Friday September 17, 2021

Pakistan’s Afghan policy

The unconditional withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the looming threat of a civil war has generated an intriguing debate on the policy choices confronting Pakistan.

Islamabad’s stated Afghan policy seeks “political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists”. Islamabad also ostensibly opposes the military takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and claims to have no favorites in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s stated policy, many in the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan remain sceptical of Islamabad’s commitment to political stability in the war-torn country. This situation of mistrust has been compounded by the pro-Taliban commentary and coverage of the Afghan conflict in Pakistani media.

The current situation warrants a candid and dispassionate analysis of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

First, although Islamabad’s stated policy appears to be an improvement over the past insofar as it no longer professes to have favourites in Afghanistan, the realities on the ground paint a different picture. Afghan Taliban are alleged to have used Pakistani territory to launch cross-border attacks, raise funds, recruit young people as foot soldiers and treat wounded fighters. So, regardless of the official claims, we are effectively supporting the Taliban in the conflict against the popularly-elected Afghan government, a trend that has been going on for the past 20 years.

Second, it is true that Pakistan doesn’t have complete influence over the Taliban but, unlike other regional actors, Pakistan does have tremendous leverage. The real test of Islamabad’s commitment to supporting intra-Afghan peace process is its willingness to use the leverage it holds over the Taliban. Up to this day, Islamabad has at best been cajoling the Taliban to engage in dialogue. Mere exhortations won’t dissuade Taliban from escalating violence. They are power-hungry and seem hell-bent on taking control of Kabul by force no matter what concessions the incumbent Afghan government might offer.

Thus, for all practical purposes, we are tilted in favour of one party in the Afghan conflict, and that is the Taliban. This position contradicts Islamabad’s stated strategic objective of pursuing stability in Afghanistan. If history is any guide, such an Afghan policy has not done us any good in the past.

Over the past four decades, Pakistan has pursued an interventionist Afghan policy that sought to counter Indian influence and ensure a friendly government in Kabul. This policy has failed badly as its two strategic goals are the farthest from realization. Kabul’s relations with New Delhi have become more cordial than they were 40 years ago. In contrast, the mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan couldn’t be greater. Moreover, the pro-Taliban Afghan policy damaged Pakistan’s relations with the US and the Western world and brought us international isolation. Internally, it resulted in the rise of domestic terrorism, which cost us over 60,000 lives and economic losses worth over $100 billion.

Lastly, in pursuit of the security-centric Afghan policy, we badly hurt and compromised our geo-economic interests – increased trade with Afghanistan, access to resource-rich Central Asia and repatriation of Afghan refugees.

In the 1980s, we alienated left-leaning Afghan nationalists. In the 1990s, we alienated secular and nationalist Pashtuns and all non-Pashtun groups. Since 9/11, we have alienated literally every segment of Afghan society and Pakistani Pashtuns who have had to bear the brunt of the negative fallout of Islamabad’s flawed Afghan policy. Today, Afghans across the political spectrum, including the Afghan Taliban, look at us with suspicion and regard our policies as domineering.

The current situation offers Pakistan an opportune moment to bury the hatchet with Afghanistan, start afresh and gain the trust of the young generation of Afghans and Pakistanis who have grown up never having experienced peace. Islamabad’s efforts for durable peace in Afghanistan will also contribute to peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-Fata.

Peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict may be achieved only when all key regional and extra-regional actors work together to strengthen the Afghan government and force the Taliban to commit to talks. Pakistan’s role, however, is most critical given its leverage over the Taliban.

In the coming months, Islamabad needs to back up the existing strategy of cajoling the Taliban with credible threats of crackdown. If the Taliban continue to refuse to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government and try to take control of the country by force, Pakistan, in cooperation with other regional actors, shouldn’t hesitate to use a crackdown to force them to commit to talks. The latter may include refusal of sanctuaries to Taliban leaders and their families, denial of medical treatment, crackdown on camps and disruption of finances and supply lines.

Preventing the Taliban from using Pakistani soil in their fight against the Afghan government and people is the least Pakistan should do to gain the trust of the war-ravaged people living across both sides of the Durand Line. As Hilary Clinton famously said, you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to bite your neighbours only. These snakes will come back to bite us one day.

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

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Twitter: @rafiullahkakar