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Pakistan’s new Afghan Policy

Pakistan’s new Afghan Policy | Dr Qaisar Rashid

Pakistan has understood that supporting Taliban groups in Afghanistan is no longer an option and that instability in Afghanistan breeds instability in Pakistan

On May 12th this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul on an official invitation, along with army chief General Raheel Sharif and ISI chief Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar, and started a new chapter of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. They said that Pakistan considered attacks (under the ruse of the “spring offensive”) launched by the Taliban on the Kabul acts of terrorism, which are condemnable in the strongest terms. Pakistan has denounced the spring offensive for the first time in recent history. It is also the first time that Pakistan has declared the acts of terrorism against the newly installed government in Kabul offensive. It was certainly important for Pakistan to convey these messages to the Afghan government. The visit of the Pakistan delegation indicated that both the civilian and military leadership are on the same page about Afghan policy. The policy was drafted and agreed upon mutually, which needed to be conveyed to Kabul to gain the confidence of the Afghan government. It was time to make Pakistan’s position about the Afghan Taliban clear.

This is a big turnaround that Pakistan has made publicly and officially. In the past, precisely since 2001, Pakistan was accused of having supported such spring offensives; Pakistan was deemed a country that had a decisive say in the affairs of Kabul. Pakistan also used to say publicly that it wanted a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. This time, it seems, Pakistan is satisfied with the pro-Pakistan tilt of the Kabul government vis-à-vis India at least. This tilt is important because Pakistan seems to have understood the post-2001 realities of Afghanistan, in which Afghanistan needs not only the financial help but also moral support from its neighbours, especially Pakistan, to survive the age of terrorism that the world is beset by. Pakistan has understood that supporting Taliban groups in Afghanistan is no longer an option and that instability in Afghanistan breeds instability in Pakistan.

As has been reported in the press, Pakistan has gone one step further, by conveying a message to the Taliban to desist from subverting the Kabul government and submit to the peace overtures being initiated by Kabul. Furthermore, Pakistan has warned the Taliban about its willingness to join hands with the Kabul government to launch a counteroffensive if the so-called spring offensive is not rolled back. In this way, Pakistan has tried to come clean about the insurgency launched by the Taliban against the Kabul government. There are two dimensions of this aspect. Firstly, the level of mistrust prevalent between Islamabad and Kabul did not leave simply condemning the Taliban’s spring offensive from Islamabad an option. Both the civilian and military leadership had to visit Kabul together to show not only their unity with regards to the policy, but also to express their resolve in supporting the nascent government in Kabul. Secondly, Pakistan has come clean about the Taliban sanctuaries existing in the southern and north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan (bordering Pakistan). These hideouts offer the necessary platform to launch attacks against the Kabul government and also Pakistan. Now, Pakistan has shown its willingness to wipe out these sanctuaries by siding with Kabul. With that, the spring offensive’s aim to destabilise the Kabul government has been thwarted, and those pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan who had been hedging their bets on the offensive have bitten the dust.

The Peshawar school massacre in December 2014 is a stark reminder of the fact that terrorism transcends physical boundaries, and supporting it is counterproductive. Terrorists do not respect religion or age group. Any policy using terrorism for certain gains is bound to fall back, turning the gains into losses. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is important not only for Afghanistan but also for Pakistan. Afghanistan is not the absolute domain of Pakistan’s influence. Other countries of the region and the world must also play a supportive role in bringing normalcy back to Afghanistan. It seems that Pakistan has finally realised that it is clinging more to Afghanistan than was actually needed. Now, it is time to step back. However, the process of detachment is also full of pain. Pakistan has taken time to declare its ‘strategic assets’ liabilities. No doubt, Pakistan has paid the cost of that deferment. Again, the Peshawar school massacre is a case in point.

There is another dimension to the visit of the Pakistan delegation to Kabul. The Taliban are playing on two fronts: the diplomatic front, to hold talks with the Kabul government through third parties such as the US and at a neutral location such as Doha or Qatar; and the war front, to pressurise the Kabul government to submit to their demands. The visit of the Pakistani delegation to Kabul has enfeebled their second front. Now, the Taliban are not in as strong a position to pressurise Kabul to submit to their demands. The only option left to them to have their demands accepted is the diplomatic front; that is, to hold peace talks with the Kabul government and have their legitimate concerns heard and demands accepted.

If the Taliban do not call off the spring offensive (which is more probable), Pakistan has to fulfil the commitment that it has made with the Kabul government. No doubt, hopes have been pinned on the peace talks going on in Doha (and in other places) to bring about an amicable solution for the Afghan question that could offer some strategic face-saving to the Taliban.

Pakistan’s new Afghan Policy | Dr Qaisar Rashid

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at qaisarrashid@yahoo.com

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