By Arzu Turgut
On October 6, 2011, American President Obama warned Pakistan that its ties with “unsavory characters” had jeopardized the relations between Washington and Islamabad. The U.S. has recently intensified the pressure put on Islamabad to cut links with militants who continuously organize attacks in Afghanistan. In September, America’s top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen had also accused Pakistan of “exporting” violent extremism to Afghanistan by allowing militants to act as an “arm” of the intelligence service (Inter-Services Intelligence-ISI). He also accused Islamabad of supporting the Haqqani network, which realized an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. On September 13, 2011, some 25 people died in a twenty-hour siege carried out by fighters from the Haqqani network on Kabul’s U.S. embassy and other official buildings. Pakistan, which has been claimed to be a collaborator with those who organized this attack, refused all these accusations.
The assassination of Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council who was killed on September 20, 2011 in a suicide attack, once again called the ties between militants and Islamabad into question. Recently, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said, “We believe that these kinds of safe havens are extremely troubling and, indeed, a matter of great concern and a dangerous development for both the United States and for Pakistan.” He also added, “So we want to see action taken against them.” These intense criticisms and warnings indicate that, in the forthcoming period, the U.S. will continue to direct diplomatic and political weapons toward Pakistan.
What kind of factors dominate the insistently rejected but seriously suspected link between a local insurgency organization and an Islamic Republic located in a very hazardous region? What is the strategy of Pakistan in Afghanistan? Is Pakistan’s effort to pursue its own regional and strategic interests at the expense of Afghanistan’s stability and security worth losing the support of the U.S. and the West in the long run?
Kabul: A Card up Pakistan’s Sleeve
The historical, ethnic, and cultural bonds between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deep roots especially in their bilateral relations mostly manipulated by Islamabad. The Durand Agreement signed in 1893 artificially divided the Pashtun population on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The fragmentation of British India in 1947 and the foundation of the Pakistani state made this border problem, inherited from the last quarter of 19th century, a more sensitive issue. Afghanistan, demanding the right to self-determination for the Pashtun population, began to pursue the Pashtunization policy. Afghanistan’s denial of the Durand Agreement and its insistence on this Pashtunization policy have become the main factors in the deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The relations between these two countries consist of not only the border issues. The tension among them is a reflection of a multi-faceted game with the involvement of different actors. It is known that some groups within Pakistani institutions play an active role in the policy of Islamabad toward Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ISI had supported the Taliban with the help of the U.S. during the Soviet intervention in the 1980s, and used some radical groups within the Taliban as weapons against the Soviet army. In those years, the Pakistani government had benefited from the strengthening of the Taliban’s position. Therefore, Islamabad had gained the opportunity to resist the Soviet pressure and to increase its influence on Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. Today, there are still deep-rooted doubts as to whether Pakistan’s ISI became the catalyst of the insurgences in Afghanistan and Kashmir and Pakistan offered safe heavens in its own territories.
In general, the regional policy of Pakistan is mostly based on its aim to hold Afghanistan as the strongest card in its hand in order to preserve its own regional interests. Above all, Pakistan sees Kabul as the extension of its policy toward India within the South Asian security complex and tries to limit the Indian influence on Afghanistan. In line with this aim, the political and economic support of the U.S. for Pakistan has vital importance. Pakistan is also accused of trying to balance Delhi’s high military capacity by turning a blind eye to the terrorist activities in Afghanistan and the northern Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan is accused of using the asymmetric power of terrorist organizations as an instrument to preserve its own sphere of influence in the region.
The artificially divided Pashtun population and the activities of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban are the most important components of the “strategic depth” of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Islamabad tries to preserve its strategic depth in Afghanistan, and gives importance to a government cherishing Islamic values and having the same strategic vision as Pakistan coming to power. In other words, in order to pursue its own strategic interests and implement its own policies, Pakistan instrumentalizes its weak neighbor, Afghanistan, which tries to deal with huge economic and political problems. To realize this, Pakistan continues to play an important role in the domestic politics of Afghanistan. As a result, the suspicious eyes search for Islamabad behind every conflict sparked in the territories of Afghanistan.
Can the Defense Mechanism of Pakistan Protect Pakistan?
Despite the denials of the Pakistani government, the U.S. seems sure about the existence of a close relationship between the pro-Taliban radical Hakkani insurgent group and Pakistan’s ISI. It is claimed that Pakistan hesitates to counteract the Pakistani Taliban since it avoids destroying regional balances. There are also some doubts that the high-ranking officials of the Taliban use the territories of Pakistan as a sanctuary. On September 27, The Taliban rejected the claims that it or any of its allies have ties to the Pakistani government. In a statement, the insurgent group said that it has no bases in Pakistan. The Taliban also rejected U.S. charges that the Haqqani network, one of its key allies, has ties to Pakistan’s ISI.
This latest statement of the Taliban, “defending a close ally,” has raised some questions. However, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said in her speech to the 193-country General Assembly, “A cooperative endeavor, in full solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, is the only way of ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” She also added, “Pakistan is willing to do its best with international partners and, most notably, the governments of Afghanistan and the United States, to acquit itself of this high responsibility, at this defining moment in one of the most important struggles of our times.” Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that the U.S. should stop blaming his country for regional instability, declaring “Pakistan cannot be forced to do more” in the fight against militants.
However, it is still debatable to what extent Pakistan, which has defended itself in the face of these criticisms and accusations, will take concrete steps and the groups within Pakistan will distance themselves from these radical organizations. As it is known, the relations between the close allies, the U.S. and Pakistan, deteriorated since Osama Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan. Furthermore, some analysts, underlining the volatility of relations between these two countries with the recent developments, even claim that the next war of the U.S. will be against Pakistan.
The U.S. plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In this period, Pakistan is aware of the fact that it will remain alone with the terrorist organizations in the region. As a result, Pakistan takes cautious steps in its policies. It can be argued that Pakistan is also a victim of this situation. As long as Pakistan turns a blind eye to the radical activities in its own territories, the terrorist organizations will benefit from it, not Islamabad. Although the relations between these organizations and Pakistan have not been proven yet, the lenient approach of Pakistan toward the insurgents rather than its relations with them disturbs the U.S. and the West.
In the upcoming period, Pakistan has to plan how to protect itself from the harsh political and diplomatic criticisms of the U.S. If the tension climbs between these two countries, the defense mechanism of Pakistan may not be able to protect Pakistan. Pakistan should determine with whom it will side in this context. It is also crucial that it shows its eagerness, sincere efforts, and important contributions in the fight against terrorism.
Above all, Pakistan has to revise its own position in Afghanistan and exert itself to the utmost in the long-planned Afghan peace process instead of running after short-term interests under the shadow of historical fears. An Afghanistan that advances in the peace process with the Taliban can contribute to Pakistan’s pursuit of its regional interests. If those who argue that Afghanistan is being dragging into a civil war have reason, this will damage not only Afghanistan, but also Pakistan. As a matter of fact, whatever happens in Afghanistan will have an impact on Pakistan.
Arzu Turgut, USAK Center for Eurasian Studies