As the Americans race towards the exits to end the longest war in their history, the future of Afghanistan remains mired in uncertainty. The intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha has reached an impasse with the Taliban and the Afghan government refusing to compromise for a peaceful transition in their country. Meanwhile, the fighting between them has escalated, threatening a renewed Afghan civil war. Apart from the Afghans themselves, continued warfare in Afghanistan would have serious consequences for Pakistan, which has already paid a heavy price for the forty years of instability and violence across the border. This is primarily due to the geopolitical linkages between Pakistan and Afghanistan, based not only on geographic proximity and shared strategic interests, but also a common faith, history, culture and ethnicity. For these reasons, future developments in Afghanistan are of vital interest for Pakistan.
The Geopolitical Context
Since independence, the legacy of colonialism has encumbered Pakistan with territorial disputes, with India over Kashmir and with Afghanistan over the Durand Line border, which the Afghans have repeatedly questioned in defiance of international law. Consequently, it has been Pakistan’s strategic objective to prevent a simultaneous two-front confrontation with India on its Eastern border and Afghanistan on its Western border. Given Indian hostility towards Pakistan, India has consistently tried to exploit Pakistan’s two-front vulnerability. Apart from trying to promote separatism and terrorism in Pakistan by using the Afghan territory, India has forged close relations with the Afghan governments to undermine Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. To prevent such a two-front confrontation, Pakistan’s strategic interest has been to seek friendly relations with Afghanistan while trying to ensure Afghan security and stability. Due to Indian overt and covert manoeuvres in Afghanistan, Pak-Afghan relations have also been impacted by Pakistan-India relations, with this trilateral relationship being interconnected and interdependent.
To promote regional connectivity and economic wellbeing, one of Pakistan’s strategic considerations has been to attain its pivotal geopolitical role for linkages between South, Central and West Asia, for which peace in Afghanistan is vital. Recently, with the Chinese pursuit of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, of which China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a critical part, regional connectivity through Afghanistan has assumed even greater significance, with shared benefits for all these countries.
Geopolitical compulsions are also important for Afghanistan. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan’s shortest access to the sea is through Pakistan and the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement with Islamabad is a critical lifeline for Kabul. Afghanistan’s land connectivity with India and the rest of South Asia also depends upon Pakistan.
For nearly forty years now, Pakistan has also hosted over 3.5 million Afghan refugees who have sought shelter from the ravages of war in their country. Owing to religious, cultural and ethnic affinities, Pakistan’s host population has generally welcomed and assisted these refugees, many of whom benefit from Pakistan’s education, health and economic opportunities.
Due to the geographical proximity, Pakistan and Afghanistan also share common challenges. Among them are terrorism, religious extremism, drugs and arms trafficking as well as smuggling. Other cross-border issues include sharing of river waters, control over spread of polio and now the COVID pandemic, apart from the long term problems created by climate change.
For all these reasons, there are substantive geopolitical factors that underpin Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. These remain the guiding force for Pakistan’s pursuit of cooperation with Afghanistan as well as support for its security and stability. Unfortunately, however, Afghanistan’s response has lacked consistency, alternating between cooperation and confrontation. Frequently, Afghan governments have used relations with India as leverage against Pakistan, even allowing the use of Afghan territory for Indian sponsored terrorists and separatists. Over the last two decades, the Afghan governments have also accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban to allegedly extend its influence in the country. But the historical record shows that while Pakistan has tried to protect its strategic interests, it has always supported peace and stability in Afghanistan, and does not view these two objectives as being mutually exclusive. It has been the role of malign actors, especially India, which has sowed discord in Pakistan-Afghan relations.
The Burden of History
Even though Afghanistan raised the bogey of Pushtoonistan and rejected the border with Pakistan at India’s instigation in 1947, while also initially voting against Pakistan’s membership of the United Nations, Pakistan persisted in developing friendly bilateral relations. This was largely possible under Afghan King Zahir Shah who did not try to exploit Pakistan’s vulnerability during its 1965 and 1971 wars with India. But the 1978 Communist Revolution in Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979 led to dangerous hostility in bilateral relations. Pakistan refused to recognize the Soviet installed regime and in order to contain the Soviet threat on its Western border, supported the Afghan Mujahedeen in their liberation struggle, with substantial international assistance, especially from the U.S. India obviously supported the Soviets and their puppet regime. Eventually, the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989 but the Mujahedeen campaign against the Najibullah regime continued since Pakistan’s efforts to persuade the Afghans and the major powers to facilitate a peaceful transition were unsuccessful.
Once Najibullah was defeated in April 1992, Pakistan again tried to push for a peace agreement between different Mujahedeen groups based on power sharing. Pakistan’s efforts led to the Peshawar Agreement of April 1992 on an interim set up and then the Islamabad Agreement of March 1993 in which the Tajik leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani become the President and Pashtoon leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was to become the Prime Minister. However, Rabbani refused to share power, leading to clashes with Hekmatyar and the start of an ethnic strife between Pashtoons and Tajiks, led by Rabbani’s Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Masood. The resultant power vacuum provided the space for Osama bin Laden to establish al-Qaeda with his Arab followers, who had earlier joined the “Jihad” against the Soviet Union but were now targeting the U.S. from Afghan soil.
Atrocities committed by Afghan warlords finally triggered a response by Mullah Omar’s Taliban to restore order. Afghans, especially from the rural areas, welcomed the Taliban who rapidly spread their control across the country. As the mostly Pushtoon Taliban advanced towards Kabul, the Tajiks and other ethnic and sectarian groups aligned with Masood to form the Northern Alliance. Once he lost Kabul in September 1996, the Taliban extended their control further while Masood sought refuge in Panjsher Valley to continue his operations.
Throughout this period, Pakistan’s repeated efforts for peace were unsuccessful. Eventually, Pakistan came to view the Taliban as the only force that could establish order in the war-torn country and after they established control over most of Afghanistan, decided to recognize the Taliban government. Other external players, especially India and Iran, supported the Northern Alliance, with funding and arms, which was also a factor in Pakistan’s recognition of the Taliban government.
At first the Taliban were able to ensure stability but Mullah Omar’s obscurantist views and enforcement of his draconian version of Islamic rule alienated the Afghans, especially in the urban areas. His order to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha Statue added to the international outcry against the Taliban. But the most serious Taliban folly was their tolerance for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda, even after the attacks on American targets in August 1998 and October 2000. Efforts by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over Bin Laden to the U.S. and close down al-Qaeda camps was rejected.
American led international pressure mounted on Pakistan to use its “leverage” against the Taliban. But whatever leverage Pakistan had was not sufficient to convince Mullah Omar. Pakistan, therefore, faced a dilemma – it risked international opprobrium for links with the Taliban but could not afford to alienate them in order to protect its interests in Afghanistan; of which peace and order in Afghanistan remains vital.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. brought yet another calamity for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Blaming al-Qaeda and their Taliban benefactors for the attacks, the Americans invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to kill or capture the terrorists and remove the Taliban government. Faced with the American “with us or against us” ultimatum, Pakistan chose to support the American campaign. However, Pakistan advised the Americans that while they targeted al-Qaeda terrorists, they should avoid a conflict with the Taliban and especially not to alienate the Pushtoon majority by relying on one faction only. But the Americans ignored this advice. Despite their initial successes, the Americans also made fatal errors. They failed to prevent al-Qaeda and Taliban from dispersing into the Afghan countryside and eventually pushed them to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Relying mainly on indiscriminate aerial bombing and drones, American operations caused heavy civilian casualties. The American supported Afghan governments, besides being corrupt and ineffective, were unable to provide economic and social development to win Afghan hearts and minds. Then the Americans shifted their focus to the war in Iraq. Most importantly, the rural Pushtoon population increasingly viewed the American presence as an occupation of their country. In these circumstances, the Taliban were able to remerge and wage an asymmetrical war against the U.S. for the last 20 years.
Being part of America’s “war on terror” created far-reaching challenges for Pakistan. Internal opposition to this cooperation gave rise to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) which resorted to terrorism, along with al-Qaeda, causing over 70,000 civilian and military casualties with damages over 120 billion dollars. Even though the TTP has now been severely mauled due to Pakistani military operations, it has sanctuaries in border areas of Afghanistan, supported by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, which are also sponsoring Baloch separatists.
Pakistan has consistently advocated a dialogue to evolve a political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process since there is no military solution to the conflict. Ironically, Pakistan was never listened to for the peace proposal rather was dragged into this long-drawn war. However, accusing Pakistan of “duplicity” and using it as a scapegoat for their own military failures, the Americans started drone attacks within Pakistan, eliminated Osama bin Laden by violating Pakistani territory and killed several Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident. These developments deeply vitiated the Pakistan-U.S. relations.
The Current Impasse
When President Trump’s third surge in American troops failed to defeat the Taliban, just as the two previous ones under President Obama, Trump decided to revert to his earlier stance of disengaging from Afghanistan despite opposition from the Pentagon and CIA. With Pakistan’s assistance, the U.S. engaged directly with the Taliban and concluded the February 2020 agreement, committing to a phased withdrawal of American and NATO troops by May 1, 2021 in exchange for a mutual ceasefire; Taliban assurance not to allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists against the U.S.; and to engage in an intra-Afghan Peace Process. Following Trump’s electoral defeat, his successor, President Biden, upheld the withdrawal decision but delayed complete pull-out till September 11, 2021. Since the Taliban viewed this as a breach of the earlier agreement, they refused to participate in the Istanbul Peace Talks proposed by Biden. Due to the absence of the Taliban, this process was a non-starter.
Meanwhile, the intra-Afghan talks have reached an impasse due to the intransigence of both sides. Since President Ghani is unwilling to relinquish his position in favor of a power sharing arrangement with the Taliban, the latter have refused to accept a ceasefire and intensified their attacks on the Afghan government forces, in a bid for a complete military. The Biden Administration, for its part, has assured the Afghan government of continued economic and military support while planning “over the horizon” and targeted operations by Special Forces against terrorists, which could also be used against the Taliban. India, now America’s strategic partner, has also committed to support the Ghani government against the Taliban. So far several bilateral and multilateral efforts by Pakistan, China and Russia to persuade the Afghans to reach a peaceful settlement based on power sharing have failed. In these circumstances, the possibilities of a renewed Afghan civil war have greatly increased.
Future challenges for Pakistan, Afghanistan and indeed the entire region will continue to be dominated by the geopolitical interests of all the countries involved.
Peace and stability is obviously in the supreme national interest of Afghanistan. For this, all Afghan parties need to ensure mutual accommodation for a peaceful transition and national reconciliation. This would also open up possibilities for Afghanistan to benefit from regional connectivity, such as through China’s BRI project, as well as through assistance from the international community. Failure to do so will ensure that all Afghans will lose since none of them are in a position to achieve a total military victory.
External parties must also play a positive role for peace. Pakistan’s geopolitical interests are linked to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Conversely, a renewed civil war will be the worst case scenario. Pakistan must, therefore, continue its efforts with the Taliban and the Afghan government to promote a peaceful settlement.
The convergence of geopolitical interests of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran regarding Afghanistan can strengthen joint efforts by these countries to promote an Afghan settlement. Their combined efforts can also offer further opportunities for Afghan development through regional cooperation.
The Indians can be expected to play a disruptive role through supporting the Kabul government financially and militarily to keep the Taliban out of power. Likely India would be encouraged to do so. Such Indian policies will need to be countered through a joint Pakistani, Chinese, Russian and Iranian response.
The American role – if not balanced and remains in favor of only one group – will also prove to be negative. Their intention to continue supporting the Ghani government and use “over the horizon” military means will actually fuel a civil war. Moreover, continued American influence through the Kabul government and alliance with India could undermine the regional interests of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran, such as implementation of CPEC and China’s BRI.
In such complex circumstances, the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. Pakistan must continue working with all Afghan parties as well as like-minded countries to prevent a civil war and promote a peaceful settlement. But, at the same time, Pakistan should not alienate or delink from the power group which remains the most decisive political and military force in Afghanistan with growing control over the country. Eventually an Afghan settlement would emerge in which Taliban as well as other power groups will have to accommodate each other rather than continuing to fight. For the larger interest of peace, today’s geopolitics needs to focus more on convergence than divergence.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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