Afghanistan and Pakistan: The False Promise of Rapprochement

Just weeks after becoming president of Afghanistan last September, Ashraf Ghani signaled a dramatic shift in the country’s regional diplomacy. He promptly visited Pakistan and its main allies Saudi Arabia and China, and then Pakistan’s army chief and head of intelligence visited Kabul.

The Afghan government is hoping Pakistan will help facilitate dialogue with the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, whom Pakistan has long harbored and enabled. Pakistan, for its part, has asked Kabul’s assistance against the leaders of the militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (T.T.P.), the so-called Pakistani Taliban, whose leaders are said to be hiding in eastern Afghanistan.

This rapprochement has generated much excitement, but all the hype does not measure well against reality. Despite signs of renewed cooperation, Afghanistan and Pakistan still have fundamentally different goals and approaches. While Mr. Ghani’s moves are bold and risky for Afghanistan, Pakistan’s response so far has been largely tactical and self-serving.

Mr. Ghani justifies this new policy by arguing that circumstances have changed and the conditions for peace are better than ever before. And on the surface, he seems to have a point.

Pakistan appears to have more reason to fight back against terrorism, having been hit hard by T.T.P. in recent months. After an attack on a school in Peshawar in December and a slew of bombings since, the Pakistani government seems to have abandoned its appeasement-style approach of the past and finally set out to eliminate T.T.P.

China, meanwhile, has expressed more interest in the region, including a willingness to help broker talks with the Afghan Taliban. In exchange it hopes to enlist the assistance of Afghanistan and Pakistan to counter the threat of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uighur separatist group thought to have links to the Taliban.

But these new conditions do not change the basic dynamic between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And by banking on them, Mr. Ghani is taking great risks at a huge cost to Afghanistan with little chance of reward.

After a debilitating electoral crisis last year, he is spending enormous political capital trying to justify a controversial agenda. His widely publicized visit to the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi in November and a new program to send Afghan cadets for training in Pakistan have brought him sharp criticism at home.

In return, Pakistan has taken only tactical steps — or steps primarily aimed at improving its international reputation and its own security.

After many years of supporting militancy in the region, the Pakistani government now wants to wash its hands of the problem by claiming that its origins lie in Afghanistan. Under the National Action Plan initiated after the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan projects to expel many Afghan refugees, with little regard for the costs of reintegrating them that the Afghan government will have to bear or the risk that some extremists will enter Afghanistan among the refugees.

Given recent signs that the West will continue to invest in Afghanistan and that China is poised to do so in earnest, Pakistan also has new incentives to be seen as helping any peace process with the Taliban. But the promise of dialogue is a far cry from actual negotiations, let alone a political settlement.

This is not the first time there has been talk of talks with the Taliban. Throughout the 1990s, the Taliban met repeatedly with their opponents — asking them for major concessions without much compromising themselves. In 2011, after President Hamid Karzai called Pakistan “our twin brother,” there was renewed hope for progress. Over the next couple of years, Pakistan released some Taliban leaders from its prisons and helped arrange meetings between Afghan officials and the group’s then number two. But those moves yielded no concrete results. And now, despite Mr. Ghani’s recent gestures, the Taliban have not yet come to the negotiation table.

Based on my experience as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2011-13, and other dealings with the highest levels of the Pakistani establishment over the years, it seems clear to me that the fundamentals of Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan have not changed. Militancy remains an instrument of its foreign policy. The Pakistani military will only stop backing the Taliban after it finds other proxies to advance its conception of its national interests.

One of those perceived interests is maintaining so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan: Islamabad has long sought to use my country as a rear base in case of an Indian military advance. In 1988, the Pakistani leader Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq said that Pakistan had “earned the right” to have a friendly regime in Kabul; certainly, he would “not permit” any “Indian and Soviet influence” in Afghanistan. To this day, the Pakistani military treats the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset.

Another major concern of Islamabad’s is ensuring that Afghanistan does not encourage Pashtun or Baluch separatists in Pakistan. Those groups were divided between the two countries by the 1893 Durand Line Agreement, and at various times over the years Islamabad has accused Kabul of supporting their struggle for independence. Pakistan has an interest in keeping Afghanistan so preoccupied by its own instability that it cannot spare any resources on the Pashtuns’ and Baluchs’ cause.

Pakistan’s end game, in other words, is not markedly different today than it has been for years. And this is why Mr. Ghani’s overtures to Islamabad are dangerous: They are diverting attention away from more essential, perhaps existential, tasks — like strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces, which is critical to increasing the Afghan government’s leverage in any talks with the Taliban.

In its wishful attempt to make progress with the Taliban, Kabul is gambling precious political capital on superficial tweaks in Pakistan’s policy. Rather than expect a miraculous U-turn from Islamabad, Mr. Ghani’s government would do better to use its resources, and the international community’s continued support, to concentrate on its main purpose: consolidating the Afghan state.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai was interior minister of Afghanistan from August 2013 to December 2014, and previously Afghanistan’s ambassador to Iran and Pakistan.

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