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Jan Achakzai |

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are continuously on a downward trajectory and this by extension is affecting Pakistan’s relations with the US. The US has a huge interest in Afghanistan so our Afghan policy has a direct impact on Pak-US bilateral relations.

In addition, security issues are so humungous and so complex that these negative triangular relations have created huge challenges for Pakistan.

Since Kabul government takes a cue from the US, it makes very pragmatic sense for Pakistan to address the US concerns in the first place.

At the moment, there seems to be no major bilateral exchanges between Pakistan and Afghanistan except some limited interactions with UNHCR on Afghan refugees issues or some communications on border management, the kind of ones that took place after the recent terrorist attacks in Lahore and Sehwan Sharif.

No engagement of the civilians and military brass with the Kabul government suggests as if Islamabad is waiting for Kabul to come forth or for Washington to push Kabul to reach out to Islamabad.

Unfortunately, the unwise narrative of the Kabul government by putting all blame on Pakistan has foreclosed all doors for cooperation. We are not discussing here who is responsible for the current undesirable situation or what but to seek a way forward.

Read more: How terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan are posing threat to Pakistan’s viability?

Where are we? How to improvise the variables of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

But first things first: the premise here is how to arrest the downward spiral in relations with the US and by extension with the Kabul government and create a leverage to advance national interests.

At the moment, there seem to be no major bilateral exchanges between Pakistan and Afghanistan except some interactions with UNHCR on Afghan refugees issue.

Some specific actions by Pakistan, as seen in the recent past, against some Taliban leaders as reported in the media involving arrest of some individuals are not enough to improve talking points of the US or Pakistan. While more arrests if followed will create traction in Washington; the cycle of arrest and immediate release will not convince the US and thus will not help Pakistan gain political mileage.

The US has made huge investments in Afghanistan. It should be kept in view that our narrative and actions should be consistent.

If Pakistan fears of any eventual tactical alliance of the Haqqani’s with the anti-Pakistan TTP, (which cannot be ruled out, given that all groups we targeted since 9/11 were then penetrated by Indian agencies) then we should put this openly on the table with the US and talk through all contingencies candidly.

The United States have huge ways of monitoring: communications intercept, eve droppings on camps and locations as they have made huge ingress in the country. There is no chance for the revival of the Quadrilateral forum unless either there is a movement on bilateral, observable changes, transitional steps or possible shift. Continuation on the existing route is not in any body’s interest. Isolation is real: keeping the status quo is unacceptable as bilateral relations gets worse between the three countries. Since Kabul government takes a cue from the US, it makes very pragmatic sense for Pakistan to address the US concerns in the first place.

It is the time we revisit our Afghan policy and assess underlying principles and its pragmatic underpinnings.

What are our Broad objectives?

Our broad objectives in the mid-term should be:

1) Unravel Afghan-Indian coalition,

2) Facilitate Chinese leverage on Kabul,

3) Avoid escalation of hostilities between the Kabul Government and the Taliban,

4) Portray Pakistan as responsible mature power in Afghanistan,

5) Increase equities with the US and China that Pakistan is an honest broker in Afghanistan,

6)  Achieve the last goal by a push for peace negotiations,

7) Prevent Afghan fragile state’s melt-down so the sovereign voids along Pak-Afghan borders is averted in the long run, and

8) Convince the Afghans why CPEC is a game changer for Kabul too.

We need to ponder on some issues here and come out with adjustments:

How to manage the Haqqanis? 

Pakistan needs to assess how we can preserve our ties with the Haqqanis and the Taliban (If we are still convinced that it is needed and that its cost-benefit analysis supports our policy of treating the Haqqanis as “insurance” policy-as commonly believed).

Our presumed ties with the Haqqanis are more important than with the US. We should be rest assured that the US will never ask for kinetic action against the Haqqanis.

China and Russia are still very far off (decades) to challenge and replace the US-dominated western political and economic order- a reality we have to live with for the foreseeable future. As mid-level foreign policy power, Pakistan can not effort binary relations (e.g either China or the US equation)

If Pakistan fears of any eventual tactical alliance of the Haqqani’s  with the anti-Pakistan TTP, (which cannot be ruled out, given that all groups we targeted since 9/11 were then penetrated by Indian agencies) then we should put this openly on the table with the US and talk through all contingencies candidly. Here we can leverage our way by playing up this possible blow-back rational and can renegotiate issues like F16s. It will likely strengthen Pakistan’s hands and will also help the US to make cooperation easier.

If somehow we do enough optics, verifiable and observable by the US, then we can easily work with the US and such sincere message makes cooperation much easier between Pakistan and the US.

In other words, we can use these optics seen to be backed by sincere intent as leverage on the US for concessions; both military hardware, and financial reimbursements for our efforts in the border management. How can we achieve this leverage?

Pakistan can still preserve its ties with Haqqanis and softly push out the leadership to go into Afghanistan: one possible option is by social pressure pushing out refugees to facilitate this transition.

The least denominator is we start from border region and now it is already happening.

There is a blowback argument: we should use it to our advantage by asking for assistance in return for measurable, verifiable shift. Or we can ask for help in order to avoid blow-back in the case of a possible shift in our policy.

Read more: US encourages Pakistan Afghanistan talks and reconciliation with Taliban looks on the cards

Pakistan really needs to ask itself if the Taliban and the Haqqanis are really listening and what benefits we are getting if we are the primary sponsors. We need to scrutinize if the “insurance” rationale still holds water when we could not capitalize on our investment in Quadrilateral dialogue and when the Taliban refused our pleas to participate in talks.

Narrative about the USA leaving Afghanistan not true

The fears that the US would leave Afghanistan and abandon Pakistan or is about to leave need revisiting: the fact is the US is not leaving for next four years. There is an open-ended commitment from the US military to Afghanistan and its support.

The US is still the sole superpower and no other power has so far replaced its leverage in Afghanistan or its billions of dollars worth support.

China and Russia are still not eager to foot the massive bill of billions of dollars to sustain Afghan government and its security forces. While we should strengthen our ties with China and Russia but not at the cost of our ties with the US.

China and Russia are still very far off (decades) to challenge and replace the US-dominated western political and economic order- a reality we have to live with for the foreseeable future. As mid-level foreign policy power, Pakistan can not effort binary relations (e.g either China or the US equation). So it is in our interest to improve and keep good bilateral relations with the US and best way is to continue to be a facilitator in Afghanistan.

From the Washington viewpoint, the US-Pak relations’ scope and content is still determined unfortunately from Afghan lens mainly unless we expand massively on other aspects of our bilateral: trade, commerce etc.

Indian Ingress-scope and limitations

India understands that Pakistan has all the means and wherewithal to increase the cost for India in Afghanistan if it so enhances its footprints without taking Pakistani redlines in view. (Pakistan has not done that in view of US sensitivities; this needs to be made clear to the US as politely but candidly as possible)

Let us talk about Indian prism: there are genuine concerns that Afghanistan has embraced Indian “sphere of influence” as a result Pakistan should play as a spoiler to counteract India in Afghanistan, the argument goes. But Pakistan needs to examine Indian options and limitations carefully to deal with Indian penetration into Pakistan’s west in what Indian’s plan as “two front situation” for Pakistan.

Again we need to be cognisant of the fact that Pakistan has already wisely neutralized potential Indian leverage on Afganistan: blockage of Indian goods and access to western neighborhood including Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran via land route.

Second, India cannot replace the US as a sponsor of the Afghan government and its institutions for at least next three decades assuming the need of the Afghan government remains around 6 to 10 billions US dollars annually in the foreseeable future.

Third, as India desperately needs gas to diversify its energy source which is now disproportionately coal based, New Delhi needs TAPI and the key to unlocking TAPI is with Islamabad.

Fourth, India having energy surplus can not access Pakistan and Afghan energy markets.

Read more: India and Afghanistan declaring an “Air Cargo Service” over Pakistan: Realistic Economics or Political Gimmickry?

Fifth, India can never replace Pakistan’s levels in Afghanistan: geographical proximity, ethnic affinity, religious homogeneity.

Sixth, India understands that Pakistan has all the means and wherewithal to increase the cost for India in Afghanistan if it so enhances its footprints without taking Pakistani redlines in view. (Pakistan has not done that in view of US sensitivities; this needs to be made clear to the US as politely but candidly as possible)

In other words, the more Indian ingress in Afghanistan, the more vulnerable Indian interest become to Pakistan’s largesse.

Seventh, Afghanistan given its geographical situation is strategically, economically and politically is so weak that it can not protect Indian interests.

Therefore, we need to articulate our concerns in Afghanistan better to ourselves and to the US viz-a-viz Indian ingress and Indian designs of trapping Pakistan into a “two-front situation”

We need to ask ourselves what steps assure Pakistan’s needs/concerns? Yes, Indian Intell presence is there in Afghanistan and is being used against Pakistan. But Pakistan needs to articulate in a better way as to why Indian presence in Afghanistan is a threat to Pakistan – than what it has done so far.

US long-term presence: myth or reality

We have so far not convinced the US on our Indian concerns; US still thinks that India treats Afghanistan as as “sphere of influence” and that Islamabad has overstated the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a threat to Pakistan but our premier agency, ISI, has to articulate to the US what RAW activities look like and they need to be briefed thoroughly and regularly. ISI needs to beef up its capacity to do that.

Read more: Pakistan warns US, Afghanistan could be the next Syria

We need to have a candid discussion with the US  that why  “sphere of influence” perception is not real and why it undermines Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan.

In the past few months, with greater convergence between Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran an opportunity has arisen for Pakistan to offer that only Pakistan can help stabilize Afghanistan, not India. As India can only work for option B- kinetic solution to militancy instead of option A: reconciliation, both the US and Pakistan can converge on.

The US will definitely welcome Pakistan’s role as a force for good and stabilizer in Afghanistan.

We need to have a candid discussion with the US  that why  “sphere of influence” perception is not real and why it undermines Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to reorient its policy makers to understand why the US has a huge interest in Afghanistan than any other country: billions of dollars pumped it; blood sacrificed; This investment is still continuing even today.

Post 9/11 rational for the US is still there: the US is still concerned about Al Qaeda and the likes – now ISIS.

Given stakes in Afghanistan, the US is convinced that there is no military solution so reconciliation is the only option.

Yes, there are fears in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China about the US intentions if it really wants peace in post-Mullah Manaur World. The Chinese also believe that the US bottom line is to scuttle peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban so the US creates rational for long-term military presence – these issues need open, but behind the scene, discussion.

Read more: Pakistan 2016: Sandwiched between hostile India & Afghanistan; Will 2017 be any different?

But let us flag the US cost/investment again and the price it pays, instead of buying into conspiracy theories: troops’ cost till recently was $11 billion PCM. Now it has been reduced to $20/25 billion a year.

Now almost $4-5 billion for Afghan government is allocated additionally. Almost 8400 troops to remain in for foreseeable future.

NATO’s cost is on top of it. If the US does not get a responsible exit, the alternative is slow fighting with low-level insurgency: a nasty option.

As far as the premise If the US-not-helpful-enough is concerned, yes, the US may not be tough enough on Kabul government.

But the bottom line is: we need to understand the US is looking for reduced but dignified disengagement and it is looking for a retrenchment from the Afghan stage eventually.

It needs Pakistan as much needed partner so there is a gap in the US Afghan policy only Pakistan can fill in.

Taliban peace deadlock & new options

The Taliban talks deadlock and the potential road map: the Taliban have already been offered: Prisoner’s release; delisting from the UN; immunity from prosecution; protection of life and property.

If the US does not get a responsible exit, the alternative is slow fighting with low-level insurgency: a nasty option.

It is interesting to note that no territorial concessions were allowed to Gulbadin Hekmatyar but it can be part of elements of talk with the Taliban and also the offer of troops withdrawal is on the table subject to creation of conditions conducive to withdrawal—In other words, complete withdrawal depends on how the final framework look like or it will be gauged against the kind of end vs interim steps.

But Taliban are not clear what they really want. Here again, Pakistan can create a leverage for itself by figuring and codifying the Taliban position and thought processes.

With peace talks in deadlock, there could be another option/proposal: what if the US offers two times the salaries paid to the Taliban fighters: $1200-1300 per Taliban (for a critical mass of the Taliban) over the next three years.

At the moment they take $580 PCM so make it double to stop fighting as a quid pro cue. This can be tried before a final settlement.

Here we can create another goodwill leverage on the US and it is not going to be a daunting task as given our intel capabilities we can ensure a huge number of the Taliban taking up the offer.

Though it is a “bottom-up” approach instead of reconciliation leading to the administrative integration of the Taliban, we need to test the waters incrementally.

We can also help with a section of the fighters to announce ceasefire; a freeze of hostilities; or do not attack provision if we manage a momentum for of-course advance level of negotiations.

It Islamabad convinces any of the fighting groups to not to attack the US troops, it will be a big game changer with the US improving our image dramatically, boosting positive talking points of Washington as well.

Immediate steps for thaw

Doing nothing is no option. Isolation is real: statuesque is unacceptable as bilateral gets worse between the three countries.

Pakistan has open borders with Afghanistan and has to create much leverage with many constituencies, apart from the Taliban.

We need to approach new political forces from the South and South East. There are many groups now in Parliament and doing politics, we need to establish contacts with.

It is dangerous to rely on one group as pro-Pakistani constituency. In Pakistan’s strategic and foreign affairs discourse, the friendly and soft narrative needs to be adopted.

Pakistan clearly needs to establish principles of Afghan policy: we really can not afford to see the Taliban taking over as sole Afghan entity repressing the entire Afghanistan.

Read more: Will Pakistanis & Afghans be able to see through the Indian Great Game?

We need to accept that even weak multi-ethnic Afghan entity is in our interest. As the ex-USSR is no more, the left-leaning Afghan governments of the past can not play with Pakistani fault lines.

But the religio-politicos in Taliban grab will not listen to Pakistan either and may even have a tactical support with Pakistani extremists of the right as was witnessed in pre- 9/11 Afghanistan.

Our pragmatic streak suggests we need to expand and diversify our equities in Afghanistan forthwith.

Media outlets bureaus in Kabul are the need of the hour if we need to check Indian narrative.

Immediate ice thawing effort will be to have SOAS or PM outreach with Kabul government sending a positive message on the eve of the inauguration of the new US President sending a clear message left, right and center.

Creating Russia leverage 

Leveraging Russian fears: Russia believes that ISIS is part of the larger Geo-political game in the region by the US to undermine Euro-Asian stability.

Most of the Tajikistani-Afghan border is situated in high terrain, which makes patrolling this frontier extremely difficult. Infiltration into Tajikistan by militant groups could quickly spill into the rest of the region.

The US has made huge investments in Afghanistan. It should be kept in view that our narrative and actions should be consistent.

From there, these groups could move into Russia, China, and Eastern Europe with astonishing speed, aided and abetted by some of the nearly eight dozen active underground terrorist organizations reportedly present in the region.

In a press conference last June, General Bordyuzha stated that there were 92 terrorist and extremist groups operating across Central Asia as opposed to 47 in 2010 and 32 in 2009.

Then add ISIS into the mix. There is also a perception that India is supporting ISIS in Afghanistan. Here we can help the Russians to pacify their anxieties given Pakistan’s incredible counterterrorism experiences and expertise.

Alley Saudi concerns

It was a rude shocker when I was asked by a Saudi diplomat as if Pakistan was involved in the Syrian conflict by providing small arms to some rebel groups through private contractors.

Pakistan really needs to remove the Saudi concerns on our role if any in Syria. We also need to understand their game plan in Afghanistan: at the moment they are playing big times in the country to contain Iranian influence.

We need to create some sort of understanding of their regional game. The Saudis and Iranians have major assets in Afghanistan and their spoiling capabilities are unmatched.

 

The author is Geo-Political Analyst, leader ruling PML-N party and Advisor to Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He has remained associated with BBC World Service in London covering South and West Asia. Twitter: Jan_Achakzai. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

 

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a party leader in the ruling PML-N party, and advisor to Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service in London covering South and West Asia.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Many points are valid but few I failed to digest that relates to US, such as, why do we assume that US know nothing about Pak genuine concerns and they are so naive that didn’t know the NDS/TTP nexus. Moreover, US never knew that over 100,000 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorist attacks in past 15 years and almost all of them were done by TTP and the likes of them funded/supported by foreign countries.
    Do we really think US doesn’t know anything?

  2. Excellent write up, whatever suggested requires adroit handling but Pakistan Foreign Office lacks this capacity. Further, US Indian centric policy may not let Pakistani initiative bear favorable results as with CPEC now in full swing and it’s resultant impact will surely mould US policy in this part of the World. As the scenario magnifies so does the requirement of bigger working capacity and that brings in China as an important player in the final settlement. My take will be joint Pakistan China effort

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