Posted on Friday, November 14, 2014
in The Friday Times (Editorial)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad is critically important for one reason: given the burden of geography and history, there can be no peace, security and stability in Afghanistan without the active support of neighbour Pakistan. Therefore the visit should be aimed at ending the mutual distrust and hostility that has marred their relationship and paving the way for truth and reconciliation in cobbling a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
On Islamabad’s part, it is clear that without a stable and neutral, if not friendly, Afghanistan, there will be no end to the scourge of terrorism that overflows the Af-Pak border and poses an equal existential threat to Pakistan. The new civil-military leadership in Pakistan understands this imperative and is keen to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions to national security problems with President Ghani.
There are some positive signs. Both countries have newly elected leaders who do not uncritically subscribe to the policies of their predecessors that sustained an environment of distrust and hostility. Pakistan has a new military leadership that is more responsive than its predecessors to the terrorist threat to Pakistan originating in Afghanistan. That is why Pakistan’s foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, and army chief, General Raheel Sharif, were the first to visit Kabul and meet President Ghani. President Ghani has returned the compliment by visiting Pakistan before visiting India. President Ghani has also toured two of Pakistan’s closest friends and allies – China and Saudi Arabia – before going to India, clearly with a view to activating all the important variables in the equation. Most significantly, he has not tripped over himself in accepting the offer of Indian weapons for his army by India’s new national security advisor, Ajit Doval, who met him in Kabul last month.
Clearly, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have legitimate security concerns involving the policies of the other. So there has to be give and take, step by step.
President Ghani wants an end to the civil war and foreign intervention that has plagued his nation so that he can stabilize, unify and rebuild his country; he wants foreign investment to tap his country’s natural resources and fund his development budgets; and he wants a strong army to provide the framework for his country’s security. On the plus side, he has won an election to gain legitimacy, shared power with Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik (Chief Executive) and Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek (Vice President) and is on the lookout for a new head of Afghan Intelligence who can start on a new slate with his new Pakistani counterpart. He has succeeded in persuading China to launch massive development projects worth billions of dollars in the next ten years. He retains the support of the international community, especially the US, in terms of economic aid and military umbrella. What is critically missing is a plan to end the civil war and terrorism that has laid Afghanistan low.
This is where a solid relationship with Pakistan is critical to President Ghani’s mission. The Taliban want to fight, not talk. They control large swathes of Afghan territory. And they have sanctuaries in Pakistan’s borderlands with Afghanistan. The Pakistani national security establishment has protected them for political leverage in Afghanistan aimed at forestalling any significant Indian footprint in Afghanistan that would put the East-West border squeeze on Pakistan. Efforts by the Afghan government and US to erode and break-up the Afghan Taliban/Pakistan “alliance” have failed to yield fruit. In fact, Indian and Afghan support for Baloch insurgents/separatists with sanctuaries in Afghanistan have hardened Pakistan’s resolve to “use” the Taliban to hurt Indian interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s refusal to help Afghanistan’s broken economy by way of opening trade corridors between Central Asia and India is also a direct result of its “enemy-India” outlook.
The problem is that until now the US and Afghanistan have refused to heed Pakistan’s India-related security concerns, which has made Islamabad all the more desperate to hang on to the Taliban as a means of redressing them. This is accentuated by the fact that India refuses to move forward on conflict resolution with Pakistan even on less contentious issues than Kashmir.
However, the outcrop of Taliban terrorism inside Pakistan has compelled a rethink of national security strategy by the new civil-military leadership. This is based on establishing better relations with India as a prelude to better relations with Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the Modi government has dashed hopes of forward movement by heating up the Line of Control and calling off the foreign secretary talks scheduled last August. This has compelled Pakistan to hold off giving MFN status to India. Under the circumstances, any attempt by India to buttress its leverage with the new Afghan regime is bound to antagonize Pakistan further. President Ashraf Ghani knows that foreign relations are all about quid pro quos. If he wants to reset ties with Pakistan to his advantage, he has to start by making sure that Afghanistan’s ties with India will no longer be to Pakistan’s disadvantage.