CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adnan Qaiser, a political and defence analyst with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines Pakistan’s prescription for Afghan maladies, which are likely to be a major agenda item during Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif’s three-day official visit to the United States beginning 15 November 2015.
‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’ so says the adage. Calling the Pakistan army the “godfather” of the Taliban, eminent journalist Fareed Zakaria recently noted that no counterinsurgency can ever succeed when the rebels have a haven: “In this case, the rebels have a nuclear-armed sponsor.”
Those who blame Pakistan for providing sanctuary to the Taliban need to be mindful of a few things. First, no matter how loathsome its practices, the Taliban remains part of the Afghan ethos and reality. Belonging to Afghanistan’s 60 percent Pashtun populace, they control sizeable rural areas and draw grassroots support from Afghanistan’s largely conservative and religious society – primarily for delivering justice against respective corrupt and inefficient Afghan governments. Secondly, both countries have historically strong ethnic, cultural, religious, and geographical linkages. Third, rightly or wrongly, nationalist groups always receive outside support during ethnic conflicts. Finally, national interests of countries are blind and brutal.
Therefore, let’s get this straight. If coalition forces from forty-eight countries could not defeat the Taliban in the past 14 years, there is little likelihood that President Obama’s plan to keep troops until 2017 would make any difference. Despite pledging to end his inherited wars, President Obama would be leaving behind an inflamed Middle East and a destabilized Afghanistan after his tenure in the White House. While recording the “ignominious departure” of the UK, Christina Lamb in her book Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World highlighted “the reality that the might of NATO had failed to defeat the Taliban.”
Despite the Taliban’s principal demand of ending the ‘foreign occupation,’ America’s prolonged presence comes from a few constraints. Besides saving Afghanistan from chaos and civil war, and possibly a staging ground for terrorism, once again, the United States is also wary about the emergence of a stronger Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The US ‘Pivot to Asia‘ and Hillary Clinton’s ‘The New Silk Road‘ initiative are thus part of such concerns.
However, we should be clear that nothing much can be done about Afghanistan. Historically, its multi-ethnic society has remained at war with itself. None of the (rentier) central governments could extend their control in the periphery areas, which were always governed by warlords and tribal leaders. Narcotics remain a life sustaining trade. Rapprochement with Taliban does not suit the present Afghan (foreign-educated elite) dispensation, as shown by their trumpeting of Mullah Omar’s death just two days before the second round of Murree Talks – in which a ceasefire was expected. Furthermore, the government’s intransigence and Taliban’s recent battlefield successes like the Ghazni jailbreak and Kunduz takeover, have not only legitimized Mullah Akhtar Mansour as Taliban’s new Emir, but also forced him to adopt a harsher stance.
Since the Bonn Conference of 2001, international parleys have failed in to address the fundamental ‘political issue’ of Afghanistan. The West has also changed its goals in Afghanistan frequently – from eliminating terrorists to Afghan nation building. Midway, the US and Britain got distracted into an unnecessary war in Iraq. Later, despite a half-hearted ‘troop surge’ in 2009 – simultaneously sounding retreat bugles – international forces remained preoccupied with safeguarding themselves from heightened ‘Green over Blue‘ incidents and undertaking a dignified withdrawal. In an honest admission of failure, US General Daniel Bolger (Ret’d) states in his book Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars: “[W]e did not heed Sun Tzu’s caution. We did not understand our enemies.”
Ignoring Pakistan’s advice to form a coalition government – comprising of seven Mujahedeen groups who took part in the ‘Afghan Jihad’ against Soviet Union – after the removal of the Taliban, the takeover of Kabul by the Northern Alliance, comprising of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara ethnicities, sowed the seeds of continued unrest in Afghanistan. Having been a frontline state during the ‘Afghan Jihad’ against the Soviet Union and hosting over three million Afghan refugees, Pakistan has remained actively involved in intra-Afghan discords. After brokering the power-sharing 1992 Peshawar Accord and 1993 Islamabad Accord, Pakistan emerged as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan. Moreover, having nurtured the Taliban since 1994 and being one of the three countries, which had recognized the Taliban government from 1996 to 2001, Pakistan quite naturally protected the ‘Haqqanis‘ and the ‘Quetta Shura.’
Pakistan’s dilemma, however, is fourfold. One, it has little leverage over an obstinate Taliban. As Pakistan’s foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, admitted, Pakistan has some influence over Taliban but no control. The second issue is how to persuade the Haqqanis for reconciliation while simultaneously using force against them under US pressure. Speaking at the US Institute of Peace, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s willingness to assist peace talks. But he also noted that they could not bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table “and be asked to take action against them at the same time.” Three, it is unwilling to antagonize the Taliban given the group’s strong chances of returning to power (in some form or another). And four, Pakistan needs the Haqqanis to keep its bête noire, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, tamed.
Considering the impossibility of a military success, Pakistan always emphasized a political solution for Afghanistan. While affirming Pakistan’s support for an Afghan-owned/led peace process, Sartaj Aziz laid down his country’s priorities twice: First, by proposing a “Kabul-Taliban power-sharing formula” to the Afghan ambassador on 2 July 2013 (admittedly kicking-up a firestorm between the two countries); and later while giving an interview to BBC Urdu on 17 November 2014, asking why Pakistan should target militants that do not threaten the country’s security?
Vali Nasr, senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan narrates in his book The Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat that on a visit to the White House in 2010, Pakistan’s former army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani gave a thirteen-page strategic non-paper to President Obama that effectively said: “You are not going to win the war and you are not going to transform Afghanistan. This place has devoured empires before you; it will defy you as well. Stop your grandiose plans and let’s get practical, sit down, and discuss how you will leave and what is an end state we can both live with.” Putting across Pakistan’s formula for a stable Afghanistan, General Kayani further highlighted NATO’s scant chances of success in Afghanistan through a twelve-page classified document titled, “Ten Years Since 9/11: Our Collective Experience (Pakistan’s Perspective),” addressed to his counterparts at NATO’s tenth anniversary of 9/11.
However, the current Afghan hostility towards Pakistan is worrisome. While President Ghani slammed Pakistan for “sending messages of war,” the Afghan Ulema issued a fatwa calling the youth to wage jihad against Pakistan after the recent deadly wave of attacks. Employing the Cold War’s ‘Moscow Rules,’ the Afghan National Directorate of Security accused “special circles of the Pakistani military behind all those attacks.” Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also joined the blame-game, castigating Pakistan for keeping Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years and choosing a “new criminal” (Mullah Mansour) to continue “their carnage.”
Despite welcoming the Pakistan facilitated Murree process by sending his top emissaries, President Ghani exposed his government’s true intent on holding talks by saying, “Peace and reconciliation is the responsibility of the state of Afghanistan alone and it will take it forward according to its own ways and means. We don’t want Pakistan to bring Taliban to the peace talks.” Predictably, Mr. Ghani’s high-powered delegation to Pakistan in August 2015 was duly snubbed by Pakistan’s army chief and director general Inter-Services Intelligence by refusing to meet.
While stationing of foreign troops in Afghanistan remains a bone of contention in the US and the biggest motivator behind the continued insurgency, the international community must counsel the Afghan government to reconcile with the Taliban in good faith – as prescribed by Pakistan. As confirmed by the Special Representative of the European Union in Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Mellbin, Daesh (Islamic State) is meanwhile spreading its tentacles in Afghanistan and becoming a global threat. And President Putin has warned on 17 October 2015 that violence in Afghanistan could spill over into ex-Soviet Central Asia.
The real conflict in Afghanistan is not us versus them; it is us versus us.
Adnan Qaiser is a political and defence analyst having had a distinguished career in the armed forces as well as in international diplomacy and public and social sector development. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.