Islamabad is under a new administration that aims to play a far more active part in regional priorities than previous regimes. It aims to diplomatically involve itself as ‘peace-broker’ or ‘ice breaker’ for any regional issue at hand. All Islamabad asks in return is fair share in economic assistance from stakeholders. Somehow, this strategy works fine when one is not directly involved in a conflict or when one’s stakes are not as high as other contenders.
For Islamabad, Kabul is key to securing an independent, rather autonomous, source of economic relief via Central Asia. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Initiative, Central Asia-South Asia Power Project (CASA-1000) enterprise, One-Belt One Road (OBOR) via China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and anxiety to enter into Afghan peace process is all but evidence that Kabul must be rehabilitated, no matter the cost.
Global politics, however, works on a completely different canvas; quid pro quo with strings attached. Islamabad would have to get rid of its image as an entity previously known to not only assist Talibanization of Afghanistan but also to encourage it for strategic reasons. War on Terror reshaped that version for global critics but as this war lingered on perpetually, despite exit strategies and force reduction, Islamabad’s interest in Kabul became more intense.
Indian investment to rehabilitate Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s harsh tone towards Pakistan meant that decision makers in Islamabad were seeing an envelopment of Pakistan instead of an opportunity to clear impending confusions. What followed was a series of economic, territorial and strategic decisions that distanced Pakistan from America and resultantly, from its pivotal position as a principal ‘peace-broker’ in Afghan peace process. This makes choosing a right directive very difficult for Pakistan; is an economically stable but politically unstable Afghanistan viable? Or is a politically unstable but securitized Afghanistan more desirable? Or none of the above?
With these questions in mind, putting priorities and preferences in order becomes more amenable for Pakistan. With each scenario, comes a whole new level of issues and challenges alongside incentives and rewards. For Pakistan, Ashraf Ghani’s visits mean less if they are not followed by any key stakeholder’s nod of approval for a reinvigorated role in Afghanistan’s future. For this, China momentarily seems less interested due to its tariff engagement with America but is America equally disinterested? Is America too busy in restructuring its international priorities to miss out on an opportunity to resolve Afghanistan? These questions are important but more important question is; does Pakistan consider Afghanistan a friend in need or a foe in the making? Less simply put, would a stable, economically viable, politically autonomous, uninterrupted Afghanistan cooperate with Pakistan or would it resort to compete and contend?
Current political stakeholders in Pakistan are to choose between two distinct options; will Pakistan be a ‘peace-broker’ for America and assist negotiations or would it be a ‘financial broker’ for China and offer Afghanistan China-centric incentives in exchange of more affable bilateral interaction. All the while, Pakistan also looks to counteract India and Indian designs for rehabilitating Afghanistan which this puts things into an entirely different perspective.
If Afghanistan receives financial assistance from India and if it outweighs Pakistan’s proposed investor trajectory, security concerns would auto-involuntarily truncate economic cooperativeness. This is evident from a fact that almost every statement made by President Ashraf Ghani is extensively dissected, interpreted and contextualized to understand what it actually communicates. Challenge is to settle whether to treat Afghanistan only as a security dilemma or as an economic avenue. For Pakistan it’s a battle of two prevalent schools of thought; Afghanistan as it was and Afghanistan as it would be. Should there be a change of perspective or has it already occurred as to how President Ghani is received in Islamabad recently?
Afghanistan holds a very strong importance for Pakistan either way as its strategic importance is as magnetic as its economic potential. For Pakistan, choosing to opt for one paradigm seems like abandoning the other entirely and though it is not a negative-sum game altogether, it surely feels to be zero-sum. This quandary is a trademark for states that usually do not gauge their options fairly and change perspectives with every turn of events.
From strict border management including returning refugees to intermittent skirmishes, from investment deals to bilateral trade opportunities, from warm welcome to heated statements, Pakistan is unsettled when it comes to putting Afghanistan into perspective. This is not because there is any lack of narrative but because there is an abundance of narratives.
Regional mutualism and bilateralism as viable options are fundamentally practical if relative gains outweigh absolute gains between states as it sets the tone of their interaction. Islamabad and Kabul are interlocked due to Pakistan’s geographic proximity and Afghanistan’s landlocked dilemma but for both states, settling whether other is competitor or cooperator is important. Pakistan, without a clearly demarcated Afghanistan narrative would have a difficult time in developing its roadmap for future dealings with Kabul. This time, it is Pakistan that needs to design and implement and not international supra-regional stakeholders because rules of the game have changed post-Cold War. For Pakistan, carrying the calling card of being a state that can ensure peace by convincing Taliban, is an unnecessary burden to say the least.
For Pakistan to answer these questions is imperative as Afghanistan is about to undergo electoral process and with Taliban negotiating their legitimized entry back to Afghan politics, Pakistan would have to accelerate as to how it wishes to engage this neighbor. If Pakistan takes Afghanistan to be a friend and offer rehabilitative support, it shall have to do so from an independent standpoint. America’s eagerness to have Pakistan bridge the gap between Taliban and rest of the stakeholders seems to be similar to how Reagan once asked or tasked Pakistan while dealing with Soviet Union.
The notion that we are considered handlers of Taliban in Afghanistan is a volatile one as it could always be used against us. Irrespective of the fact whether Taliban and Al-Qaeda are actually independent entities with independent goals, global community seems to use both terms as synonymous to one another. With that being said, a friendly Afghanistan would almost always require a pacified Taliban with no strings attached. Any hint otherwise and it all goes back to square one. With the Financial Action Task Force already breathing down our neck, having to affiliate with a status of a ‘manager’ of Taliban would be downright dangerous in the future. Rules of the game remain as they were but the stakes have gone a lot higher than previously imagined.
*Author is a visiting lecturer at University Law College, University of the Punjab Lahore, a PhD Scholar for International Relations at University of the Punjab and author of the book titled ‘Escalation Patterns in South Asia: Future of Credible Minimum Deterrence’