Explaining Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Afghanistan Policy

Lawfare, 26.04.2015
Khalid Homayun Nadiri, candidato al doctorado (U. Johns Hopkins)

The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has long been ugly. Pakistan’s efforts to control and influence Afghanistan have played a major role in advancing radical groups like the Taliban and fomenting unrest in Pakistan itself. The last few months have seen signs of improvement, but Pakistan’s policies will not be easily changed no matter how self-defeating, as its perceived strategic interests and domestic politics are both intertwined with radical groups. Khalid Nadiri of SAIS explains the logic of Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan and why a true rapprochement between the two countries is likely to remain elusive.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have begun to thaw in recent months. Following the September 29, 2014, inauguration of a national unity government in Afghanistan and the mass-casualty attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the Army Public School of Peshawar on December 16, 2014, a series of high-level exchanges have taken place between Afghan and Pakistani government officials to explore areas of bilateral security and economic cooperation. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz,Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Raheel Sharif, and Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Rizwan Akhtar have made separate visits to Kabul, while Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani led awidely covered delegation to Islamabad for discussions on a wide range of security and economic matters.

These exchanges appear to have already yielded one observable change: cross-border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces, ongoing in various forms since 2003, have for the time being come to a stop. They have also reportedly resulted in mutual commitments to cooperate on security matters. Raheel Sharif has promised not to distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists—a possible break from the Pakistan Army’s prevailing practice of accommodating militant groups that target Afghanistan but not Pakistan itself—while Kabul has agreed to allocate greater resources toward capturing Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to be operating out of Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

This incipient rapprochement is a significant development, but it does not constitute a decisive change in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. This is because one of the primary sources of contention between the two countries, the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s cities, remains largely unchanged. The post-2001 period has seen significant changes in the domestic politics of the region—the return to nominal civilian government in Pakistan, the emergence of new social and political classes in Afghanistan, the expansion of revisionist violence in both countries—yet none of these developments have substantially influenced the Pakistani government’s practice of accommodating the presence of Afghan Taliban political leaders and military commanders in Pakistani cities, which they have used to raise recruits and financing for the insurgency in Afghanistan.

This “yes, but” approach to Afghanistan, which former Pakistani President and COAS Pervez Musharraf recently confirmed as part of a deliberate strategy to destabilize Afghanistan, clearly ran counter to Pakistan’s formal commitments to withdraw its support for the Taliban movement in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. But more puzzlingly, Pakistan’s posture of accommodation has worked in opposition of its own security. By allowing the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s urban centers and more remote border areas, Islamabad has created the space for more violent and inward-looking forms of militancy to expand within Pakistan, threatening its domestic and external security. What, then, has motivated Pakistan to adopt the risky posture of accommodating the Afghan Taliban in the first place?

Explaining Accommodation

In a recent article in International Security, I argued that Pakistani foreign policy behavior has been the result of three forces: the enduring rivalry with India, the equally contentious but distinct relationship with Afghanistan, and a series of internal imbalances that, together, make Pakistan’s behavior uniquely self-destructive. The first and most frequently cited source of Pakistan’s behavior is its historically contentious relationship with India, which has pledged approximately $2 billion in official development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001, and has sponsored training and educational opportunities for Afghan students, civil servants, and security personnel in India. Pakistan has sought to check the Indian presence in Afghanistan by territorially accommodating the Afghan Taliban insurgency, employing a familiar strategy of proxy warfare that has its roots in Pakistan’s first war with India from 1947 to 1948.

While the India dimension has exerted an important influence on Pakistani behavior, it is by itself not an adequate explanation of Pakistan’s accommodation of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan is not the only country to have employed proxy groups against perceived threats, but it is one of the very few states to do so despite unambiguous and increasing evidence of blowback against it. Pakistan’s accommodation of the Afghan Taliban and its ambivalence toward Islamist militancy in general has provided the political space for more revisionist and internally focused forms of militancy to expand within Pakistan. This is clearly visible in the rise of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a coalition of militant organizations that are independent of the Afghan Taliban but possess social and political links with Afghan cadres of the Taliban movement. By making more radical forms of militancy possible, Pakistani strategy has consequently contributed to instability and economic decline in its core urban areas. Revisionist violence has become a familiar feature of Pakistan’s relatively populous and productive urban centers, inflicting profound human and economic damage while impeding Pakistan’s long-term military capacity.

A more complete explanation of Pakistan’s behavior must take into account Pakistan’s own internal imbalances and its distinct relationship with Afghanistan. Three domestic imbalances, in particular, are important for understanding Islamabad’s policy toward Afghanistan. First, the predominance of the Pakistan Army in making Afghanistan policy has meant that Islamabad’s approach toward Kabul has aligned with a security-centric perspective of Afghanistan. This view renders Afghanistan as a zero-sum conflict zone where the use of force remains a potentially effective way of acquiring influence and managing perceived threats vis-à-vis regional competitors and Afghanistan itself.

Second, Islamabad’s historical appropriation of Afghan Islamist groups through Pakistani religious parties has provided a familiar and inexpensive means of retaining influence in an uncertain Afghan environment. While Pakistan’s Sunni Deobandi Islamist parties have never enjoyed significant success in national elections, they have exerted greater influence than their vote shares suggest because of their external and domestic utility to the Pakistani security establishment. This is particularly true for Pakistani policymaking on Afghanistan, in which Pakistan’s leading Deobandi parties, Jamaat Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), have participated for 40 and 30 years, respectively. Pakistan’s Deobandi groups, particularly the various factions of the JUI, continue to shape Pakistan’s debate about Afghanistan.

Third, the emergence of more revisionist and militant strands of Islamism in Pakistan, most clearly manifest in the rise of the TTP, has further limited Islamabad’s muted interest in expelling the Afghan Taliban leadership from Pakistan. Instead of increasing the resolve of the Pakistani leadership to expel the Afghan Taliban, the expansion of grassroots militancy has deterred Islamabad from addressing the much broader problem of support for militancy that cuts across region, religious interpretation, and extent of participation in formal politics in Pakistan. While the Pakistan Army has increasingly targeted the TTP, its operations against exclusively Afghanistan-focused groups have been much more limited. To date, the Pakistan Army’s operations in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani section of the Afghan Taliban have been based in the past, do not offer clear evidence of a determination to indiscriminately target Taliban cadres that have not crossed Islamabad in the past.

A final source of Pakistani policy lies in the deeply rooted distrust between Islamabad and Kabul, which has its origins in two historically distinct strands of contention. First, the long-standing Pashtunistan issue (Afghanistan’s latent claim on lands populated predominantly by Pashtuns that were controlled by Kabul up until the early 19th century and that later became part of Pakistan in 1947) remains a salient political matter for sections of the Pashtun population in Afghanistan, even if it no longer resonates on the Pakistani side of the border to the extent it once did. Since 2001, the Pashtunistan issue has materialized in oblique terms, often in response to cross-border clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This could be seen in the events following border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces near Goshta District, when a mob attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in July 2003. It was also observable in the aftermath of the Goshta incident in May 2013, with the occurrence of protests in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar, and extensive coverage in the Afghan media.

Afghan and Pakistani political elites also remain divided over the legacy of Islamabad’s interventions in the intra-mujahideen civil war of the 1990s and its ongoing accommodation of the Afghan Taliban. Today, many sections of Afghan society view the Pakistani establishment with suspicion because of its past and present connections to groups that have employed significant levels of discriminate and indiscriminate violence against Afghan civilians. Despite the increasing depth and breadth of popular animosity in Afghanistan toward the Pakistan government, Islamabad has tended to discount Afghan misgivings, interpreting such views as largely fixed and particular to the urban or non-Pashtun communities of Afghanistan. Together, these strands of distrust have caused Islamabad to prefer the status quo of latent conflict with Kabul than a posture that seeks to proactively address the disputes between the two capitals.

Getting from “Yes, But” to “Yes”

What does all of this mean for the future Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship? It suggests that Pakistan’s posture toward the Taliban, and therefore the bilateral relationship between Kabul and Islamabad, will not be as easily reset as the rapprochement of recent months would suggest. Interlocking external and domestic circumstances have provided for a remarkably durable pattern of Pakistani behavior in Afghanistan over four decades. Although these circumstances have not fundamentally changed, Pakistan’s tactical approach to Afghanistan has evolved from a stance that largely ignored the Afghan government to one that more actively and directly engages Kabul.

This is partly because it has become much more difficult for the Pakistan Army to manage an increasingly unruly militant environment in Pakistan. It is also because China, which exerts influence over Pakistan, has become more involved in peace efforts in Afghanistan as the U.S. military presence recedes. Beijing wants to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for radical groups and their allies. It is particularly concerned with preventing any dispensation that would provide direct or indirect support to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a predominantly ethnic Uighur group that seeks the independence of China’s western province of Xinjiang.

What Pakistan minimally wants is a managed incorporation of the Afghan Taliban into the political system in Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces that border the Durand Line—a line established in the late 19th century to demarcate Afghan and British Indian spheres of influence. From Islamabad’s point of view, doing so would not only degrade the intensity of Taliban-linked militancy in Pakistan, but just as importantly would offer Pakistan influence on Afghanistan’s external relations, particularly with India. The problem with this position is not simply the feasibility of this preferred end state—many Afghan political elites insist that the Taliban must accept the basic principles underlying the current constitutional order and win elections if it wants to govern at the central or provincial levels, and many Taliban leaders would likely resist the prospect of having to participate in a system in which they would be subordinate to others—but also the violent context in which negotiations with the Afghan Taliban would likely take place.

Despite the conciliatory rhetoric between Afghanistan and Pakistan of late, the national unity government has effectively advocated a similar position to that of the Karzai government before it: that the survival of the Taliban insurgency depends in part on the choices made by the Pakistani security establishment. During a recent state visit to Washington, President Ashraf Ghani remarked that “the problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban. The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” That Pakistan has also begun to publicly acknowledge this fact is a potential sign of hope because it suggests that the security establishment may want to amend the “yes, but” strategy that characterized the past 14 years. But it also points to a future challenge.

For prospective peace talks to work, they will require the Pakistani security establishment to send an early, action-based, and permanent signal that the Afghan Taliban are no longer welcome in Pakistan. Absent credible indications that the Taliban’s political and military leadership is no longer permitted to live and operate in Pakistan’s core or border areas, the present rapprochement will likely fizzle out. This is because the current Afghan leadership will come to conclude that this time is not that different, just as the Karzai administration had before it. It is also because both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah will come under increasing pressure to disengage with Pakistan if attacks persist while Taliban political and military leaders reside in Pakistani cities, regardless of the ultimate intentions of the Pakistani security establishment. A diverse array of elite constituencies, including former leaders and associates of the Afghan mujahideen organizations,members of parliamentregional notables, and civil society groups have suggested that their continued support for engagement with Pakistan will be conditional on events on the ground. Continued Taliban attacks may also further mobilize the sentiment of ordinary Afghan civilians against the Pakistan government. President Ashraf Ghani underscored this risk in his prior role as Chairman of the Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission, a government body formed to oversee the transition of security provision responsibilities from NATO forces to Afghan security organizations. From Ghani’s perspective, if Taliban violence continued, then Afghanistan-Pakistan relations “could descend into three generations of distrust, animosity, and, God forbid, conflict…A France-Germany type situation that prevailed from 1870 to 1945 is a possibility.”

While much of the Pakistani political establishment has committed to reversing its prior policies on Afghanistan, there is evidence of backpedalling and internal disagreement beginning to emerge. While Islamabad mulls over whether or not to “officially” ban the Haqqani organization, cadres loyal to Haqqani are reportedly beginning to return to North Waziristan, reportedly with ISI support. Different figures within the Pakistani political system have also begun to push back against steps that could contribute to peace in Afghanistan. Fazlur Rehman, a leader of the JUI and a long-standing proponent of the Afghan Taliban, has denounced the regulation of Pakistani madaris (religious schools; plural of madrassah), many of which overtly promote the Afghan Taliban with messaging and manpower. Meanwhile, former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand has criticized the prospect of Pakistan asking or compelling the Afghan Taliban leadership to leave Pakistan. And in a separate but no less relevant development, a Pakistani high court recently released Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the accused mastermind of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, suggesting greater continuity than change in Pakistan’s approach to militancy. Avoiding a reversion to Pakistan’s historical mean is all the more important because Afghan intelligence has in recent years sought to reciprocate the Pakistan Army’s strategy of proxy sponsorship, which could lead to a more violent region.

In short, matching deeds to words will be a critical requirement for peace in Afghanistan and, by extension, in Pakistan. If Afghanistan is to become stable, it will be a country that maintains active and cordial but independent relations with all of its near and far neighbors and is not used to objectively threaten any other country. In return, Afghanistan’s neighbors would have to refrain from interfering in its internal politics. Such a situation could provide extraordinary economic benefits and open up new political possibilities. Afghanistan and its key partners, including the United States, will need to forge a political formula that provides for regional cooperation. But to get there, Pakistan needs to act in line with its own commitments.

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