The unruly neighbour

No politically correct solution is in sight for the crisis next door

The unruly neighbour

History was made in July 1971 when a Pakistan International Airlines plane flew to Beijing with the US secretary of state on board. The landing marked a new beginning in US-China relations. Decades down the lane, Pakistan played the role of an arbiter in ending one of the longest wars by the US in the region, if only the absence of war meant peace.

A politically stable Afghanistan may have been visualised when the US announced withdrawal of its forces from the country. The reality on the ground has been different. The abrupt unilateral withdrawal by the US troops from Afghanistan has intensifed the ongoing conflict, encouraging proxies to thrive. The US has meanwhile declared victory. After almost two months of the departure of the bulk of US and allied forces from Afghanistan, it is déjà vu.

How can Pakistan contribute more to the Afghan peace process than it has already done and at what cost? Pakistan may not be comfortable with a militant fundamentalist government taking power next door but with US forces out of the equation, it is the obvious first step in simplifying the power balance in Afghanistan. In the past, Pakistan was blindsided by US assurances of helping in a smooth political transition in Afghanistan. As the last US troops leave Afghanistan, Pakistan has been given a cold shoulder by the US administration. It is now being scapegoated for US failures and pitfalls in Afghanistan. Washington still expects Pakistan to pressure the Taliban to change their course of action.

The regime in Kabul is not appreciative of Pakistan’s role either. The anti-Pakistan narrative peddled through high-ranking Afghan officials has resulted official communications being called off.

While there may never have been a military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan, there was never a politically correct solution to it either. From being governed by warlords and foreign-backed individuals, Afghanistan was the no man’s land. When Pakistan brought the Taliban to the negotiation table, the Kabul government missed out on the opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban on neutral ground. It accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan met President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the international conference in Tashkent, where Pakistan reiterated its support to the Afghan peace process, the two sides agreed on undertaking measures to address the concerns. However, the bilateral commitment has many external factors. With more Afghan refugees waiting at the door, a humanitarian crisis is in the making. Accommodating the refugees in Pakistan amid a pandemic is not viable for Pakistan. Maybe Pakistan should have sought US assistance to distribute the burden more equitably. The government is facing the consequences of its lack of foresightedness and appears to have no contingency plans. The rigid stance vis a vis the US and towards the situation in Afghanistan will be difficult to sustain.

Picking sides in Afghanistan is not an option. Pakistan has little leverage over the Taliban and the government in Kabul does not trust it.

Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan cannot improve under the current circumstances, but it cannot afford to sit and watch its interests being put on hold. One may wonder where Pakistan’s Afghan policy stands at the moment.

Pakistan is justifiably reluctant to be involved militarily. The government in Kabul has been pushed to the corner. If it wants to remain a stakeholder in power, it must engage with the Taliban. This is what Pakistan must ensure. As the country tries to reset its ties with the US, it is also looking for a secure front with Afghanistan. The cold tone of the otherwise assertive US for Pakistan has a different context as well. The US resents Pakistan’s closeness with China and its growing cooperation with Russia.

The situation in Afghanistan is already affecting Pakistan. Pakistan may have other options when it comes to foreign relations, but none in terms of internal security. A new wave of attacks on law enforcement agencies has already begun.

While the Taliban are focused on taking over cities in Afghanistan, the TTP is an internal threat to Pakistan. Noor Walli’s appearance on CNN and his remarks regarding Afghan Taliban and Pakistan must be looked into. The probability that the interests of the TTP and Afghan Taliban may align in the future can never be ruled out. There is no guarantee that the Taliban, when in power, will not turn on Pakistan.

Pakistan cannot wait and count on a third player to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiation. A ceasefire is required in Afghanistan.

The complicated bilateral relationship Pakistan finds itself in with Afghanistan took years to develop. It cannot be righted overnight. While internal issues in Afghanistan hamper political stability and development, it is not time for Pakistan to point fingers. It has to offer assistance.

The writer is an independent media and foreign policy analyst.    She tweets @MsAishaK

The unruly neighbour