In November 2014, then newly-elected president of Afghanistan Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, along with other Afghan dignitaries, came on his maiden visit to Pakistan. During this historic visit, besides holding meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, he also had a sitting with COAS General Raheel Sharif. During the visit, which received unprecedented world attention, both sides agreed to enhance cooperation especially in the field of security. Unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Mr Ghani vowed to embark on a new era of ties with Pakistan and sought Pakistan’s role in making the peace process with the Afghan Taliban a success as Pakistan’s role, he believed, was of pivotal importance in this regard. The visit exuded a seemingly-inexhaustible spirit of hope. But, the dreams shattered very soon.
Nearly a year after his maiden 2014 visit to Pakistan, brushing aside all the domestic and foreign pressure, President Ashraf Ghani decided to co-host with Pakistan the 5th Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad, in December 2015 that was organized under the theme: ‘Enhanced Cooperation for Countering Security Threats and Promoting Connectivity in the Heart of Asia Region.’ When the participation of the Afghan president in the Conference got confirmed, the political players in Afghanistan, especially the ‘macho-posturing’ Abdullah Abdullah turned against Pakistan and resorted to bizarre tactics and even publically warned Mr Ghani against passing smiles in Pakistan. However, to Dr Ghani’s utter surprise, his welcome at Nur Khan Airbase with resounding 21-gun salute and the melody of the Afghan and Pakistani national anthems was reassuring that he made the right decision. His body language suggested that he was poised to improve the bilateral relationship and take it to new heights.
But, why a paradigm shift in Afghanistan’s policy toward Pakistan soon occurred and why it opted to fall in India’s lap? Why Afghans felt betrayed by Pakistan and started seeing the country as part of the problem, not of solution? To understand the dynamics of Pak-Afghan relationship and its implications for the regional peace, security and stability, a fleeting view of background is warranted here.
The US-lead ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan started with the entry of CIA team called ‘Jawbreakers’ in December 2001. The team not only paved the way for invasion but also sought Northern Alliance’s assistance in America’s quest for overthrowing the Taliban regime. The invasion as well as the resulting removal of Taliban was widely seen as foreign occupation and an act of sheer aggression. After suffering initial setbacks, the militants regrouped and reorganized and also enhanced their capacity to fight against a larger military might. Most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters could not be captured and retreated to mountainous areas of Afghanistan or infiltrated Pakistan’s FATA region. When Taliban’s guerilla tactics increased the cost of occupation drastically, the US-led allied forces started mounting pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’ in owning the so-called war on terror and helping them in hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership.
Meanwhile, to run the affairs of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai was selected as Chairman of Afghan Interim Authority after an agreement was reached during an international conference in Bonn, Germany, which was held under the auspices of UNO in December 2001. After highly controversial general elections in 2004, Karzai became the president of Afghanistan and continued till 2014 after being re-elected in 2009. His administration, after a very short span of time, started losing legitimacy due to widespread corruption, bad governance and lack of capacity to handle the ever-worsening law and order situation.
To avoid international criticism and to camouflage the incompetency of his administrative machinery, President Karzai kept on playing blame game and started openly issuing derogatory public statements against Pakistan. He would blame Pakistan for sponsoring terror and letting the use of its territory to those who orchestrated terror plots against Afghanistan. Being a brassbound partner of India, he wanted no role for Pakistan in the future peace process and rehabilitation campaign and he every now and then warned Pakistan against meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs. Moreover, when President Ghani assumed office, Karzai urged him to be aware of what he called ‘Pakistan’s ‘machinations’. (He still enjoys official protection and protocol on the Afghan taxpayers’ money).
However, after President Ghani’s visit to Pakistan, the relations between two countries started moving in the right direction and both sides seemed serious in addressing each other’s genuine concerns. Then came the fateful day of August 07, 2015, when the Afghan capital was rocked by a series of rocket attacks. More than 50 innocent Afghans were killed and scores sustained injuries. Some ‘electronic intercepts’ led to accusations against Pakistan and ISI’s so-called veritable arm, the Haqqani Network, was declared responsible for the act.
The basic demand of both Afghanistan and the US is that Pakistan should unleash a military action against Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura — a group of clerics who constitute the ideological council of Taliban. However, Pakistan’s military leadership thinks that with ongoing operations against TTP and its affiliates, the country cannot afford to open yet another front by launching operations against those who have never even showed their intent to harm the state and society of Pakistan. Then comes the other demand of pushing the Afghan Taliban to negotiation table. Afghan government and people seem to have been convinced by their Indian tutors that Pakistan is literally remote-controlling all the classes of Taliban and is insincere and unwilling to bring them to the table.
Pakistan, on the other hand, rejects these claims and asserts that its decade-long cooperation with the US against the Taliban has resulted in reduction of the influence it had over the Taliban. Although Pakistan is leaving no stone unturned to play its role in persuading the Taliban to peace talks — Muree initiative was part of this campaign — yet the problem is whenever Pakistan’s efforts start yielding results; the Taliban are hit hard through drone attacks and even their leadership is wiped out.
Afghanistan and the US have been pressuring Pakistan to do more in the fight against militant groups but they themselves seem least interested in playing their due role as they haven’t stopped India from inflicting terrorism on Pakistan through its launch pads on the Afghan soil. They are unwilling to admit, let alone breaking, the Indian nexus with Baloch insurgent groups and the TTP. It is despite the fact that Pakistani authorities have also presented undeniable pieces of evidence relating to involvement of National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence outfit, playing role of a facilitators for RAW in its subversive activities against Pakistan.
Similarly, Afghan government stresses at all world fora that Pakistan should play a more vigorous role in ridding both the countries of the menace of terrorism. For better coordination, in this regard, a well-thought-out intelligence-sharing mechanism is more than essential. An MoU on intelligence-sharing agreement was finalized between ISI and NDS but the latter backed out at the last moment and categorically refused to accept the olive branch offered by Pakistan. In such an environment of doubt and distrust, how any substantial role can be expected from Pakistan?
These acts of double-speak from Afghanistan are no strange at a time when China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has become operational braving all odds and the new Great Game played in the region chiefly to contain China’s growth. But, both India and Afghanistan forget that they are being used as pawns on this chessboard of global interests. A peaceful region is only possible when Pakistan is taken on board as part of the solution, not the problems itself.