Pakistan’s options in Afghanistan


VIEW: Pakistan’s options in Afghanistan —Shahid Ilyas

It seems that Pakistan’s ability to sustain its support to the Afghan insurgents is very limited, and its chances of success almost nil. We have to find ways to safeguard our interests through more acceptable means

“Pakistan denies Afghanistan transit for Indian trucks,” says a news report. “India to build Afghanistan’s parliament house,” says another report. “Pakistan’s intelligence agency is directing Taliban attacks on western targets in Afghanistan,” says yet another. “New Delhi has already invested $ 1.2 billion in roads, electrical lines and other infrastructure that is expected to hit $ 4 billion,” another source states.

These are some of the news coming out of Afghanistan and this is the context in which Pakistan would like to befriend Afghanistan to the detriment of India. What conclusions can we draw from this? What is the logic put forward by Pakistan to convince Afghanistan that it should consider a serious friendship?

Pakistan believes that close friendship between India and Afghanistan is against its national interests. Therefore, the process of Afghan-Indian friendship has to be halted and reversed. Pakistan has two options to achieve its objectives. It could evolve a strategy that aims at forging brotherly relations with the Afghanistan we see today. This will necessitate some sincere help in Afghan stability and reconstruction. Secondly, it will necessitate a change in perceptions with regard to Afghan-Indian relations. This means the recognition of the fact that sovereign states have the right to choose their friends. If Afghanistan and India are interested in mutual friendship and cooperation, they have the sovereign right to do so, and no other actor has the right to sabotage that friendship. And, finally, Pakistan’s wish to befriend Afghanistan will necessitate tangible measures on the part of the former that result in the birth of a genuine belief in Afghanistan, the US and India that it has stopped facilitating the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan.

The second option available to Pakistan is to continue behaving in the way it has been alleged to have in its relations with Afghanistan. Pakistan is seen by Kabul, Washington and Delhi as the biggest hurdle in Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction. It is accused of funnelling support to the Afghan Taliban in their effort to topple the incumbent government in Kabul.

Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan is determined by its fears about two factors, which are inter-related:

1. A stable Afghanistan, run by a secular government, is most likely to renew its claims over the territories between the Khyber Pass and River Indus, the area that is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Pakhtuns. This region was annexed by Britain during its empire in the subcontinent with the aim of making it a buffer — together with Afghanistan — between itself and the Russian empire. No Afghan government, including the Taliban, has ever recognised this area as constituting a legitimate part of Pakistan.

2. The second is the Indian involvement in Afghanistan, and its alleged support to the Baloch insurgency. Because of Pakistan’s track record of fuelling insurgencies in parts of India, including Kashmir, the Pakistani establishment believes that India uses Afghanistan to support the different insurgencies on its soil.

The international community seems determined to make sure that Afghanistan emerges as a relatively stable country, its soil is not used for attacks on the West, and provision of basic services to its population. Towards that end, Afghanistan has made substantial progress. Road infrastructure has been built, schools and universities have been made functional, more than three-quarters of Afghans have access to health facilities, electricity has been provided to most urban centres, new hydroelectric power plants are being built and agriculture has been revived. Moreover, NATO has been working on training the Afghan security forces. According to the Long War Journal, as of December 2008, the Afghan National Army (ANA) stood at approximately 79,000 soldiers, 52,000 of whom were engaged in combat operations. During the spring and summer of 2008, the ANA led 62 percent of operations. According to the same journal, on September 10, 2008, the international community’s Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board approved the increase of the ANA from 80,000 to 122,000 soldiers. With an additional 12,000 trainee, transient, hospitalised, and student personnel included, this accounts for a total strength of 134,000. This expansion project is currently underway and is going to be completed by the year 2013.

Apart from increasing the capacity of infrastructure and security forces, the US president has unequivocally stated that he was misunderstood regarding his Afghan strategy and his mention of the ‘withdrawal’ of US forces in 2011. Clear messages are propping up from US policy making circles, including the White House, State Department and the Pentagon, to the effect that the US did not mean complete withdrawal, rather it meant the beginning of a ‘process’ of withdrawal. The US government has also made clear that it intends to finish the job in Afghanistan before it contemplates a complete withdrawal. So, the question arises, what if President Obama declares the promised beginning of withdrawal by announcing that, say, 3,000 US troops will return home by the end of 2011 and another 1,200 by the year 2015? Will that not mean that he met his promise regarding the beginning of ‘drawing down’ of US troops? And make no mistake, this is precisely what the US intends to do. So we do not need to wait in the wings with our Taliban proxies for the US troops to withdraw to move in to establish the ‘Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan’.

And finally, how far are we economically and militarily strong to sustain support for our Taliban proxies in Afghanistan? Unfortunately, the Taliban (Punjabi Taliban included) are hitting the Pakistani state harder than they hit Afghanistan. With the increasing capacities of the Afghan security forces and the sustained support to and presence in Afghanistan of the international forces, the Taliban’s capability to operate in Afghanistan is very limited. They are turning inward and are increasingly targeting the Pakistani state and society for its support to the war on terror.

It seems that Pakistan’s ability to sustain its support to the Afghan insurgents is very limited, and its chances of success almost nil. We have to find ways to safeguard our interests through more acceptable means. The best way seems to be for Pakistan to recognise the ground realities in our region and make sincere efforts towards forging friendly relations with Afghanistan. This will entail recognition of the fact that a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan offers an opportunity to Pakistan to pursue its ‘Durand Line case’ with a more enlightened and progressive government in Kabul. The two countries, through diplomacy, should be in a position to find a solution to the issue that is acceptable to the people and governments of the two countries. A zero-sum game has already harmed the two countries tremendously.

The writer is a member of the Pakhtunkhwa Peace Forum and a freelance columnist hailing from Waziristan. He can be reached at ilyasakbarkhan@gmail.com

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