Cooperation, not hostility, is the way forward
While things seem to be stabilizing at home with the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan and the Rangers-led targeted operation in Karachi, Pakistan’s diplomatic initiatives on its eastern and western fronts appear to have fallen by the wayside. Despite Pakistan’s readiness to make a fresh start in relations with Kabul as well as New Delhi after new governments were installed there, lack of reciprocity and goodwill has wasted a rare opportunity throwing the relationship back into its traditional mode of animosity. For all intents and purposes, bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and that between Pakistan and India is marked by ‘one step forward and two steps back’ syndrome.
In the aftermath of the deadly Taliban attacks in Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, on August 10, issued an unusual statement whereby he severely criticized Pakistan. The contents of the statement appear to have been copied from the diatribe former President Hamid Karzai often launched against Pakistan. At the same time, the symbolism of anti-Pakistan demonstration in Kabul, covertly orchestrated by the Afghan authorities, should not be lost on anyone in Pakistan. At the demonstration, the burning of Pakistan flag and calls for boycott and cessation of trade with Pakistan were witnessed.
The recent nosedive in Kabul-Islamabad relations evinces the growing frustration in the Ghani administration over its failure to engage Taliban in meaningful dialogue to end the years-old conflict in Afghanistan. After his inauguration as Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani vowed to open a new chapter in Pak-Afghan bilateral relations. His ‘landmark’ visit to Islamabad represented a departure from his predecessor’s policy towards Pakistan.
The change in tone and tenor of new Afghan government was positively reciprocated by Pakistan’s civil and military leadership alike. Pakistan promised to use its influence on the Afghan Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table for a result-oriented dialogue with the Afghanistan’s Ghani-led government.
On his part, President Ghani promised to take action against the TTP and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) militants holed up in Afghanistan and also to make sure that the Afghan soil is not used for attacks against Pakistan. He also promised to address Pakistan’s concerns vis-à-vis increasing Indian role in Afghanistan and her intervention in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan.
President Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan and the improving Pak-Afghan ties not only riled India but also created fissures within his administration as the camp led by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah was extremely perturbed over the developments. The Afghan intelligence and security apparatus, with an obvious anti-Pakistan bias, was also not happy. The security establishment in Kabul maintains strong and closer ties with New Delhi and retains a deep distrust in Islamabad. In collusion with India, the elements opposed to improved Pak-Afghan relations started their games to sabotage the peace initiatives. On their part, the leaderships of Pakistan and Afghanistan over-committed themselves thereby raising the bar of expectations too high without chewing over the details and understanding each other’s constraints.
The realities of power arrangement he shares with Abdullah Abdullah are such that President Ghani has had to walk a very tight rope since assuming the office. He understands the strategic imperatives of improved relationship with Pakistan due to the latter’s effective role in bringing the Afghan turmoil to an end. But, at the same time, he wouldn’t want the anti-Pakistan elements in his administration to designate him as Islamabad’s protégé. Hence, he has been confronted with difficult choices.
President Ghani, in fact, needed to show to his domestic audience that his efforts for improving relations with Pakistan would consequently improve things in Afghanistan. For this, he needed prompt action from Pakistan to come good on its promise to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
However, Pakistan does not exercise a complete influence over the Afghan Taliban. They are no longer a monolithic body as years-long fighting has disrupted their command and control structure. At the same time, compulsions of guerilla warfare have forced them to morph into small groups with the faction-level leadership deciding the things. The situation has led to the emergence of two distinct strands of opinion within the Taliban: (1) those who advocate ‘fight and talk’ approach; and (2) those who favour the fight option to physically occupy Kabul.
The desperation started to be felt in Ghani camp when the plan of a dialogue with Taliban did not take off due to the latter’s reluctance and internal schism. The statements of the Afghan President reflected disappointment with Pakistan. He also faced harsh criticism from the anti-Pakistan camp in his administration. As the bitterness increased, the leadership in Pakistan went into top gear to allay his apprehensions in a bid to save the relationship from nose-diving. These efforts resulted in first direct contact between Kabul and Afghan Taliban in Murree where initial talks were held in the presence of representatives from the US and China. These talks reportedly broke ice with both sides agreeing to hold the second round by the end of July. Things seemed to be on the right track when the news of Mullah Omar’s death took the world by storm. Resultantly, the whole dialogue process was derailed.
Mullah Omar is said to have died somewhere in 2013 but the timing of this ‘breaking news’ is quite significant. Analysts believe that the Afghan intelligence doesn’t approve of President Ghani’s cozying up with Pakistan. Moreover, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his patron India are also against any dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
It is now certain that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) leaked the news at this particular time with an express aim to throw spanners in the works and to create a wedge between both parties to the dialogue. This means the NDS is actively involved in the efforts to sabotage the budding peace process.
With the death of their supremo, there appeared various players within the Taliban competing for leadership role and influence. The post-Mullah Omar scenario has sharpened the differences among the Taliban leadership with disconnect widening between the field commanders and the political representatives of the movement.
Mullah Omar’s death, irrespective of the circumstances, has exposed the Taliban to many new challenges. The key among them is the likely dissensions within the organization’s ranks; with the self-styled Islamic State (IS) being the favourite and preferred destination for the splinters. A new bloody civil war is knocking at the oors of Afghanistan as the militants of different hues and colours dig in their heels over what can be described as a battle for Kabul in the wake of the conclusion of the ISAF and the US drawdown.
The unity government in Afghanistan has a parallel unity organizational arrangement in the Taliban with the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor appointing two deputies representing Haqqani network and the tribal family of Mullah Omar. There are going to be pitched battles both on the field and on the table with divergent interests clashing against each other in weeks and months to follow.
The stepped up militancy on the part of the Taliban is at the root of President Ghani’s displeasure with Pakistan. But what Ghani administration should understand is that Pakistan has constraints of its own vis-à-vis its relationship with the Afghan Taliban. The dynamics of the Afghan situation have changed after the death of Mullah Omar. The situation now calls for even more collaboration between Islamabad and Kabul to deal with the aftermath and also to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. The employment of innuendo against a country which sincerely wishes peace returning to Afghanistan is misplaced and uncalled for. Pakistan understands that its own peace and stability is closely linked to peace and stability across the Durand Line. Therefore, cooperation, not hostility, should be the policy of the Afghan President.