From Day One, Pakistan has always had problems with India in the east and Afghanistan in the west. Kabul doesn’t accept the Durand Line as a legitimate border with Islamabad and Islamabad doesn’t accept the LoC as a permanent border with New Delhi. If Pakistan were to yield to Kabul’s position it would mean relinquishing parts of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. If India were to yield to Pakistan’s position it would mean letting go of Jammu and Kashmir. But modern states do not yield territory easily. So each regional player has been trying to change the status quo in its favour by launching terrorist proxies to inflict pain on the other.
Enter the United States. Throughout the Cold War period, it was allied to Pakistan and propped it up with economic and military aid. But tensions erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Pakistan lost its utility for the US. The US reneged on its commitments and turned the screws on Pakistan’s nuclear program, sowing the seeds of virulent anti-Americanism in state and society. Islamabad responded to the impending state of regional isolation by installing a “friendly” Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
But 9/11 created a new ball game. The US went after the Taliban and installed a pro-India, anti-Pakistan regime in Kabul, warning Pakistan: If you’re not with us you’re against us. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, Pakistan fashioned a “double-game” to protect its short and long term interests. It allied with the US against Al-Qaeda’s terrorism but provided sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban in FATA in order to retain “friendly” leverage on Kabul in the future. In consequence, the US spent tens of billions of dollars in trying to “stabilize” Afghanistan with anti-Pakistan regimes but failed because of a slow and steady resurgence of the Taliban who now control nearly half of Afghanistan and carry out attacks at will against the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
US Afghan policy has meandered confusingly from one President to another. Under George W Bush, the US poured in men and materials into the Afghan game, exhorting Pakistan to “do more” to help. Under Obama, it all but pulled out, allowing the Taliban to dig in for the long haul and consolidate their gains. Under Trump, the US is in a “holding” frame but once again leaning on Pakistan to “do more”. Pakistan is not opposed to a “grand reconciliation” in Afghanistan that brings the bloody civil war to an end but wants to make sure that the end result is not unfavourable to its interests and security. But Kabul, New Delhi and Washington are not in any mood to concede Pakistan’s concerns.
Meanwhile, the regional situation is getting worse. Kabul is under attack from the Taliban. The Taliban are under attack from Islamic State in Afghanistan. The IS is anti-Kabul, anti-Islamabad and anti-US. Pakistan and India are warring through proxies. Islamabad and Kabul are hosting terrorist sanctuaries against each other – the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. And the US is railing against Pakistan and supporting India in a bigger game to challenge China and disrupt CPEC.
Pakistan is in a bind. It has the most to lose in this situation. The state has already collapsed in Afghanistan and a continuation of the civil war won’t much hurt Kabul as long as the US continues to prop it up. But if the US were to actively gang up with New Delhi and Kabul to hurt Pakistan for not “doing more”, the consequences of weakening the Pakistani state would only benefit the IS and Taliban.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest emissary from Washington in search of a “solution” to the regional mess. But he has no fresh ideas or initiatives to offer Pakistan or Afghanistan except a repetition of the “do more” mantra that Pakistan has rejected time and again. What’s the way out?
America must acknowledge that it has played a majorly critical role in creating and sustaining this mess. It has two options now. It can empower and support Pakistan to be the lead player in finding a “solution” in Afghanistan that both Kabul and Islamabad can live with without destabilizing the other. In this case, its pressure tactics must be directed at Kabul and New Delhi to work with Pakistan and assuage its security concerns. Or it can turn its guns on Pakistan for not “doing more” against its own interests. In this case, it will merely pave the way for extremist anti-American populism to overwhelm state and society and plunge the region into an existential crisis as in the Middle East, creating even more problems for everyone in and beyond the region.
Kabul and Islamabad must establish mutual trust by progressively uprooting Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Simultaneously Pakistan and India must normalize relations by ending their proxy wars. America must play a leading role in bringing this about instead of exacerbating problems by playing anti-Pakistan favourites.