Pakistan, especially the army, takes a dim view of Afghan democracy without US muscle. After US troops leave Afghanistan in earnest by 2016, it expects Kabul to eventually fall to the Taliban
The information sharing deal in May between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) was hailed as a game-changer. Finally, both countries would work together to combat terrorism beyond political photo-ops. President Ashraf Ghani, Islamabad raved, was no Hamid Karzai with his Delhi hotline. He was a true diplomat who had talked bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah into a landmark political alliance.
A month later, Ghani bared fangs that shocked Pakistan. Speaking at an international conference in Doha, he blamed Islamabad for “an undeclared state of war for the past 14 years”. The border skirmish at Angoor Adda gate on June 30 furthered his claim. The Afghan interior ministry said that illegal construction by the Pakistan army had triggered the exchange. Some neighbourly cooperation this was turning out to be.
Ashraf Ghani’s love for Pakistan is clearly over. On his state visit in November 2014, Ghani praised the country’s anti-terror plan and its sacrifices. He gushed then: “Afghanistan wants to bolster security and defence ties with Pakistan.” The civilian and military leadership in Pakistan too sighed with relief because, in the end, they all found Karzai too difficult. Now, with Afghanistan lodging a formal protest with Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, the Angoor Adda episode has taken us back to the start. The question is: was Karzai ever the real problem?
Though Afghanistan and Pakistan have historical issues dating back to 1947, their present impasse is easily explained. Kabul claims Islamabad does not want democracy in Afghanistan while Islamabad believes Afghan democracy has no future. It is a thin line with massive consequences. Furthermore, Islamabad wants India out of Afghanistan and doubts Afghan democrats will ever agree.
Pakistan, especially the army, takes a dim view of Afghan democracy without US muscle. After US troops leave Afghanistan in earnest by 2016, it expects Kabul to eventually fall to the Taliban. Even now, barring the capital and the Persian-speaking provinces, a large part of Afghanistan is lawless. The Taliban, too, smell blood and have ramped up their attacks. Reasonably, Pakistan does not want to back a lame horse. It would be a problem if the Taliban succeeded and no ties remained to the returning champs. Also, with the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, Pakistan has no option but to side with the lesser evil. If IS keeps getting stronger next door, Islamabad will need the Taliban to keep it busy and away from trying to conquer Pakistan for the caliphate.
Former President Karzai’s problem with Pakistan was simple and shaped by Pashtun nationalism. To his mind, since the Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Pakistan had treated Afghanistan like another province. To counter its influence, Karzai reached out to India, which gladly obliged with investments and increased diplomatic presence.
Ashraf Ghani was supposed to be different. As a former World Bank moneyman, he was supposed to meet Pakistan halfway all the time. It looks like his patience quickly wore out. In a pointed remark in March, Ghani said: “The problem is not about peace with the Taliban; the problem is peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Since January this year, China has become a partner in the Afghan peace process. With the US itching to leave, this has no doubt happened with President Obama’s blessing. Reportedly, a new round of secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban took place in Xinjiang on May 19. Chinese officials and members of the ISI also participated in the meeting. On the surface, this is a great idea. China, right now, has the kind of broadband sway with Islamabad that Washington never had. It also has significant money tied up in Afghan infrastructure and its own concerns about Islamic radicalism. The Uighur East Turkestan Movement threatens to boil over and close ally Russia worries about IS in Central Asia. In short, China has every reason to want this problem solved.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Afghan Interior Minister Noorul Haq Ulomi recently revealed that a motley crew of radical foreigners had set up camp in northern Afghanistan. He blamed the Pakistan army’s cleanup campaign for pushing these terrorists inside Afghan borders without warning. Whatever information sharing existed had clearly fizzled out. To be fair, Pakistan’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Tariq Fatemi, had earlier clarified the country “did not and cannot promise anything”.
Then, a small miracle happened on July 8, 2015. The Taliban broke their no comments policy and confirmed a meeting with Afghan officials for the first time. The fact that this meeting took place in Pakistan was especially significant. If these “inter-Afghan peace negotiations” succeed, violence could diminish in and around Kabul for the rest of the year. IS clearly worries the actors in Afghanistan enough to band together for the time being. The question is: to what extent and for how long?
Mutual distrust: the Af-Pak story | S Mubashir Noor
The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Islamabad