Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani in his recent BBC interview warned of conflict escalating behind Afghanistan, if by April no breakthrough was achieved in talks with the Afghan Taliban indirectly urging Pakistan to “do mor” in delivering peace in Afghanistan.
His expectation is that the Taliban will talk or Pakistan will bring them to the table and that they will end military campaign very soon. However, he is expecting too much and too early. Why would the Taliban cease violent campaign by April when they feel to have an upper hand on the battlefield given recent victories in the country’s North and South and when they are entering into talks from a position of strength and likely maintain that power throughout.
The expectations though come on the heels of latest efforts by quadrilateral forum with both China and the US sharing first ever mechanism on Afghanistan to map out peace. Encouraging is the fact that “quad” likely reduce trust deficit between Kabul and Islamabad as Chinese will vouch for Pakistan’s seriousness and commitment to Kabul Government while the US will likely attest to Pakistan’s meaningful participation in talks, to the Kabul Government.
There is no incentive yet for the Taliban to substantively be part of the agreement at this stage when they are winning on the battlefield. Where Pakistan and Afganistan diverge is that Kabul assumes Pakistan has the “control” of the Taliban and can switch off them and by extension prevent tactical victories on the battlefield shortly. But Pakistan has limited leverage, can squeeze them logistically yet they (the Taliban) can sustain themselves independently: other rival countries would support them for their own strategic ends; even now another Taliban faction led by Ghulam Muhammad Rasool, rival of Mullah Masur, is believed to have got backing from Iran, and Iran is very much pressuring for seat in quadrilateral mechanism. So if Kabul Government believes the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy, They (the Taliban) could easily get many sponsors given their successes on militant landscape, safe voids within Afghanistan and contesting regional agendas.
A new dynamic is Gen Raheel Sharif’s announcement to retire by the end of 2016. As he is believed to be a guiding hand on Pakistan’s Afghan policy, he had made great overtures to Dr Ashraf Ghani in trying to sincerely engage the Afghan Unity government on security issues. Pakistani establishment’s policy remain constant, but the prospective Army Chief filling in General Raheel’s shoes may have different tone toner and emphasis. Given Pakistan’ foreign policy vulnerabilities, the plate is full for foreign policy elite: Afghanistan is on verge of unraveling; Indian policy seems getting no where after PathanKot; Saudi-Iran geo-political rivalry is giving sleepless nights. Domestically terrorism has staged a come back since the beginning of 2016, at least this is the perception.
Yet new Army Chief unlikely substantially change policy in security arena pursuing strategy of helping Afghan reconciliation: which means co-opting of the Taliban in Afghan government in some power sharing agreement eventually since Pakistan does not believe that there is a “military solution” to Afghan Taliban insurgency.
In the short term, no matter whatever the pressure of Afghan government, Pakistan will not militarily coerce Afghan Taliban as the US surge’s outcome is clear: it could not downgrade the Taliban enough to incentivise for talks participation. Pakistan believed that the Taliban were not accommodated in “imbalanced” Bonn Conference as a “stake holder” and despite declaring them terrorists by the US and Afghan government, Islamabad did not want to militarily confront them. Islamabad’s position was bolstered by the US Vice President’s declaration that the Taliban were not the enemy of the US and talks should be held with them. As Pakistan understands, given the Taliban’s victories, they (the Taliban) will not be foolish to forfeit this advantage in the beginning so expecting some sort of ceasefire is unrealistic by March/April to happen. However, Islamabad does not want nor is in its interest to see the Afghan Taliban over- running population centres before any final peace agreement,
Now the best way forward is to reduce expectations for Afghan reconciliations from the start and allow time for all parties to invest “sweat capital” in talks.
Clear mechanism for words and deeds required; spoilers identification essential. Clock should be thrown out of the window with the assumption that Pakistan can support but can not deliver peace.
In the meantime, Kabul and Islamabad needs to collaborate on how best they can help disrupt rapidly rising militancy (of both the Afghan Taliban and the remnants of Pakistani Taliban) again with clear expectations: Kabul on its own can not deliver rogue Pakistan-focused militants while Islamabad can not deliver military victory over the Afghan Taliban to Kabul over a plate.
At minimum both countries should jointly disrupt sanctuaries of all shades of militants in the border regions through intelligence sharing and joint operations and proper border management. After all, Kabul does not want to see disgruntled elements of the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda remnants, China, Central Asia and Pakistan focused militants in Afghanistan converging on ISIS-a subject beyond the scope of this piece. Clear goals should be to disrupt the strategic capability of the Afghan Taliban from waging a war, and restraining tactical ability of anti-Islamabad militants in attacking mainland Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Jan Achakzai is a commentator and expert on militancy.