Has Pakistan Changed Its Tune Toward Afghanistan?
Has Pakistan really shifted its policy towards neighbouring Afghanistan and, if so, what lies behind the change? Reports of a policy reversal in Islamabad surfaced in November 2012, when Pakistan agreed to release around a dozen Afghan Taliban members who, it was hoped, would play a role in a negotiated peace with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. A further gesture of goodwill was its January 2013 announcement that it would free all of its Afghan Taliban detainees. Before this, Pakistan had maintained a position of strategic ambiguity regarding the arrangements for Afghanistan's future after the NATO/ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Its lack of enthusiasm for peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul even extended to jailing Taliban leaders in favour of such initiatives, such as Mullah Ghani Baradar.
But Western diplomats have been pleasantly surprised to be on the receiving end of this Pakistani charm offensive, emphasising the need to cooperate on finding a durable political solution that will outlast the NATO/ISAF drawdown. In addition to releasing Taliban detainees and guaranteeing safe passage for those involved in peace talks, Pakistan has promised to ask for United Nations sanctions on Afghan Taliban leaders to be lifted. In November 2012, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani travelled to Kabul to sign an agreement to improve border security. In December, Kayani and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar flew to Brussels, where Khar met United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Afghanistan's future and joint counter-terrorism efforts in the region. On 5 February this year, Islamabad and Kabul agreed to a 'structured interaction', establishing a hotline between their respective militaries and intelligence wings. Pakistan also said that it would finally support and facilitate talks with the Taliban via an office in Doha. All of these moves have been seen in the West as positive developments for Afghanistan's post-2014 future.
History of mistrust
Although denied by Pakistan, for decades its military adhered to a singular interpretation of the doctrine of 'strategic depth', in which it saw Afghanistan as a counterweight to ongoing tensions with India and sought leverage over its northwestern neighbour for its own political purposes. One of its greatest fears was being sandwiched between arch-rival India and a strong, possibly hostile Afghanistan. Unlike India, Pakistan recognised and even supported the Taliban regime. Since that regime was ejected from Kabul in 2001, Pakistan has also harboured doubts about the feasibility of Western governments' strategy in Afghanistan and their willingness to see it through. A further complicating factor is Pakistan's long-standing desire to minimise calls for a separate state for the Pashtun population straddling the Durand Line, its contested border with Afghanistan. Pashtun nationalism and separatism are considered by Pakistan to be a threat to its territorial integrity.
It is these anxieties about Afghanistan's future that have contributed to Islamabad's strategic ambiguity towards its neighbour. On the one hand, Pakistan agreed to act as an ally in the US-led campaign against al-Qaeda and to serve as a logistics conduit for NATO/ISAF operations (albeit with periods of interruption). On the other, militants based on its soil acted as spoilers in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban leadership that fled US operations in Afghanistan in 2001 found sanctuary in Pakistan, and exploited both ethnic Pashtun links and Taliban insurgents as a means of exerting influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other Pakistani extremist groups, such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayiba, have been able to engage in cross-border attacks and terrorist operations in Kabul, including attacks on the Indian embassy and the Serena Hotel. The September 2011 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government's negotiator with the Taliban, was reported to have been planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Accusations that elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency have provided funding and training to the Afghan Taliban have been firmly denied.
Washington and other Western capitals came to believe that Pakistan was 'playing a double game', straining relations with the US in particular. These reached a low point in 2011. First, there was a diplomatic row over the January arrest and subsequent release of CIA contractor Raymond Davies for the fatal shooting of two men in Lahore during what he claimed was an attempted robbery. (The US claimed Davies had diplomatic immunity, while local protesters and media called for his conviction.) Islamabad was angered not to have been consulted beforehand on the US special-forces raid on a compound in Abbottabad in May, in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed. Meanwhile, the fact that bin Laden had resided for so long in a Pakistani military town apparently without being detected raised Washington's suspicions.
The bilateral relationship was further damaged when a NATO air attack on a Pakistani border post in Salala in late November led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan closed its roads to NATO supply convoys afterwards. Throughout the year, the US programme of targeting insurgent leaders in Pakistan with unmanned aerial vehicles or 'drones' - and the civilian deaths the programme caused - remained a source of aggravation for Islamabad.
The Afghanistan transition
Pakistan was sceptical when US President Barack Obama announced a timetable in December 2009 for NATO/ISAF to withdraw from Afghanistan. Islamabad argued that the US should be considering the conditions on the ground first instead of focusing on dates in its calendar. It was also critical of the US 'talk-and-fight' strategy, designed to step up the immediate military pressure on the Taliban to drive it to the negotiating table. Pakistan argued that the Afghan Taliban would be more likely to commit to local ceasefires and open a political space for talks if Western forces first reduced their attacks, including bringing an end to night raids.
President Karzai established a High Peace Council in September 2010 to embark on negotiations with the Taliban, and in June 2011 both he and then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that preliminary talks had begun. Pakistan's disapproval of the process meant that it was not involved in early negotiation efforts, and the deaths of Pakistani troops in the November border incident led it to withdraw from the December 2011 Bonn Conference, which focused on the international community's role in Afghanistan and long-term political stabilisation. (At a regional meeting shortly beforehand, however, it did endorse the principle of non-interference in Afghanistan's affairs, which was welcomed in the Bonn conclusions.)
Pakistan was also critical at first of an initiative that emerged in 2011 to promote an Afghan reconciliation process to be based in Qatar. This thenconsisted of opening a physical office solely for the use of the Taliban in Doha and facilitating talks in the city between US and Taliban negotiators, in the hope that the Karzai government (which the Taliban has so far not recognised) might later be brought into the picture. The Taliban refused in the beginning to attend such talks while Afghan prisoners remained in detention in the United States' Guantanamo Bay facility. Though US-Taliban contacts broke off over a year ago, the process has received fresh impetus this year with a positive statement by Karzai and Obama, as well as a trilateral agreement between Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron and, crucially, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to move ahead in principle with the negotiating office in Doha. Karzai is soon to visit Qatar to discuss the initiative and Pakistan has pledged to help with persuading the divided Taliban to engage with it too.
Relations with the US improve
After the acrimony of 2011, there was recognition in both Washington and Islamabad of the need to repair the bilateral relationship. In May 2012, Pakistan was invited to attend NATO's Chicago Summit,at which a timetable for transitioning from combat operations to training and mentoring Afghan forces was put in place. Obama had two informal meetings with Zardari on the sidelines of the main event. But his main objective, to get Pakistan to agree to reopen the supply routes closed in November 2011, was only achieved in July, when Secretary of State Clinton again expressed Washington's 'deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November'.
Since then, relations with the US have continued to thaw, albeit for mostly tactical reasons. Pakistan appears to have calculated that, for a combination of economic and strategic reasons, it cannot afford a complete rupture in its relations with the US. The US and NATO/ISAF remain heavily dependent on Pakistan for logistics support for the Afghan operation and drawdown.
Pakistan now says that it wants a seat at the negotiating table between the Afghan government, Taliban and other players. As early as August 2012, the incoming US ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, told his confirmation hearing that he believed Islamabad had abandoned its 'strategic depth' principle. 'This has been a doctrine that the Pakistanis, over the years, have talked about,' Olson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 'the idea that Afghanistan represents strategic depth against a potential conflict with India. My sense is that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government have moved away from that.'
Several factors support Olson's thesis. Among these is a growing fear that anything resembling a Taliban victory in Afghanistan may embolden the Pakistani Taliban and other extremists to renew their assault on the Pakistani state. Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) attacked a Karachi naval base in May 2011, sprang 400 prisoners from Bannu jail in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in April 2012, attacked a high-security airbase at Kamra (thought to be a storage location for at least some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons) in August 2012, and launched an assault on Peshawar airport and military airbase in December 2012. Pakistani troops were redeployed from the Indian to the Afghan border last year to cope with the growing extremist threat. With increasing sectarian attacks by Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi on Shia communities inside Pakistan, the last thing the country's security establishment needs ahead of general polls due on 11 May is further instability emanating from Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Pakistan's continuing economic challenges mean that it is increasingly in its interests for Afghanistan to start to fulfil its potential as a regional transport hub, as outlined in the US State Department's New Silk Road concept. Pakistan's tax base is weak and the state's ability to provide its population with even basic services is limited. These realities have helped prompt recent, albeit stumbling, efforts to enhance trade links with India, which has helped Afghan reconstruction to the tune of $2 billion while remaining conscious of Pakistan's perceived interests. The sensitive handling by Islamabad and Delhi of an incident on the Kashmiri line of control in January 2013, which resulted in the deaths of two Indian soldiers, was further evidence of a more carefully managed relationship.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Pakistan has had a fundamental change of heart over Afghanistan. Republican Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee adhered to the traditional wisdom at Olson's confirmation hearing by suggesting that Pakistan continued to be 'more concerned about India not having any influence' in Afghanistan, and that Islamabad would rather see a destabilised Afghanistan than one in which India had an influence.
Other commentators see Pakistan's changed approach as merely a different, more indirect way of achieving its long-term strategic-depth goals. 'In the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Pakistan sees a Taliban-controlled south, Haqqanis leading in the south-east, and the rest of Afghanistan under the non-Pashtuns - led by ethnic Tajiks,' writes Pakistani journalist Daud Khattak. 'In this scenario, Pakistan will get a secured border even though the government in Kabul remains hostile (in other words, pro-India).' Khattak goes on to argue that in this way 'Pakistan will not only ensure its influence in the strategically important southeastern part of Afghanistan', but may also hope to push the TTP and other Pakistani-based militants across the border into Afghanistan.
Pakistan may now feel that it has a better chance of achieving its goals inside the tent rather than outside it, and in this regard it is worth noting that while agreeing in principle to the Doha peace process, Islamabad has also expressed some reservations. It is not comfortable, for example, with the Karzai government's insistence that talks in Doha relying on the presumptive Taliban office only be used for negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council. Pakistan does not regard this format as conducive to a broad-based reconciliation process. Islamabad is also keeping a close eye on Karzai's leadership and the political situation in the run-up to the Afghan presidential polls due in April 2014.
Whether the Doha process has any prospect of delivering significant results prior to 2014 is doubtful. But a Pakistani willingness to support the process, and to put pressure on those elements of the Taliban leadership that are receptive to its influence, does at least raise some hope that the process might continue post-2014. For Pakistan, too much time has been wasted and reconciliation in Afghanistan is the priority.
It may well be many months before a judgement on the true extent and sincerity of Pakistan's change of policy over Afghanistan can be made. However, with the prognosis for Afghanistan decidedly mixed, Pakistan's involvement will be important in determining how secure or otherwise its neighbour's future will be.