US needs to do more for Pakistan to bring in paradigm shift in policy

Afghanistan Ambassador to India Mr. Shaida Abdali at ORF on June 16, 2016

Photolabs@ORF

In his book Afghanistan-Pakistan-India: A Paradigm Shift, released recently at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, Afghan Ambassador to India, Shaida Abdali writes: “The logic of Pakistan’s survival in its present form makes it necessary for Pakistan’s policymakers to continue creating problems for its neighbours — Afghanistan and India. This requirement paradoxically, will hamper efforts of Pakistan in becoming a truly democratic and open society, if it chooses to do so.” For now, Pakistan’s leaders prefer to keep their country in permanent hostility with India and Afghanistan despite the growing global distaste for these policies.

There is hope in the book that there will be a paradigm shift in the attitude of the one country that has been the spoiler throughout and its intransigence has prevented a solution. It is this attitude that meant countless Afghans have lived and died without knowing what a post-conflict situation, let alone peace and tranquillity, could mean to them and for their families.

A note of realism is, however, necessary when we speak of a paradigm shift. This is unlikely to happen in Pakistan.

For far too long, both in its relations with Afghanistan and India, Pakistan assumed that its presumed entitlements permit it to indulge in cross-border terrorism. Exhausted it might be with the blowback of its policies, having boxed above its weight for so many years, yet hubris doesn’t allow it to change its policies. It would prefer to remain a regional black hole and miss out on the opportunities of the 21st century. This change won’t happen unless those who control Pakistan’s destiny are made to pay the price and their successors are able to dream the big picture.

For this to happen, though, the United States must do a lot more of what it has been doing. If what was done so far was adequate, the drone killing of Mullah Mansour would not have been necessary. Rewarding truant behaviour has to stop and the gravy train must be pulled back. Pakistan’s military along with its surrogates has to be curbed. This was the general sentiment at a recent discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington moderated by former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, author of seminal books on Pakistan, and also attended, among others, by the Afghan Ambassador in Washington.

Afghanistan was always a secondary priority in American calculations, besides a brief spell from October 2001 to late 2002, after which for several years Iraq became a US obsession. Pakistan made full use of this opportunity, and helped revive the Taliban as the US followed an uneven policy with surges and pullbacks. Emboldened by this disinterest and keen to retain control over the Taliban, Pakistan did not even deem it necessary to keep its donor-cum-ally informed of the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad or the death of Mullah Omar in Karachi.

The way the Taliban seem to be extending their control in different parts of Afghanistan clearly indicate there seems to be little possibility of militarily defeating them. There just aren’t enough troops (Afghan or US) committed to this goal and the Afghan National Security Force has been kept under-equipped too long. Given the Taliban stance that they will not negotiate with the government in Kabul, even getting these negotiations going won’t be easy. The Quadrilateral peace talks have foundered since June 2015.

A complete takeover by Taliban, with Pakistan in control (as Islamabad hopes), is unacceptable. Yet, whatever has to be achieved is only possible if there are troops on the ground and allies are chosen with care.

This requirement comes at a time when America’s appeal in Afghanistan is sliding as the apparent unwillingness of the US-led forces to engage the enemy is at odds with the lofty aims of restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been tense in the past few weeks, with troops on both sides of the Durand Line exchanging fire, resulting in fatalities.

As it is, Pakistan is perturbed by the Iran-India-Afghanistan agreement on Chahbahar, the inauguration of Salma Dam, an Indian offer to train more Afghan women troops, the US promise of financial cooperation of $3 billion a year to support the Afghan military at a time when its own ties with the US are in a trough.

Pakistan has therefore chosen to needle Afghanistan on the Durand Line, perhaps to draw US attention to its sensitivities on this issue.

It is quite clear Afghanistan won’t change its stand on the Durand Line, that has kept the Pashtoon divided. Pakistan hopes that by raising the issue, not only will the Pashtoon in Afghanistan put pressure on Kabul, but other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, not similarly enthused about the Durand Line, may react differently, causing fissures inside Afghanistan. However, the reality is that while Afghan ethnic groups exhibit their ethnicity, they also strongly affirm Afghanistan’s nationhood — unlike in Pakistan, where the Baloch have been in perpetual revolt, Mohajirs are still called Mohajirs and Sindhis are suspect.

Pakistan’s favourite in the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani, had in a recent message rejected Taliban talks with the “puppet regime” in Kabul. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri also voiced support to Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the new Taliban leader. US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson made it clear that Pakistan won’t have a bright future or feel secure until it acts against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan. Nor for that matter will negotiations with the Taliban yield any positive results.

The recent Chahbahar Agreement is a win-win possibility for all three nations in perpetuity. It will break Pakistan’s stranglehold on landlocked Afghanistan. India must go on doing what it can as India-Afghan relations aren’t a zero-sum game, regardless of the spoiler.

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.

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