On March 23, 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah conducted their first official visit to the U.S. in an effort to strengthen the bilateral relationship. In his long flattering speech to US officials Ashraf Ghani talked about peace initiatives for Afghanistan. He stated that; “When sanctuaries end then peace begins. We are cautiously optimistic that we will bring peace”. By ending sanctuaries he meant the insurgency movement across the Pakistani border. If president Ghani’s optimism for peace materializes, it will be a testing ground for a new type of power relations between the Global (US and China) and regional powers (Pakistan, India and Iran) involved in the Afghan conflict.
Ashraf Ghani’s prudent optimism lost ground when the new Taliban leader denied talking to the Afghan government. The Taliban in a rhetorical statement issued to the media in the aftermath of their new appointed leader, Mullah Akhter Mansur, hinted at adding fuel to the war to prove the notion that the country is the “Graveyard of Empires”. In addition, the recent war in the Northern Province of Kundoz greatly complicates diplomacy and may potentially even deteriorate the military situation in the region. Therefore, it certainly requires both countries to maintain a level of co-operation with each other to avoid further deterioration. Afghanistan is however confident that Pakistan is behind the Taliban and it is Islamabad that is the biggest challenge to achieving peace. To understand the complexity of the multi-dimentional blame game one must look briefly at the consequence of events and the decision making process between Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
From right after the invasion, Pakistan has pursued several goals simultaneously in the Afghan conflict: started close ties with Mujaheddin in their war against the Soviet, brought the Pashtons residing on other side of Durand Line closer to Islamabad to the extent that they drop the separatist claim from their agenda, increased anti-Indian sentiment in the region, and most importantly increased its military capability to a nuclear power, all at the cost of Global Super Power competitions.
With ability to have influence on resistance groups who eventually took the power in 1992, Pakistan achieved its strategic depth against India in Afghanistan. In 1996 the Taliban victory finally gave Pakistan’s politico-military leverage to establish indirect rule at a low-cost, high-return for achieving its strategic objectives. A long-sought goal: through what some analysts believe to be a “cliant regime” in Afghanistan, one that would grant it strategic depth against India. Pakistan’s close ties with the Taliban pushed India to close its embassy in Kabul.
Since 2001, although both countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan) were strategic allies of the United States in its war on terror, the tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan has increased because of escalating mistrust and misinterpretation of one another. Pakistan is blaming Afghanistan for allowing the over presence of India in the region and the Afghan government is accusing Pakistan for harbouring the Taliban and other insurgency groups against it. There is no doubt that Afghanistan in the last fourteen years has followed a foreign policy with an over weighted relations with India, United States and Iran at expense of Pakistan. In light with this foreign policy, the media, governments’ staff and civil society in Afghanistan have contributed in building more mistrust and misinterpretation towards Pakistan. In sum, the political game in Afghanistan contributed to Pakistan-India relations as strained and Afghan-Pakistan relations much more hostile.
There are several underlying assumptions culminating in Kabul and Islamabad that have strained the relationship between the two nations. Kabul believes that Afghanistan’s economic strategic location has already encouraged China, India, Azerbaijan and Gulf countries to be serious investors in Afghanistan. Secondly, for Pakistan to play the game of Pashtun territory (FATA) as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan to extend Pakistan’s influence into Afghanistan and prevent Afghan influence from radiating into Pakistan proper is over now because Pakistani Taliban and local Pashtuns are challenging this anachronism game. Thirdly, ethnically fragmented Pakistan with separatist armed groups (Baluch), politically grieved Pashtuns, Sindhis and other dissatisfied minority groups represents a dismal political, economic and social situation in Pakistan. In contrast Pakistan overall assumption is that the crisis in Afghanistan is in Islamabad’s national interest because it gives the country more leverage by having the Taliban as big threat to Afghan government. Pakistan is also cautiously calculating that the West will eventually substantially reduce their support for the Afghan government, and this more likely brings Afghan government to its knee and at mercy of Pakistan.
Regardless of what the Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s assumption on each other is, today there are at least five major different security threats emanating in the region: foreign terrorists; Afghan Taliban; Pakistani Taliban; sectarian groups and organized crime that is exploiting the situation. Military operations first in Swat and Waziristan and lately by general Dustom in North Afghanistan has proved the vulnerability of both states in maintaining peace and stability in the region through military efforts and without the help from each other.
At the international level both countries are gradually facing challenges. All the attempts and efforts by President Ghani seeking assistance from China, Saudi and Gulf states to intervene inclusively failed. Also internally president Ghani faces challenges; widespread corruption, drug dealers, criminal groups, and the Northern Alliance Council in Kabul: product of years of armed conflict with fragmented leadership respectively ready to take off their boots, even before seeing the level of the water. Recently despite strong rejection by Gen. Murad Ali Murad, commander of the ANA ground forces, General Dostum concentrating on a more kinetic strategy widely to build a militia to confront the Taliban threat directly, but soon had to withdraw as backlash intensified.
Similarly Pakistan’s foreign policy is to bring its already improved relationship closer to China at the cost of dissatisfying it’s another generous and old strategic partner United States. Plus, creating more mistrust and suspicious from India resulted in both superpower to invest in destabilizing the security of the region.
All these bring us to summarize that the best possible way to end the conflict in the region is to make the peace talk real and both countries need political break through. To do so, Afghanistan must take as granted its potential geographical location at the intersection between (Middle East, Central Asia and South East Asia) which proves its importance as economic strategic location. By this Afghanistan needs to realize that despite the historical, political, territorial differences India and Pakistan may have, they share the same economic views on the region. Both countries are disparately in need of Central Asia energy which Afghanistan is the only transit route.
In addition, both countries are looking for Central Asia as a potential market to sell their products and services. Thus, Afghanistan must balance it relations with Pakistan and India as regional powers and partners, not preferring one over the other. To eliminate foreign interfering in the region, Afghanistan needs to develop a “Friendly No” foreign policy, similar to the policy it played during the British and Russian empires in the 19th and 20th centuries. Afghanistan as member of non-alignment club does not need to commit itself to military strategic agreement with super powers and regional powers.
Pakistan must review its strategic depth policy, by at least decreasing interference in the Afghan’s affairs. Pakistan must not look at Afghanistan the way they used to during the 1980s’ 1990’s and 2000s’. This includes ending the anachronism game of influencing and dictating from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Both countries must realize a new era (economic prosperity, security and stability) that is shaping the future of Asia in which neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan should and can pursue its goals through military efforts, but more through economic and diplomatic efforts. Pakistan needs to include the power of historical thinking in its policy towards Afghanistan. It means to think of unthinkable; if the current tensions between India and Pakistan, which is not very unlikely, lead to arm confrontation, it certainly again needs a neutral and impartial policy from Afghanistan.
In sum, for many reasons both countries understand very well that the Taliban is not the block road in bringing peace in the region. Taliban is used as scapegoat for the luck of a shared strategy and consensus among the new type of major power relations between the Global (US and China) and regional power (Pakistan, India and Iran) involved in the Afghan conflict. Therefore, for both countries to avoid worst tragedy in the region; Afghanistan needs to address social, political and economic grievances of the Taliban and Pakistan must allow the Taliban to choose independently their political faith. In order to avoid the worst in investing in the regional conflict, Pakistan needs a more balanced relation with both Global Power (US and China) not preferring one over the other. Afghanistan needs to retreat back to its traditional foreign policy of “non-alliance” that fits its geopolitical location
Mohammad Dawod is an Afghan writer and geopolitical analyst at Afghanocentricism.com. He worked for several international committees and organizations in the humanitarian field for more than 20 years. Recently he has obtained his Master’s degree in International Affairs from Carleton University. Author can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @dawod5551