Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan
It is an indication of the quickening interest in reconciliation that when one was in Kabul in early October for a track 2 dialogue between mostly retired officials and academics from Afghanistan and Pakistan this unofficial conference was reported upon as a joint Pak –Afghan effort to promote reconciliation both in the Afghan and the international media. This was an encouraging sign in so far as it showed that there was a great interest in Afghanistan and in the region in President Karzai’s.
Since then the pace has quickened even further with press reports based on official briefings maintaining that high-level Taliban representatives are meeting Karzai administration officials with travel for some of these meetings being facilitated by NATO forces. One Talib is said to have travelled from the border with Pakistan to Kabul in a NATO plan. Another more recent report says that now, in keeping presumably with Taliban demands, another venue near Kandahar is to be sanitised for further meetings.
Yet another report suggests that two Taliban emissaries visited Saudi Arabia carrying a letter from a “top Shura leader” seeking the Saudi King’s assistance in arranging a Taliban dialogue with the Karzai administration and that the Saudis have told these emissaries that while they could have informal meetings in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom would become officially involved only if the Taliban renounced violence, rejected the Al-Qaeda and accepted the Afghan constitution.
These reports for the most part in the American media and clearly based on briefings provided by American military or CIA officials also make clear that they do not see Pakistan playing a constructive role.Rather it is the belief, explicitly or implicitly stated that Pakistan is playing a spoiler’s role. Following the allegation by an Afghan parliamentarian that Pakistan had detained some 31 Taliban leaders/commanders who were prepared to talk of reconciliation the NY Times maintains that 23 such people had been detained by Pakistan. Is this factually correct? Is Pakistan opposed to reconciliation?
Mullah Baradar, the reputed deputy to Mullah Omar, the planner of Taliban military operations and the controller of the Taliban treasury was arrested in Karachi in February this year as a result of a joint CIA-ISI operation. It was hailed at that time as evidence of the cooperation Pakistan was extending to the US operation in Afghanistan. Soon however reports appeared that while the CIA had been given access to Baradar and his interrogation had yielded useful information, Pakistan was refusing to extradite him to Afghanistan even though they had been told that he was a leader with whom reconciliation could be pursued.
So Pakistan was painted as the villain of the piece.Now reports are that Baradar has been released and is in Afghanistan and, with his visit being facilitated by the NATO and Afghan authorities, he is talking to Taliban commanders within Afghanistan to persuade them to engage in reconciliation.
The media reports that Pakistan is upset about being outside the loop of the talks that the Karzai administration is having with the Taliban and other insurgent groups and that if this is not reversed Pakistan will sabotage the effort. Yet the reports also suggest that the talks are being held not only with the Quetta Shura but also with the Haqqani group and with Hikmatyar’s Hizbe Islami. Yet both these groups are said to be in ISI’s pocket and would therefore make no move that was in conflict with the instructions of their patrons. As regards the Quetta Shura, surely Mullah Baradar’s presence in Afghanistan would appear to indicate that rather than gumming up the works the Pakistanis are facilitating the “talks about talks”.
What exactly are Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and how best can they be served? It is evident that Pakistani economic interests are best served by a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. It is only to such an Afghanistan that the 1.6 million registered refugees along with an equal or larger number of unregistered refugees can return.It should be apparent that the presence of these refugees even if they are earning their own livelihood keeps Pakistan’s own unemployment rate high and using conservative figures of a dollar a day per refugee imposes costs of more than a billion dollars annually on the Pakistan economy. It is only such an Afghanistan that can help curb the smuggling which again by conservative estimates brings about 3 billion dollars worth of goods into Pakistan without payment of duty affecting both government revenues and the local industry’s ability to compete. It is only in such an Afghanistan that the growing of poppy can be curbed and Pakistan’s population can be saved from the horrendous effects of having 33% of this crop being used in or smuggled through Pakistan. It is only through such an Afghanistan that Pakistan can benefit from the fossil fuel resources of Central Asia to meet not only its own but also India’s critical energy shortages and give the Central Asian states access to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea- the most economical route for Central Asia’s trade with the rest of the world.
Of course Pakistan also has a political interest and that is to desire a government in Afghanistan that is friendly and sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns about Indian influence in Kabul being used to the detriment of Pakistan. The ultimate nightmare for Pakistan’s security planners has always been that being encircled by a hostile India and a hostile Afghanistan.Past experience during the Indo-Pak conflicts of 1965 and 1971 suggest however that even when Afghanistan had its own quarrels with Pakistan it was not prepared to create problems for Pakistan at these critical times.
At the same time Pakistan has an interest like the rest of the world in ensuring that the government that emerges in Afghanistan is not only reflective of the wishes of the people of Afghanistan but is also one in which all ethnic groups in the country are adequately represented since the alternative could well be the onset of the same sort of civil war that devastated Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Such a civil war would be of concern to the world but would be catastrophic for Pakistan because it would certainly being in its wake an influx of refugees perhaps of the same magnitude as had occurred during the first years of Soviet occupation.
If there is no ethnic harmony in Afghanistan it is almost certain that no matter what measures Pakistan takes internally it will find it difficult to prevent the propagation of an extremist ideology ostensibly in support of an ethnic group in Afghanistan but in practice having dangerous consequences for Pakistan’s own domestic poliсy.
This was one of the lessons that Pakistan should have and I believe has learnt from its own efforts at helping the Afghan resistance groups to form a coherent and cohesive government after the Soviets had withdrawn and Najibullah’s government had fallen in 1992.
Another lesson that has been learnt and is oft repeated in presentations on security policy is that military security is only one part and not necessarily the most important part of comprehensive security. Internal security and internal cohesion are. In my view, by far more important components of security. Only recently press reports suggested that the dreaded ISI had given the government an assessment that the chief threat to Pakistan was not external but internal. Nobody in Pakistan has any doubt that our internal security is heavily influenced by the instability in Afghanistan.
Pakistantherefore has every interest in promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan as the logical first step towards achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan. As has been repeatedly stated after the people of Afghanistan the people and country that has suffered the most from the years of strife in Afghanistan has been Pakistan. Pakistancan and should use such influence as it enjoys with the Taliban to ensure that their demands are moderated sufficiently, even if they believe, as they seem to do that they are the representatives of Pushtun nationalism, so that other ethnic groups do not feel that they are being excluded from the power structure. The Taliban can ask, as appears logical and as has been the case in the past in Afghanistan that therecanbe a certain devolution of power to local communities – something that the other groups would also welcome-without affecting the essential unity of Afghanistan.
While Pakistan among all Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional players is always seen as holding the key to the Afghan issue, the fact is that as was seen in the futile efforts to create a government of unity in Afghanistan in 1992 and the subsequent civil war that other players have an important role to play. They can be “spoilers” to an even greater extent because for them the costs of an unstable Afghanistan are far less damaging. Greater attention needs to be devoted to ensure that they seek to promote not hinder reconciliation even if means that a modicum of power will flow into the hands of groups that have hitherto been regarded as inimical.
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