international analysis and commentary

Afghan-Pakistan mutual dependence and the quest for regional peace

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On the morning of November 16, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-packed car next to the parliament building in Kabul, killing at least three civilians and injuring more than a dozen others – including Shukria Barakzai, an MP from Kabul, a prominent women’s rights activist and a close associate of the current Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. This attack happened a couple of days after the President’s trip to Pakistan, where he met with the top officials, both military and civilian, in an effort to convince them to stop supporting the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan. Ghani’s trip, while seen as an important step towards easing the tensions between the two neighbors, convinced few people about the possibility of an immediate change in Pakistani policy over Afghanistan. Right after the visit, several Pakistani officials including National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz and Mawlana Fazl Rahman, Chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party and member of the Pakistan Muslim League, reiterated Pakistan’s support for the Taliban on the assumption that they serve Pakistani interests in the region. Sartaj Aziz is quoted in an interview with the BBC Urdu service saying that Pakistan should not attack Taliban militants who do not pose a direct threat to the country. Mawlana Fazal ur Rahman also endorsed the Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, calling it a legitimate war against foreign forces.

At the same time, Kabul and several other major cities in Afghanistan witnessed intensifying suicide bombings, and large scale Taliban and other militant attacks continued in the Afghan-Pakistan border area, according to officials from the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Afghan officials publicly blamed the Pakistani-based Haqqani network and its allied militant group Lashkar – e Tayyiba (LeT), for these attacks. The Haqqani Network and LeT are very close to the Pakistani military’s Inter Service Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. They would not have taken these provocative actions without the green light from at least some elements within the Pakistani military establishment.

These events cast doubts on the possibility that Pakistan might be willing to change its policy of support for the Taliban and other Islamist groups. And even if that were the case, the question remains whether the Pakistani establishment would be truly capable of controlling all the militants who have established deep roots and connections in its own ranks.

 Relations between the two neighboring countries have long been strained over this question. Given the presence of the Taliban leadership and operational bases in Pakistan, Afghan officials as well as their international allies, including the United States and NATO, have accused Pakistan of supporting and directing the Taliban and their regional and international Jihadi allies against the Kabul government.

Yet despite all these dark clouds, there are signs that better understanding between the two sides and ultimate peace in the region are indeed possible. The new Afghan president appears eager to end the costly and destabilizing deadlock in Afghanistan’s foreign relations – which clearly requires some settlement with Pakistan. Ghani has distanced himself from his predecessor Hamid Karzai by emphasizing improved bilateral security and economic ties as a measure for regional political stability and prosperity. Both sides have agreed to enhance bilateral trade from the existing $2.5 billion to $5 billion within the next two to three years, and to facilitate cross-border trade. Additionally, Ghani has traveled to China and Saudi Arabia, close allies of Pakistan, to reassure them that Afghanistan’s intention is to find a peaceful resolution to the current conflict. In the meantime, the new Afghan government signed the long-delayed security pact with the United States and NATO that authorizes closer military cooperation between Afghan security forces and international forces in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

However, while the government in Kabul, as well as all the major Afghan political factions, seem to be eager to end the impasse in the peace process and begin a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan and the Taliban, history tells a cautionary tale: it will take more than bilateral talks and economic cooperation to convince the Pakistani establishment to end its destabilizing engagement in Afghanistan. Understanding the drivers of Pakistan’s strategic thinking is central to this conundrum.

Islamabad’s reluctance to end its support for extremist groups is based on several assumptions. First of all, it stems from the long held belief within the Pakistani establishment that the US and the international community are not genuinely interested in a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and the security of the region. Therefore, Pakistan must employ its proxies, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other groups such as LeT, to control Afghanistan. This becomes all the more vital after the withdrawal of international forces, so that Islamabad can use Afghan land and resources against its regional rival, India.

Secondly, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been embroiled in a long and legally complex territorial dispute over the Durand Line, a legacy of British rule in India, which divided Pashtun territories into two parts in Afghanistan and British India, now Pakistan. To date, Afghan leaders have refused to recognize the Durand Line as a legitimate border between the two countries. For the Pakistani establishment, especially within the military and intelligence apparatus, the emergence of a strong Afghanistan and of Pashtun nationalism is seen as an existential threat. Pakistani leaders believe that dealing with terrorist groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, who are dependent on Pakistani support, is easier than having to confront a truly independent Afghan state capable of mobilizing Pashtun nationalism.

Lastly, after decades of harboring and supporting extremist Islamist groups, which now have powerful friends within the country’s establishment, the Pakistani leadership would have a hard time distancing itself from its hardline proxies and changing its policies, even if it desired to do so.

Nevertheless, while there is a popular assumption that all roads to peace in Afghanistan pass through Islamabad, the opposite is also true; Pakistan’s stability and economic prosperity also depend on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Currently Pakistan seems to hold the key with its control of Islamist militant groups, but the country’s leaders also understand that using violent extremism is a double edge sword that can easily harm Pakistan’s interests if the conflict continues. On its part, the Afghan government needs to develop a cohesive approach to the peace process that is in line with current political developments in the region, and which addresses Pakistan’s legitimate concerns. This policy should be fully coordinated with Kabul’s main allies, including the United States, NATO and India. The Afghan government and its international allies need to chart a clear strategy for peace that is based on real and attainable objectives but also includes an alternative plan in case non-violent measures fail to address the problems of extremism and terrorism in the region. 

In assessing the strategic equation, it should not be forgotten that he US and the UK wield considerable economic, political and military influence over Pakistan. With the drawdown of the international presence in Afghanistan, they are no longer dependent on Pakistan for the supply routes they needed to reach and resupply their forces in Afghanistan. They could now seize the opportunity and push Pakistan to dismantle the vast support network that sustains violent extremism in the region.

Establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan certainly looks difficult and arduous, but it is not impossible. Given the new political realities of the region, a coordinated policy by all major stakeholders can end the current stalemate and open the door to a more meaningful peace process.