For Pakistan, what is an appropriate vision and strategy for Afghanistan? Are our goals and policies consistent with it? We need a friendly and stable Afghanistan with which we can build wide ranging and mutually beneficial cooperation based on shared interests and our legacy of close links. Friendly means well disposed, not compliant.
In order to move towards such a goal we need to address Afghan concerns and perceptions regarding the policies Pakistan has been following towards their country. If instead, we reject these concerns as mistaken or hostile, or counter them with concerns of our own, we will leave the field open to parties, such as India, that are not necessarily friendly to Pakistan. This does not mean we should not inform the Afghans of justified concerns that we may have. It means they are best taken up within a context of improved Afghan perceptions about our policies.
We will also need to realize that Pak-Afghan relations are inevitably impacted by Pak-India relations. But Pak-India relations should not be allowed to determine the parameters for Pak-Afghan relations. Otherwise, Afghanistan and India will tend to concert their respective policies towards Pakistan. In that event, Pakistan may feel compelled to counter through an intrusive policy that aims at bringing about a compliant regime in Afghanistan.
Such an effort will only further alienate Afghan opinion and undermine the basis for the emergence of a genuinely friendly and stable Afghanistan that values its independence and sovereignty, but is not inclined to concert its policies with any country against Pakistan’s interests. Our Taliban experience is proof of this.
The Taliban were able to dominate Afghanistan only because of Pakistani support. They were seen in Afghanistan as Pakistani proxies. Their governance alienated Afghan opinion and turned it against Pakistan which found itself internationally isolated. India was guaranteed that any post-Taliban government would be anti-Pakistan and pro-India. This was a major strategic defeat for which our intelligence and security establishment was wholly responsible.
Pakistan’s leverage can counter and limit Afghan hostility to a certain extent. But it can never win the hearts and minds of the Afghans, including their Pashtun majority. If Pakistan tries to impose compliance on Afghanistan, it will be India rather than Pakistan that obtains a so- called “strategic depth.” A friendly and stable Afghanistan that has few if any concerns regarding Pakistani hegemony, leverage or influence is the best possible “strategic depth” it can offer Pakistan.
This is not the case today. Whose fault is it? Instead of entering a sterile discussion, we should correct the situation. What is the main Afghan concern regarding Pakistan? In a word, it is the ISI. This may be fair or unfair. But it is the perception, indeed conviction, of Afghan policy makers and even much of Pakistani Pashtun opinion. Is this just a governmental, non-Pashtun, pro-India view in Afghanistan? No, it is much more than that. It is a view that is widely held in Afghanistan. Perceptions are realities. They are not changed through argument. They can only be changed through policies.
The military or ISI world view, or that of its operational and field personnel, is very different from that of the majority of civil and political society in Pakistan, or the civilian personnel of the government of Pakistan. It is relatively normal for security and intelligence establishments to have hawkish views. Their inputs are essential for balanced policy formulation. But what is not normal is for the Military/ ISI view to almost exclusively determine national policy decision-making with regard to critical foreign policy issues such as relations with Afghanistan and India.
Most Pakistanis enthusiastically defend what they believe to be Pakistan’s national interests as well as policies they believe logically and rationally flow from them. But they do not relish having to represent or defend policies that reflect specific constituency or institutional interests, especially when they are seen to be at variance with what they believe to be the national interest. This disjuncture measures bad governance and has been a fatal flaw in Pakistan’s diplomacy. Unfortunately for Pakistan’s foreign policy, it is only nominally conducted by the Foreign Office which has been reduced to being more salesperson than policy maker.
This is because civil and political society is weak in Pakistan. It cannot at present prevail over the narrow interests of the powerful security and intelligence establishment. Repeated policy disasters have inevitably been the result. But the power structure guarantees that no governance or political lessons can be learned and implemented. The real policy makers are invisible, irresponsible and incorrigible. The pathetic confessions and revelations of Parvez Musharraf are, unfortunately, as credible as they are tragic. At a time when Pakistan can no longer survive policy disasters they are guaranteed to regularly occur. The political leadership only cares to protect their meal tickets i.e. their assembly seats and other positions of patronage. The floods have revealed this more clearly than ever to the people of Pakistan. The military acquitted itself creditably. But flood relief is not primarily its responsibility, especially beyond the initial phase of rescue.
Unless a change in this situation occurs, no coherent strategy on any issue, including Afghanistan, can develop. This, of course, is part of a larger question – how to bring about a political and social transformation in Pakistan? Specific answers to specific questions on any important domestic or external issue cannot be meaningful outside this context. Analyses and assessments, however clever and smart, when made outside any context of national interests usually end up serving external and politically preferred status quo strategies and agendas. Accordingly, in Pakistan’s current circumstances, they unfailingly come up with all the wrong policy answers. That is why the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are where they are today.
Only major powers can indulge themselves for a while with irrational policy priorities under the dissembling garb of faith and false moral imperatives, without immediately having to pay too high a price for it. Pakistan does not belong to this category. Its margin of error for policy errors is practically zero. Our tragic history is proof of this. Those who, despite our history, continue to ignore this fact actually choose to betray their country in its hour of life or death. Whether they do this knowingly or unknowingly, it makes no difference. We cannot afford to delude ourselves any longer without paying the ultimate state price.
America’s war in Afghanistan has entered its tenth year. The Nobel Peace Laureate, President Obama, has made Afghanistan his war. He has now expanded its theater to Pakistani territory. Instead of reviewing his strategy he has intensified it with increased illegal drone attacks, helicopter attacks, covert assassination operations, ground operations that kill, maim, displace and alienate local populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan etc. None of this has weakened the Taliban. But it has obstructed the start of serious negotiations with them for a peace settlement.
Pakistan is simultaneously referred to in Washington as America’s indispensable and dishonest partner. The Pakistan military is regarded as America’s main asset in the expanded theater, and the ISI – or autonomous elements within it – are seen as major impediments to the success of American policies in Afghanistan. But the ISI and the military are not seen as different. They are seen as different aspects of a single entity which is part ally and part enemy, and always a problem.
This is a situation that suits the hawks in America and India. In America many know that even with the support of Pakistan they are not likely to finally defeat the Taliban through a military led strategy, such as the COIN strategy of General Petraeus. But their lead card or comparative advantage is a military led strategy. They have no credible peace alternative in Afghanistan other than withdrawal. But this, it is thought, would only encourage other peoples around the world to believe that US power can be successfully countered. This is a strategic No-No. The hawks will not give up the military option even if it is not working. In this regard, they have been encouraged by the discovery that Obama has turned out to be far less than the leader he promised to be.
One way for US hawks to keep the military option alive is to push the Taliban into a closer relationship with Iran, which is much more reliably opposed to American hegemony in the region than Pakistan will ever be. Pro- Israeli planners of American war strategies in the so- called Broader Middle East see this possibility as increasing the political feasibility of a US, Israeli or joint US/Israeli assault on Iran with the support of the resurgent right in the US and quaking Arab regimes in the region. Obama has failed to outflank the war party, and has now allowed it to influence his strategic thinking. It is noteworthy that during the Congressional hearing for his appointment as CENTCOM Commander, General Petraeus described Iran as the single biggest threat to the security of the US in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.
How come? Iran – even with its alleged nuclear program – cannot credibly pose a military threat to the US or its proxies. But it is the source of a much greater threat: non-compliance with regard to the demands of US strategy in the region. Nothing could be more “de-stabilizing” and, therefore, unacceptable to Washington. Within this context, Iran’s nuclear program which is in response to its own very real threat perceptions and which could deter a major attack on its nuclear and non-nuclear infrastructure is regarded as an intolerable provocation. Regime change in Tehran is accordingly a constant and compelling strategic objective of the US in the region. Should the Taliban be compelled to seek a temporary relationship of mutual convenience with Tehran, the latter could be projected with the assistance of the compliant mainstream US and western media as a mortal threat to international security which simply had to be taken out.
Needless to say, a US, Israeli, or joint US/Israeli assault would destroy any prospect of peace and stability in the so-called Af-Pak region – indeed in the Broader Middle East – for at least a generation. The humanitarian cost would be incalculable and indescribable. But just as the ruling elite in Pakistan doesn’t seem to care much about the future of Pakistan, the US led ruling elite of the world – the Masters of the Universe – do not care much for “wimpish” concepts such as humanitarian costs, international law, human rights, planetary health, even peace, except on very specific conditions.
For Indian strategists, an unpredictable Pakistan with decreasing leverage over the Taliban (if it moves closer to Iran) will lose strategic significance in Washington. Moreover, the Indians are likely to calculate that the US would wish to reduce or eliminate its dependence on an unreliable Pakistan military and intelligence establishment which assists in the small but never delivers in the large as far as US strategic objectives in the region are concerned. This would allow India to influence the terms of future US-Pakistan relations to the detriment of Pakistan, and to a much greater extent than ever before. In these circumstances, should the US invade or assault Iran, Indian planners believe Pakistan would be in no position to strategically outbid India, as partially happened after 9/11. The road to Indian political and economic dominance in the region would be cleared. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent would be irrelevant.
Pakistan, of course, cannot deliver on US objectives in Afghanistan and the region because they are largely based on the diplomacy of threats and sanctions (from which Pakistan has suffered,) war making and compelling national compliance in total disregard of international law. They undermine reconciliation, peace and nation building, as well as respect for the sovereign independence of regional countries. They also assume that Pakistan has more leverage over the Taliban than it actually does.
US policy in Afghanistan is Iran-centric. Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan is India-centric. So far, the Afghan government is not opposed to the Iran centric Afghan strategy of the US. But it is very opposed to the India centric Afghan strategy of Pakistan. This is because it is more concerned about Iranian hegemony than Indian hegemony, and it is still more concerned about Pakistani hegemony. Moreover, the US and India share the concerns of the Afghan government.
The Taliban are not a sufficient asset to counter this strategic isolation of Pakistan because they do not share genuine common interests with Pakistan. The two have a contingent and utilitarian relationship. The older Taliban have not forgotten the past and the sufferings they underwent because of what they see as a faithless and spineless Pakistan that used them against India and betrayed them to the US. The younger Taliban, who are considered to be ideologically more global and closer to the al- Qaeda, despise the ruling classes of Pakistan even when they are able to use its territory. Their mistrust of Pakistan is no less than that of the Afghan government. They see Pakistan as wanting their enemy, the US, to stay on indefinitely in Afghanistan. This makes Pakistan their enemy without making Pakistan a friend of Kabul or the people of Afghanistan. It is a completely lose-lose situation for Pakistan. The consequence has been the hell that has been created in Pakistan.
What is the way out? It is an Afghan political settlement which Pakistan can help to negotiate provided it can build trust and credibility among the other stakeholders, primarily the Afghan government, the Taliban, the US and, to an extent, India and Iran. Pakistan’s policies towards the stakeholders have to be sincere, frank, open and consistent with its national interests, as well as the requirements of a settlement. It has to be able to alter its own perceptions and policy approaches before it can hope to influence those of the other players without which no settlement process can develop momentum. Zero-sum approaches have to be replaced by positive sum strategies. This requires wisdom. So- called practical self-centered approaches are non-starters. Just trying to be smart is being stupid. That is why our brilliant tactics have always ended up on the strategic rubbish heap – at colossal and entirely avoidable economic cost and loss of life for our people. But who is counting?
The main stakeholders of an Afghan settlement are, of course, the Afghan people. This breaks down into the Afghan stakeholders: the government and the Afghan opposition led primarily by the Taliban which itself is a composite entity. It also includes the two main external stakeholders: Pakistan and the US. Pakistan, willingly or unwillingly, provides the support base for the insurgency. The US is the leader of the military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. In essence, negotiations will need to be a quadrilateral process.
The participants will need to be aware of some basic home truths. Military invasion and occupation cannot bring peace to Afghanistan in a hundred years. Unending US military occupation of Afghanistan plus an invasion of Iran will sooner or later set the scene for a US military invasion of Pakistan. The July 2011 date for the start of an American withdrawal means nothing without an end date. The implicit end date of 2014 is meaningless since it is dependent on Afghan national security forces being ready by then which nobody expects to happen. Indeed, some will find it in their interests not to let it happen.
US strategy is wracked by confusion. Obama says he does not want to do ten years in Afghanistan. But Petraeus says the Afghan war could last for the rest of the lives of the next generation. If there is a difference between Obama and Petraeus guess who will prevail? The Democratic Wimp on the Skids or the Republican War Hero and Possible Future President? No Contest?
If America exits the theater and nothing else happens it can indeed set the scene for renewed civil war that could easily spill over into Pakistan. An American military withdrawal from Afghanistan within a definitive time frame is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition for a peace settlement. “Hot negotiations” or simultaneous talk-talk and war- war in an effort to “degrade” and the divide the Taliban nexus will not work because it will keep the hardliners in charge of the Taliban even if the current top leadership, including Mullah Omar, is eliminated. It will ensure a Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus like never before. Nor can it ever win the hearts and minds of the Afghan Pashtun and their brethren across the border which is supposed to be a key element of Petraeus’ COIN strategy. This concept appears to have been developed in near total ignorance of Pashtun society and the changes that have developed within it over the past three decades. Unlike Southeast Asia and other regions, tribal, national and regional crises in the Muslim world sooner or later develop a meta context within the political consciousness of the Islamic world i.e. the Ummah. This meta context influences motivations and developments – including pathologies – in a way that is not duplicated in other regions of the world.
The Taliban and/or associated groups have to recognize that they cannot militarily regain power over the whole of Afghanistan. Nor can they be militarily eliminated because of their roots in the Pashtun countryside. They can only be marginalized or transformed by a democratic, inclusive and equitable political process, in the launching of which they will have to be given a stake. Otherwise, it will not get started. The search for the mysterious “moderate Taliban” is, accordingly, a pre- requisite. They are mysterious not because they are rare and so hard to find, but because they are everywhere. They are from the rural population of the Afghan Pashtun countryside – and increasingly non-Pashtun areas in Afghanistan. Cleaning out the Taliban is equivalent to cleaning out the rural Pashtun with the same humanitarian consequences that were visited upon the rural peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, East Timor, Central and Latin America, etc.
The Kabul government is reportedly making contacts with the Taliban. But they are opposed by both the US and Pakistan. The US wants reintegration before reconciliation, a code phrase for a military solution. Pakistan does not want direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban for fear of being left out of a settlement process. This confirms the worst assumptions of the Kabul government about Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan. They keep referring to the arrest and continued detention of Mullah Baradari as an indication that the ISI will not tolerate independent negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban.
Pakistan has to have clarity – not just a ready formulation – about what it wants in Afghanistan. It is using the Taliban to keep the US in Afghanistan, not to get them to leave. This is considered necessary to maintain its utility value in the US search for an acceptable political settlement. No insurgency can survive for long without safe havens in contiguous areas outside its national boundaries. Pakistan allows this facility for the Taliban nexus for another reason too. The US forces are expected to eventually leave Afghanistan, with or without an Afghan settlement. The power elite of Pakistan wish to be in a position to activate their Kashmir options on the ground, which have been lost since 9/11. As long as the military establishment and mindset controls the policies of Pakistan there can be no escape from the paradox of a failing state pursuing what amounts to hegemony over Afghanistan and strategic indispensability in the region as a substitute for domestic political and economic reform. This has built up external and internal tensions that now threaten the future of the country.
What has been the official or power elite response to this fact? Blind denial! But what will happen when nightmare scenarios do come to pass? Our “smart” rulers don’t plan to be around to take the question. But the people of Pakistan will not have that option. Well, they weren’t elected. Their “smart” rulers were. Their “democratic” fate will be sealed. This why larger questions are urgently relevant.
The Kabul government has to demonstrate that it can protect Pashtun rights within a post-Taliban dispensation. Najibullah – an Ahmadzai from Gardez -demonstrated that he could survive without the presence of Soviet troops by reaching out to the Pashtun tribes. But he failed to cultivate Pakistan. Or Pakistan refused to be cultivated by him or broker a compromise. As a result, the Taliban emerged in response to chaos and replaced it with repression and isolation – and paved the way for military intervention, and the hell that followed a la Iraq. The US and its allies helped by abandoning the Afghan people to the Mujahideen turned bandits and brigands who paved the way for the take-over of a group of fanatical country yokels who were pushed by American bombing into the arms of the al Qaeda, and finally pulverized and dispersed but not defeated in the aftermath of 9/11.
Karzai – a Durrani from Kandahar – has to do better. Can he? Will Pakistan allow him to? Will the US sabotage a genuine but difficult reconciliation process? If it does, where will Pakistan stand? With the Afghans or the Americans? Short term “realism” may suggest one answer. Longer term vision will suggest another. An approach consistent with the vision of a friendly and stable Afghanistan will require independent decision-making – at home from the military/security/intelligence complex and abroad from the US led western insistence on military led strategies. This will require developing credibility and influence with all the Afghan, regional and international stakeholders. This may be a very tall order. But there is really no alternative.
Pakistan should be worth the effort. Most foreign observers, however, will say: don’t hold your breath. They have mentally buried Pakistan as a result of their observation of Pakistani political behavior.
There must be an immediate cease-fire in Afghanistan. The US must give a time frame for the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan with an end date. The Taliban must indicate their willingness to compromise with the Afghan Constitution and the decisions of the Loya Jirga. A larger Loya Jirga including Taliban and other associated group representatives must be convened as early as possible to agree on the outlines of a settlement process with stated time lines for each phase of the process. In this way, an end state needs to be agreed on as much as possible, although this should not be made a precondition for initiating a consultative peace process.
A low profile, possibly back-channel, quadrilateral process must commence immediately to ascertain the possibility of agreed parameters within which a settlement process can develop. The Kabul government must develop credibility through better governance and earning the confidence of the Pashtun without alienating the non-Pashtun through its own internal reconciliation processes. Asking the Taliban to stop fighting without the ISAF agreeing to a cease-fire will not work. Neither will reintegration without reconciliation. A military solution may be possible, but not at a price acceptable to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the region. The people have to enter into American strategic equations and review processes for a stable and just peace settlement to be possible, and for the US to regain a measure of respect in the region. Operations like Dragon Strike in and around Kandahar cannot contribute to building peace in Afghanistan or restoring American credibility despite the servile encouragement of camp followers.
Pakistan must support Kabul’s efforts, support Taliban participation, isolate the hardliners who refuse to compromise or cooperate, progressively dismantle Jihadi infrastructures in Pakistan, and mobilize Pakistani public support for an Afghan settlement process. If there is progress in Indo-Pakistan relations so much the better. But if not, we must minimize potentially adverse Indian influence in Afghanistan by actively promoting a peace settlement in Afghanistan. The Six plus Two international and regional grouping, with necessary changes, should be activated to support such a reconciliation process. Massive international development assistance needs to be mobilized for the Af-Pak region to develop a peoples’ stake in the peace process. The appointment of a Special UN Envoy for an Afghan Peace Settlement might usefully be considered.