Spearhead Analysis – 18.03.2016
Right from day one of the US/NATO move into Afghanistan, Pakistan has sought to understand the US end game. The initial attack against Al Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban, scattered Al Qaeda into Pakistan and beyond because the attack was never coordinated with Pakistan to seal off exits. Since then the US has alternated between varieties of strategies none of which signaled the end result that the US sought in Afghanistan. There were surge operations, the battle for hearts and minds, the use of reconstruction teams (PRC) and the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan’s institutions and its security forces. In between there was the diversion into Iraq with still ongoing consequences not just for the Middle East but the entire world as Syria and Yemen descended into violence and created new scenarios of which the ISIS is just one facet. Never sure of how the Afghan situation was to end, if ever, Pakistan, with its long land border with Afghanistan and its territory along the border area in the grip of spillover violence and an insurgency, had to keep its options open. This led to accusations of a ‘forked tongue’ policy by Pakistan of aligning with the US to fight the Taliban and also permitting sanctuaries to the Taliban in its territory. Pakistan did, however, cooperate with the US to round up Al Qaeda, permit the vital flow of NATO logistics from its ports overland into Afghanistan, institute border controls, shared intelligence, accepted drone strikes against its better judgment and supported the US nation building efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan did, however, balk at completely cutting links with the Taliban and alienating them irrevocably and thereby closing all its options.
Today Pakistan’s policy stands vindicated. Talks with the Taliban to mainstream them politically are being seen as the only viable option and Pakistan is the only country with some kind of ability to influence the Taliban. Pakistan has now admitted that the Taliban have sanctuaries within its territory and is trying to use its clout. US troops in Afghanistan now number 9800 and these are to be progressively reduced. The situation in Afghanistan is not, however, quite keyed to these developments. Attrition and desertion rates are high in the Afghan Security Forces. The Taliban have made significant gains and see them being in a position of strength as they gear up for summer offensives. ISIS has made inroads into Afghanistan and is expanding its space. Afghanistan needs financial and military support especially air power and fire power. Pakistan is concerned about insurgent sanctuaries in areas not under Afghan government control. Pakistan is concerned about ISIS inroads from Afghanistan, India-Afghan collusion against it and the specter of some kind of fragmentation that creates an area or areas that become a haven for a mix of terrorists with multiple agendas with drugs as a source of revenue — just as oil sustains the IS. The Taliban are insisting on pre-conditions for talks. There is talk of the US delaying withdrawals perhaps even increasing troop presence, of providing air and fire support to Afghan forces on an as required basis to limit Taliban gains and to ensure that the Afghan government, its fragile institutions and security forces remain viable. So once again uncertainty dogs the environment with the difference that talks are seen as the end game and hopes are pinned on the newly minted Quadrilateral Group — the QCG.
The change in Pakistan’s policies is discernible except to those with blinkers who refuse to change their negative mindsets for the gains these bring them. Pakistan wants peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is therefore trying to build and consolidate the relationship with Afghanistan and acting positively to bring about an intra Afghan dialogue. Pakistan wants Afghan support to sideline and eliminate the insurgent presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is doing this in its own economic and security interests. Pakistan wants a normalized relationship with India and is acting to ensure that its territory is never used for cross border non state actor activity — the response on the Pathankot attack is one example and the internal security operations within Pakistan are an indicator of the strategic direction adopted. Pakistan is focused on economic growth and on ensuring the right environment for the success of the CPEC and other ventures with Iran and Central Asian States that are being negotiated. Pakistan’s economy has stabilized, its democracy has weathered storms and is now sustainable and finally its institutions are strengthening themselves and working together for the national interest — the prime example being the civil-military relationship. The US needs to take stock of the present environment in Afghanistan and tailor its policy accordingly even if this means changing the withdrawal schedule and President Obama’s wish to exit Afghanistan by the time his term ends. Afghanistan and India both need to review and work to improve their relationships with Pakistan. And Pakistan needs to act to further its own interests and not simply react to ongoing situations. For this pragmatic security, economic and foreign policies are needed.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual)