Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again reaching the ground zero less than a year after Ghani’s first official visit to Islamabad in mid-November 2014 that raised hopes for a cordial bilateral relationship. The rift became visible recently when senior Afghan officials launched a diatribe against Pakistan after the fall of Afghan province of Kunduz to the Taliban. However, Prime Minister of Pakistan, while addressing the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, lamented the fact that the remarkable transformation in Pak-Afghan ties after the installation of national unity government and the consequent first-ever interface between the Afghan government and the Taliban representatives, facilitated by Pakistan following a request from the former, has been scuttled by certain developments within Afghanistan.
Despite Pakistan’s extending of a friendly hand to Afghanistan in recent years, things didn’t move the way the leadership on this side of the Durand Line had expected. And Dr Ashraf Ghani, who was considered a no-nonsense man, also started talking like his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, within a span of just one year. But this is not the first time the two countries have entered a bickering mode over cross-border terrorism; it was almost a routine during the presidencies of Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf.
Although relations between the two countries have improved during the last year, yet they are on the decline at present. An analysis of the situation reveals that relations between the two neighbours started deteriorating due to two factors: one, number of terror attacks in Afghanistan escalated dramatically when a Pakistan-sponsored peace process was in progress; and two, when Taliban confirmed the death of their supremo, Mullah Omar, who had actually, according to them, died two years ago. The news of his death came just before the start of the second round of the Murree peace initiative.
But, before reaching a definite conclusion, there are a lot of questions that have to be answered first. The first among them is: Can there be a ‘deliberate’ effort from the Pakistani side in the escalation of violence in Afghanistan, and for what purpose? If the purpose of it is not causing long-term destabilisation in Afghanistan, as promised with Afghan leadership by Pakistan at the highest level, then what can be its short-term objectives?
Among explanations which appeal to mind, the first is that the recent spate of terrorism in Afghanistan is an effort by different factions of Taliban as they want to prove that the Afghan government will be extremely weak after the Nato-Isaf withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another explanation could be that this was the result of factional infighting among different Taliban groups to prove their strength and superiority vis-à-vis the others after the supremo’s departure.
There are other plausible explanations too, like, though not being a part of the previous policies of keeping Afghanistan permanently unstable, the move is more likely an effort of the Taliban to have an upper hand on the negotiations’ table against the Afghan government. And this brings in the issue of Pakistan’s possible role.
The Afghan government feels betrayed by Pakistan on two important counts: looking the other way and ignoring the Afghan Taliban while targeting domestic ones in Operation Zarb-e-Azb; and of concealing the news of Mullah Omar’s death from them. Though both are conjectures, the Afghan side is using the logic of ‘circumstantial evidence’ in its favour to allege that Pakistan has some role in the recent increase in attacks on its soil. Besides others the foremost reason that seems at work is the historical experience that Afghanistan has had with Pakistan but that’s not a valid reason for the current Afghan leadership to adopt such a stubborn position.
Pakistani reaction to such accusations and suspicions is that it couldn’t antagonise different Afghan Taliban groups at a time when its army was moving against domestic elements that ironically share same ideological moorings with them. Problems could be created and things may get difficult if Afghan Taliban at this juncture tuned against Pakistan and ganged up with the local militants; this is a technical compulsion.
But this is just one aspect of the whole argument. Looking at the situation from a foreign policy and technical standpoint, escalation in violence in Afghanistan seems to be aimed at making a bigger room on the negotiations’ table and securing a disproportionately bigger berth than their actual strength for the Taliban in the future power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. It is conventional wisdom that a larger role for Taliban in future Afghanistan may be beneficial to Pakistan’s strategic interests; hence, the suspicions and allegations against Pakistan.
As about the suspended talks between Taliban and Afghan government, time is running out though situation is apparently ripe for meaningful outcome if resumed in all earnest and sincerity. However, there should be a word of caution for both sides. For the Taliban side to demand something that may neutralise Western gains in Afghanistan will be unacceptable. Exerting pressure to that end through acts of terrorism will not only harden Afghan government’s stand but will also turn public opinion against the peace process, thereby increasing domestic pressure on Afghan government to abandon it. In such a situation, US and Nato may be seen empathising and sympathising with the Afghan side and start pressuring Pakistan to the extent where its relations with the West are strained once again.
Then, what’s the most prudent way forward?
First of all, Afghanistan must not shun the olive branch Pakistan has offered to it because the recent friendly overtures towards Afghanistan are not from the civilian side alone; military leadership, too, is on board. Ashraf Ghani or Afghan government’s persistence to talk hard will be taken as some kind of ‘personal affront’ to those who really matter here the military.
Afghan government should also not stick to its current unreasonably hard position because it can result in negative reaction from the Pakistani side that may also push the Taliban to harden their position and opt out of the talks process — its indication can be seen in the new Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s Eid message. That won’t be a good omen for prospects of peace in Afghanistan and in the region. The policy of turning a blind eye to the activities of runaway TTP leadership on its soil — a policy which Afghanistan has been accusing Pakistan of following — will also not yield anything positive as far as defeating terrorism is concerned.
At the moment, it is of utmost importance that matters between Pakistan and Afghanistan are addressed at diplomatic/foreign office level; and that foreign policy issues should not be played out in the public, at any cost.
It is imperative for Pakistan not to be seen on the wrong side. It exerted considerable pressure on the Taliban to start talks; in fact, it was the only party that can be credited with playing the most important and crucial role to make the peace process a reality.