As the United States and its NATO allies withdraw from Afghanistan, the stalled intra-Afghan peace deal is all but dead in the water. For Pakistan, this means formulating a policy that takes into account the near-certain possibility of increased violence in that country and its fallout. But before we get to that, a word about what has happened so far.
Efforts are still being made by multiple state actors, including by Pakistan — which has a major stake in peace in Afghanistan — to revive the deadlocked process. The pace of events on the ground have, however, reduced the possibility of a deal to almost zero.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. When the new US President Joe Biden announced that he was pulling out his troops with or without an intra-Afghan deal on the future of that country, it became obvious that the US was leaving Afghans to their own devices. At the June 25 meeting with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, Biden said that “Afghans are going to have to decide their future…But it won’t be for lack of us being a help.” The Biden administration is also trying to find bases to deploy over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities. though the options remain slim and costly.
But as a US State Department assessment shows, despite extending support to Ghani and his government publicly, the US is deeply sceptical of the ability of the Kabul government to deliver. “The Afghan public is increasingly skeptical of the government’s commitment to the rule of law, to address corruption, and to appoint senior-level officials based on merit rather than personal allegiance. This mistrust is exacerbated by the inability of the government to deliver basic services to the population,” says the report.
In the meantime, by stitching a deal with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, which also led to the intra-Afghan dialogue, the US has already legitimised the insurgent movement as a stakeholder in the future of that country. But while the US-Taliban deal has been held, the intra-Afghan dialogue has remained stalled for various reasons, most notably on the principal difference of a new power-sharing agreement.
The Taliban want a provisional interim government; Ghani refuses to step down and is pressing the Taliban to accept a role in an interim unity government headed by him (Ghani) until elections are held. Taliban have refused to bite. They know Ghani is isolated. As I noted some weeks ago, the Taliban are not the only ones demanding that Ghani step down. Many in the political opposition also want him to leave and open space for the dialogue. According to an Al-Jazeera report, “Insiders and officials paint a portrait of Ghani as increasingly friendless, out of touch and isolated in the presidential palace in the heart of the heavily bunkered Green Zone.”
Taliban know this. Their deal with the US has worked and they are gaining ground, including in the northern provinces, away from their traditional strongholds in the east and southeast of Afghanistan.
Pakistan needs to distance itself from taking any clear positions with reference to the various actors in that country while retaining and further honing the intelligence capabilities
But as should be obvious, this creates a problem for Pakistan. Pakistan’s position, since the Bonn Conference and subsequent series of agreements in December 2001, has been grounded in two arguments: there’s no military solution to the Afghanistan problem and Taliban must be part of the political process in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s position on both counts was ignored then but Islamabad has remained consistent through all the ups and downs of the war in that country and what Zahid Hussain calls the paradox of US-Pakistan relations in the shadow of Afghanistan.
It is from this position that Pakistan facilitated the US deal and it is from this position that it has been trying to convince the Taliban to make the intra-Afghan dialogue work and “return to Kabul through power-sharing arrangements that have international backing.” However, the perfect rationale of Pakistan’s position notwithstanding, it now faces two problems: Ghani government’s consistently negative attitude towards Pakistan and Taliban refusal to be dictated on how to go about dealing with Ghani. A further problem — increasingly acknowledged by Pakistani officials and analysts — is that Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban has reached its ceiling. Taliban know that short of using coercion, Pakistan cannot do anymore and Pakistan has made clear to the US, its allies and also the Kabul government that it will not use force against the Taliban and expose itself to the risk of reprisals.
In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group identifies the difficult situation facing Pakistan, but then extends the dangerous argument that “Islamabad should reach out to Kabul to reduce mistrust. Using the access and leverage provided by the Taliban leadership’s sanctuaries on its territory, Pakistan should press the insurgents to reduce violence and negotiate a compromise on power-sharing arrangements with other Afghan stakeholders.”
There are two problems with this argument. One, reaching out to Kabul (i.e., Ghani) cannot be justified by the events unfolding on the ground. It will be akin to betting on a losing horse. Two, as indicated, Pakistan has expended its influence over the Taliban. The talk about Taliban sanctuaries is stale, though it continues to be peddled for reasons that have nothing to do with the changed and changing realities on the ground.
That said, with Afghanistan headed towards another round of increased civil war — Kabul, Taliban, Daesh, local warlords and their militias — Pakistan needs to work out its options fast and develop corresponding capabilities to implement a policy that takes into account different scenarios.
First, at this point, Pakistan needs to distance itself from taking any clear positions with reference to the various actors in that country while retaining and further honing the intelligence capabilities and reach-out to all relevant actors.
Second, Pakistan needs to work out a strategy of how best to secure itself from the fallout of further violence in that country. That fallout will bring two problems: refugee influx and increased cross-border terrorism. Increased violence and chaos in Afghanistan will force fleeing civilians to cross over into Pakistan, even as the more affluent Afghans are already leaving for the UAE, Turkey and other western destinations. The chaotic situation will also make it easier for Pakistani terrorist groups like the TTP and its affiliates, Daesh, as also Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar — an alliance of four Baloch terrorist groups — to sustain themselves and mount cross-border attacks in the border districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Third, related to the point above, Pakistan needs to immediately train for and develop capabilities to pick up early intelligence on these groups and strike at them on Afghanistan’s soil. I cannot emphasise this point enough for two reasons: one, Pakistani security forces have been very reluctant previously to undertake such operations. The commanders need to change the defensive mindset and go for a proactive approach. Two, this would require Pakistan to train dedicated counterterrorism teams in ways that reduce the possibility of failure to zero. Such CT measures will also need deploying eyes in the sky through unmanned platforms that can be used for such strikes.
This point also brings me to the conversation the US wants with Pakistan with reference to bases. The government has correctly decided to reject that request. But, given the situation Pakistan is likely to encounter in Afghanistan, Pakistan can have another conversation with the US: we cannot base your personnel and assets but we need the counterterrorism capabilities you have and that would serve our interests.
Additionally, Pakistan should also have this conversation with Turkey. Turkish military has a long experience of operating in northern Syria and Iraq and Libya. Pakistan could draw on that experience and also get Turkish drones that are battle-tested in Syria, Libya and also the Azerbaijan-Armenia war last year. The important point is that Pakistan must prepare for and execute a proactive policy. Recent months have seen heightened terrorist activity in the tribal districts of KPK and in Balochistan and increasing LEA casualties. Pakistan will have to decide whether it wants to continue to take such body blows or opt for offensive defence. An Afghanistan with a nominal, contested government unable to control its territory cannot mount the argument about sovereignty. Until such a government emerges in that country, Pakistan will have to defend itself, even if it means striking targets inside Afghanistan.
Four, preparing for the worst does not mean Pakistan dropping the politico-diplomatic option. As noted earlier, it must remain engaged with the various actors inside Afghanistan. But it should wait and see which way the internal chaos goes. This means a policy which, while sticking to its broad parameters, can be tactically tweaked as the situation unfolds on the ground.
This is another inflection point for Afghanistan and the region. Path dependence and defensive approaches will not help Pakistan. The country needs to adopt a bold approach.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider