Pakistan’s reluctance to act decisively against the Taliban and/or other related targets inside Pakistan made Pakistan’s demands to have a strong say in the Afghan solution not trustworthy
Pakistan tried to bargain a solution for Afghanistan that will ensure an upper hand to groups it shares friendly ties with. Pakistan’s diplomacy relied on US plans/needs to disengage militarily from Afghanistan. Pakistan also depended on the strength it gained from its location and history of the past two and half decades, which gave Pakistan real influence in Afghan affairs. Pakistan has been using that influence as a bargaining chip. If played appropriately, it could have got Pakistan a much better deal. However, it appears Pakistan has not just failed to gain much, but has lost in terms of domestic security, and is facing a crisis of existential proportions, economic meltdown, and international and regional (almost) isolation with a very negative image. It is getting late but if Pakistan is somehow able to make some quick adjustments in its demands and methods, it can still clinch a favourable deal. At the very least, it can minimise the loss.
When the US announced its surge policy leading to a drawdown, wrongly termed as withdrawal, Pakistan’s Afghan policy managers initially jumped with excitement and started thinking of a possible return of the pre-2001 Afghanistan, but a little more amenable to its security interest perceptions. However, apparently they soon realised that this may not be the case and we may witness a situation of serious violence in Afghanistan and a real threat to Pakistan itself from religious extremists. Observers of Pakistan’s Afghan policy started noting a change in voices closer to the establishment. Arguments started emanating from such quarters against the US drawdown termed withdrawal without a final solution. The final solution, it was argued, must be found through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban; the Taliban have differences with al Qaeda; the Taliban have become more mature; anecdotes of some mid-level Taliban commanders talking negatively of al Qaeda emerged 2011 inwards. An increased level of violence in Afghanistan with some spectacular attacks to make global news headlines was also seen. Pakistan started a policy of pressurising the US for finding a solution to Afghanistan suiting its interests. The increased condemnation of drones and closure of NATO supply routes at different times were some tactical moves to establish the need for a deal in Afghanistan and centrality of Pakistan to any such deal. However, such policy added to the suspicion of Pakistan being soft on the Taliban and the US started looking more earnestly to find a solution sans Pakistan, gradually considering Pakistan as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The US expected the surge would weaken the Taliban to a certain level by December 2014 that could be handled by the Afghans themselves, with international support from outside. Pakistan pursued a policy that told the US this could only happen through Pakistan’s role. The US tried to push/convince Pakistan to help in achieving such ends. Pakistani demands for doing so, it seems, were considered not worth Pakistan’s help. Additionally, Pakistan’s reluctance to act decisively against the Taliban and/or other related targets inside Pakistan made Pakistan’s demands to have a strong say in the Afghan solution not trustworthy. The increased Talibanisation inside Pakistan, partly a result of the Pakistani policy of not decisively acting against them, strengthened perceptions that Pakistan itself may be overrun by these extremist forces. Such a probability, even if remote, was considered more dreadful due to Pakistan being a nuclear-armed state. This fear resulted in not only mistrust but also in a policy of continued engagement of Pakistan.
With December 2014 approaching, the urge to ensure the survival of the existing constitutional system in Afghanistan to deny it being reverted partly or fully to becoming a safe haven for global terrorists made US diplomacy pursue a policy of engaging all Afghan neighbours. This was in the perspective of all those who shared the threat of terrorism, including China, Russia, and more importantly, especially from Pakistan’s standpoint, India. Iran, though at loggerheads with the US everywhere else, was also tolerated in Afghanistan, as the US at least shared with Iran the mistrust of the Taliban. While doing that, the US continued to keep Pakistan engaged, urging it to cooperate more with it on the Afghanistan issue. The US also started a policy of reaching out to the Taliban with the expectation of finding a negotiated settlement. Pakistan’s role became very crucial in such a dialogue.
This led to the establishment of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. The Doha office was opened to provide a neutral place for negotiations between the Taliban and the US. Pakistan played an important role in this entire process. However, despite initial fanfare and hyped up expectations, it has become a non-starter for a variety of reasons, the most important being the almost complete absence of the most important player from this process, i.e. the government of Afghanistan. Some ceremonial controversies apart, like the hoisting of the Taliban’s Afghanistan flag on the Doha office, the Afghan government considered the entire process as Pakistan-centred and undermined it.
The chances of its revival and becoming a vehicle of any meaningful progress are decreasing with each passing day. Those interested in finding peace, or at a minimum, starting a process of peace in Afghanistan must make a fresh start. That initiative must begin with looking at what has been missing in the different attempts so far. While all parties need to revisit their existing policies, this essay will limit itself to some pointers for Pakistan, if for no other reason than for the constraints and limits of space, and audience.
(To be continued)