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A new Afghan policy



By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, July 18, 2014


In June 2014, a Pakistani delegation consisting of a senior foreign office official and veteran Pashtun leader Mehmood Khan Achakzai met President Hamid Karzai. The objective was to take the Afghan leader on board for the impending military offensive in North Waziristan.

The Pakistani visitors also conveyed their prime minister’s request for the arrest and handover of Mullah Fazlullah, reportedly nestled in the mountainous terrain of Kunar and Nuristan, Afghanistan’s eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.

“Well, Mullah Fazlullah is a product of circumstances, and I have no control over those circumstances,” Karzai quipped with a peevish smile.

In June 2013, Karzai had made more or less similar remarks when asked whether his government was ignoring the presence of Fazlullah and his militants in eastern Afghanistan. “Yes, they are there. Yes, they are there because of the war created against Afghanistan by the establishment in Pakistan. This is the consequence of the activities from across the Durand Line in Pakistan towards Afghanistan… it is not my fault,” Karzai told Geo TV.

His message was straight – you stop your territory from being used against us and we will do so when we are convinced that Pakistan has started translating words into deeds.

What followed within two weeks of the Kabul meeting sounds encouraging, as of now at least.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated on July 1: “(The decision to launch) Zarb-e-Azb was taken after careful deliberations. A full-fledged offensive has now started. All foreign fighters and local terrorists will be wiped out without any exception and no sanctuary will be spared.”

Coincidentally, the same day, Pakistan Army’s spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa spoke in the same vein, and insisted the operation will target militants of “all hues and colour”, including the Haqqanis. That is why the army recently took journalists to a suicide bombing training centre in Sarai Bakakhel which it claimed was being run by the Haqqanis.

What next, is the question staring at Pakistan. What happens after the change of guard in Kabul early August and the bulk drawdown of foreign troops in December? Even if the new Afghan president accepts Pakistan’s claims of an indiscriminate crackdown on all militants in Waziristan, will this be enough to correct the bilateral relationship?

Pakistani officials insist they already have a comprehensive roadmap ready whenever the new Afghan president meets the Pakistani chief executive. They say a more structured dialogue on counter-terror cooperations also got underway with the visit of a high-level Afghan delegation led by Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, national security advisor, to Islamabad in June.

With Ashraf Ghani, a professional economist, heading the Arg (the Presidential Palace) in Kabul and Sharif brothers in Pakistan in the driving seat, one can hope leaders from both sides can push economic collaboration beyond political disagreements and the traditional mistrust that exists between the two establishments.

Keeping in view the past, one can assume that normalizing ties with Afghanistan depends on several challenges and a roadmap centred on mere economic cooperation is not likely to help. Action on ground has to transcend pronounced expectations.

The first challenge of course is to restore mutual trust by reassuring Afghans that Islamabad looks at their country as sovereign and independent. This requires firm credible action on ground.

One can discern from discussions with Pakistani civilian and military stakeholders that they too realize the futility of the policy they pursued for decades, using Afghan dissidents and Pashtun leaders as instruments of their strategic depth doctrine. They have to convey to Afghans in unambiguous terms that Pakistan holds the interests of Afghanistan paramount and therefore nurtures no Afghan insurgent group any more.

The Haqqani Network in fact also constitutes the core of issues that dog Pakistan’s image abroad and muddies relations with Kabul.

This issue also generated quite a bit of mistrust and frustration in Washington. This frustration in fact climaxed with the then US army chief Admiral Michael Mullen, who had been an ardent Pakistan supporter, told a Senate committee on September 22, 2011 that “the Haqqani Network is a veritable arm of the ISI.”

Secondly, Pakistan must table a clearly defined and prioritized roadmap for political and economic cooperation.

Thirdly, trust will follow only if Pakistan can demonstrate through action that it has no favourites.

Fourthly, both countries MUST initiate a dialogue between the two security establishments who need to disengage from their respective proxies. In fact, during a meeting at the UK prime minister’s country residence Chequers at Lonodon in February 2013, President Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Al Zardari agreed on a security dialogue between the military and intelligence of both countries. Foreign ministers, military leaders and intelligence chiefs also attended the talks.

“This undertaking was part of the joint communiqué,” a Pakistani official told TFT, arguing that a sustained and structured dialogue among the security establishments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, represents the only viable chance of extricating the triangular relationship from the deadly proxy war in the region.

Fifthly, Pakistan will have to also work closely with Kabul to reduce and neutralize external spoilers as far as bilateral relations are concerned. Kabul would need to reassure Islamabad that Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are contingent upon latter’s ties with other countries such as India.

Sixthly, bilateral ties can move out of political acrimony if both Kabul and Islamabad can strategize economic cooperation and trade as the underpinning factor for their engagement. They need a roadmap that can take their bilateral trade from the current roughly 2.5 billion dollars to five billion in near future.

Seventhly, Pakistan will have to fix its relations with India if it wants to lessen troubles that emanate from or on the western border. Both India and Afghanistan are wary of the non-state actors that target their interests. In both cases, Pakistan is the common denominator. And that is why, according to British historian William Dalrymple, the region is witnessing a triangular proxy war.

Last, but not the least, both countries must evolve a joint border control mechanism to regulate the movement of over 50,000 people across the Durand Line, the official border. The easement right (a right of unchecked border crossing available to members of divided families and tribes that straddle the border region) needs to give way to the introduction of formal travel documents and biometrics for creating a database of people moving both sides of the 2,560 km long border.

Hopes for strategic counter-terror and counter-narcotics cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan stems from a new realization in Pakistan – if taken on face value – that the return of Taliban to power by force will be disastrous for Pakistan. They will provide the “strategic depth” for their Pakistani counterparts, and thus contribute to further destabilization of Pakistan.

All we want is to support the democratic transition in Afghanistan, officials insist, and prevent a change by force.

We hope the new president Ashraf Ghani would spearhead the reconciliation process in a way that engages with the Taliban militants for a political resolution of Afghanistan’s current crisis.

Such a negotiated settlement can entail political dividends for Pakistan too. All it needs is to move with a pragmatism of realpolitik that is centred on the quest for economic survival through commercial linkages, and not obscurantist militants.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk