan’s own efforts is a non-starter; it will help to first keep the maleficent out. Four steps will help sanitise our spaces: cleansing our own stables (Raddul Fasaad and a rejuvenated National Action Plan); putting a fence up to keep the bad men out; working with Afghanistan to repatriate the over 2.5 million Afghans back to their country, obviating hideouts; and offensive action to eliminate imminent threat when one is detected along the badlands of the borders. This will also lighten the load for government forces in Afghanistan fighting these elements.
Engaging with the Afghan government and the US, as indeed with the Taliban where influence still exists, while using the good offices of regional countries in the Quadrilateral Dialogue and the SCO can urge a more cooperative approach towards peace. Keeping the Afghan government assured of our resolve to manifestly disable the use of our soil by armed groups fighting in Afghanistan through joint patrolling and monitoring of the troubled areas along the border and via fencing it should bring them the required peace of mind. They could then focus entirely on fighting their battles within, both overt and covert. Beyond this, the war will need to find its own closure when the major players in Afghanistan can let the country find its own normal, and build on it without undue intervention. This is the only way forward to returning peace to a devastated land and to the region.
Scapegoating the Pakistani military doesn’t help and the dynamics of foreign relations aren’t predicated only on initiatives taken within; the eviction of groups from North Waziristan stand witness. It is important instead to recognise the limitations which restrict influence in complex scenarios. While our geography mandates our attention, it is history that will shape region’s future. Progress in Afghanistan will thus only drag because of the prevailing conflicts in the situation there.