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June 17, 2021

Pakistan’s Afghan quagmire

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s latest statement on Afghanistan appears to fall short of a careful evaluation of Pakistan’s future role in stabilizing its war-ravaged neighbour.

Kicking off the inaugural event of a bilateral Pak-Afghan dialogue on Monday, Qureshi warned that Pakistan cannot be held responsible for Afghanistan’s sliding security conditions in future, notably as US-led Western troops finally depart.

It was a statement that may underscore the mood among policymakers in Islamabad, tired of being repeatedly accused of failing to help end Afghanistan’s chronic conflict. Notwithstanding America’s failure to conclusively win the Afghan war, Pakistan indeed faces the risk of becoming labelled as the principal provocateur of a continuing conflict that is just not of its own making.

Yet, policymakers like Qureshi must look more comprehensively at Afghanistan, beyond a Western-led framework that has been repeatedly employed for years.

It is also very clear that Pakistan cannot remain divorced either from its geography or Afghanistan’s peculiar history since its invasion by the former Soviet Union in 1979. Both of those elements together have laid the course of a recurring conflict that will be hard to end any time soon.

Besides, events in Afghanistan are more than likely to influence more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan who have trickled in over the past four decades. Most of those refugees have practically abandoned plans to ever return home.

The response of Afghans to not just the continuing but the escalating turmoil in Afghanistan will likely add to potential instability inside Pakistan. This will indeed be the case if Afghans inside Pakistan choose to take sides with warring factions inside their country.

Policymakers like Qureshi may indeed be frustrated over the US withdrawal without a clear solution to the Afghan conflict. Though Pakistan has been pressed for years by the US-led Western allies to persuade the Taliban to negotiate a peace settlement, that in itself is just part of the story.

The US-led international community has been locked in the Afghan conflict for almost two decades without much to show for stabilizing that country in a meaningful way. Looking at Afghanistan today, it's very noticeable that without the assurance of economic progress, an era of unprecedented stability will be hard to come by any time soon. Beyond just the discord between rival power brokers in Afghanistan, there is plenty of fuel across the country to keep renewing the seeds of conflict in the foreseeable future.

For Pakistan, the road to future peace in Afghanistan will be far from easy given two inter-related challenges. On the one hand, rival Afghan warlords for years have used Pakistani soil to rest and recuperate before returning to the frontlines of their own country. As the transition takes place in Afghanistan, especially amid escalating conflict, there will always be the danger of Pakistan being dragged in it in more ways than one. On the other hand, Afghanistan without peace will continue to undermine Pakistan’s long-term interest in promoting connectivity to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Successive Pakistani governments have repeatedly looked towards that energy rich region as the solution to Islamabad’s chronic energy shortages.

Meanwhile, Pakistan remains vigilant over signs of India, the country’s main foe, using Afghanistan as an effective staging post to back terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. The risk of such an eventuality will likely just grow if instability mounts in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.

Pakistan’s best hope for protecting its interests in Afghanistan lies not only in public statements of the kind delivered by Qureshi this week. More vitally, the country needs to work tirelessly to evolve a consensus among its own political rivals, notwithstanding the acrimony that continues to divide Pakistan’s politics.

Given the stakes involved, it is essential for Pakistan to include its Afghanistan policy among a set of core objectives at the centre of agreement among political rivals. But for that to happen, Prime Minister Imran Khan will need to rise well above his partisan political interests.

Going forward, as US troops depart from Afghanistan, there is a danger of violence and bloodshed rising almost simultaneously. For Pakistan, remaining aloof from events in Afghanistan will just not be an option.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]