international analysis and commentary

Pakistan: the key to regional stability?

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The NATO offensive in Kandahar has been pushed back to the fall, General Petraeus has replaced General McChrystal, Afghan parliamentary elections will be held in September and a US policy review is set to take place in December. Meanwhile, the latest Wikileaks have painted a yet bleaker picture by reporting that Pakistan’s ISI has been directly involved in “supplying, arming and training the insurgency at least since 2004” (The Guardian). Against this backdrop, we are witnessing once again the difficulty of adopting a regional strategy in confronting the Afghan crisis.

The latest US intelligence “leaks” highlight Pakistan’s ambiguous role in the war: on one hand supporting the US-NATO war effort in Afghanistan and even in Pakistan proper (allowing US drone attacks on its territory) and on the other continuing its direct support for at least some Taliban groups. Pakistan’s position as a strategic US ally in the region has granted it special treatment including a conspicuous aid package (the Kerry-Lugar bill, passed almost a year ago) that entails 7.5 billion dollars over the next five years in non-military aid atop one billion dollars a year in military assistance. The timing of the leaks (whose content was already broadly known to well-informed observers) strengthens the belief among US policymakers that the region is at a crossroads and that Pakistan is central to any regional solution. In short, either the situation must improve by the end of the year or the US-NATO strategy will have to be comprehensively rethought, perhaps focusing primarily on counterterrorism. 

While most recognize that a political solution is needed to achieve a self-sustainable “end state” in Afghanistan, it is not clear what the cost of this compromise would be. Pakistan wants to have an important role in shaping the future of its neighbor and its hesitation to clear the North Waziristan region is probably dictated by its wish to play a mediating role between the different Taliban groups (like the Haqqani network) and the Afghan government. President Karzai is fully committed to reconciliation with the Taliban as he rightly sees this as the only possibility for long-term stability in Afghanistan. While the Pakistanis have always wanted to have a say in Afghanistan, is it possible for the Afghan government, the Pakistani authorities and NATO-ISAF to share the same goals or end state? Is a final compromise with the insurgents truly acceptable to the US and its allies? 

Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, has recently stated that the US goal for Afghanistan is to “disrupt and dismantle al Qaeda and their militant allies so they never attack this country again.” However, while al Qaeda training camps and safe havens in Afghanistan seem to have been disrupted, the same is not true in Pakistan where the major Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups (which have links to al Qaeda) reside. The involvement of Pakistan in an all-round peace settlement is essential, since Islamabad can exert influence on many Taliban groups. The US and its allies need a political solution to the crisis in order to stabilize the region. The indefinite deployment of NATO troops (in Afghanistan) is not sustainable by any of the key players: the US or its allies, regional powers (namely Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan) or by the Taliban itself who links talks to the withdrawal of foreign forces from the region. While this is a shared goal we must remember that foreign forces in Afghanistan guarantee the operability of the Afghan government and deny al  Qaeda a training ground for its attacks.

President Karzai knows that eventually the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is inevitable. This is why he has long campaigned for reconciliation with the Taliban and has recently built ties with Iran, China and Pakistan itself. Karzai’s efforts aim at a power-sharing agreement which would include the Taliban and elements of his government, which are all from the dominant Pashtun group. Such an agreement would nevertheless inevitably spike tensions with the other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara) which are increasingly feeling marginalized. This is another reason why the long-term stability of Afghanistan should rely on a comprehensive regional agreement. Should this not happen, Afghanistan would quickly relapse into the civil war it witnessed in the 1990s with the inevitable influx of terrorist organizations on its soil.

In short, Pakistan is a key player in any realistic regional approach and holds the key for any reconciliation to be effective. However, Pakistan is home to the terrorist groups that are increasingly destabilizing the whole region. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) was created in 2002 in response to the army’s incursions into the tribal areas to hunt down the militants. It has targeted the Pakistani army, NATO assets in Afghanistan and has claimed responsibility for the failed Times Square bombing in May 2010. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) represent the historical insurgent struggle in Kashmir and have frequently targeted India. Aside from these groups are the Afghan Taliban, an umbrella name that holds the biggest elements of the Afghan insurgency. This brief overview shows how diverse and fragmented the insurgent struggle really is and how it targets not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan, Kashmir and India.

Most policymakers consider Pakistan, not Afghanistan, the real threat to stability in the wider region. Years of funding, virtual independence and deals granted in the tribal areas have empowered these terrorist groups that now threaten the control of the Pakistani state. Its eventual collapse, with the Taliban gaining control of nuclear weapons, obviously represents the worst case scenario. Al Qaeda and the Taliban would gain a devastating capability to spark a major regional conflict. Indeed, we would face a deadly test of the classical proposition that fundamentalist groups may not operate as “rational” players, whereas states have historically refrained from using nuclear weapons against each other for fear of retaliation.

For fear of this bleak scenario, the US administration has been applying huge pressure on the Pakistani authorities to sever links with the Taliban. This would have several consequences: on one hand it would ease relations with India with positive spillover effects on Kashmir, and on the other it would provide a much needed impulse for a political solution in Afghanistan. With the Taliban groups facing hostile ground in Pakistan and the growing pressure of NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan, this could represent a turning point on the road to negotiations with a much weakened and less demanding Taliban leadership. Presently, reconciliation with the Taliban leadership is not compatible with the stated US goals, but it remains however the only long-term solution for stability in the region.