Pakistan-Afghanistan ties and Regional Developments

Spearhead Analysis – 22.01.2018

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan remain in flux and largely vulnerable to various regional dynamics. In 2017, Pakistan initiated a series a high level talks with Afghanistan in order to assuage the bilateral tensions. Reportedly, certain meetings culminated with positive end notes especially in relation to security and border management. Recently, the Trump administration has amplified its tactic of asking Pakistan to do more. The stance tends to make Pakistan a scapegoat for the assortment of intrinsic Afghan crises and US limitations to resolving them. Besides serving as an undesirable development in Pak-US ties, such stances carry the potential to create mistrust and grievances in Pak-Afghan ties.

In December 2017, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan held a Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Beijing. The meeting was reportedly aimed at finding ways to broaden the scope of CPEC to Afghanistan and for converging on regional security approaches. According to the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi “China and Pakistan are willing to discuss with Afghanistan, under the principle of mutual benefits, the possibility of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.” Some analysts suggest that Afghanistan too aspires to join the initiative. The materialization of such a framework may serve as a positive stepping stone in improving Pak-Afghan ties.

Pak-Afghan ties are predominantly discussed through the prism of security- with a special focus on border issues. According to the recent DoD report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan “Despite tensions in the bilateral relationship, and periodic border closures, Afghanistan-Pakistan border cooperation at the tactical level took positive steps, maintaining constructive dialogue and informally operationalizing border management mechanisms functionally similar to those outlined in the Bilateral Military Coordination Standard Operating Procedures. During the reporting period, multiple general officer-level engagements continued and maintained open communications, enhanced information sharing, and facilitated some military-to-military cooperation along the border… RS continues to facilitate meetings between Afghanistan and Pakistan through its Tripartite Joint Operations Center. Meetings focus on border management and security, countering terrorist groups, and countering the threat from improvised explosive devices (IED). In an effort to de-escalate border incidents more effectively, Afghanistan and Pakistan established telephone hotlines for corps commanders that serve across the Durand Line from each other”. This trend needs to continue in order to resolve the critical sticking point of alleged border movements.  

Recently, the Russian Foreigner Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged Pakistan’s resolve in dismantling forces of terror along the Pak-afghan border.  He also noted that Pakistan’s presence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will strengthen the ties between Russia and Pakistan. In 2017, SCO also revived the Afghan Contact Group to evaluate prospects for Afghan stability- this may provide  another important platform for alleviating Pak-Afghan concerns.

It was believed that President Ghani hoped Pakistan would serve as the elixir for Afghan political crises. Such a notion carries multiple variables and constraints. However, it is important for the Afghan leadership to realistically observe its own issues, refrain from its fluctuating stances on Pakistan and then draft genuine efforts to work with its neighbor in bringing about regional stability.    

Recently days various reports also surfaced on ‘talks with Taliban’, these developments have generated a plethora of speculations on behind the scene machinations that may have prompted these happenings. Recently, a Taliban delegation from the Qatar office reportedly visited Pakistan. The official acknowledgment or context of this reported development is still awaited. However, various ‘unofficial’ descriptions of the talks have surfaced. The Taliban on its part has also acknowledged these talks.

 A few days prior to these talks, a ‘mysterious’ development unfolded in Turkey, where a round of talks with the Taliban was reportedly held. The development went viral after a Taliban member broke the news on an Afghan news channel; but Turkey, Afghanistan and even the Taliban has officially rejected the news. The context and success of these talks is yet to emanate. Their outcomes would also largely depend on the direction of US policies.

In the US view, it aims to defeat Taliban on the battlefield, compelling Taliban to negotiate from a weaker position. It is noted that in the past the US has missed out/or spoiled certain windows of opportunities in engaging Taliban in talks. The Afghan arena has several variables, it is imperative for the US to evaluate these realities and start working towards a serious political solution with the Taliban.

With the Taliban name at the crux; the broader region is at a unique crossroad– various powers seek alignment whereas as others find their interests clashing.

India-US ties are currently on an upward trajectory due to their various common interests. The US deems India as its reliable partner in Afghanistan. The Modi government has utilized these recent trends to enhance its hostility towards Pakistan. India has been linked to sponsoring terrorism related activities in Pakistan and has been on a constant task of keeping Pakistan’s eastern borders heated.  India intends to counter its China centric concerns via Pakistan and Afghanistan. India views Chinese led BRI with suspicion, it aspires to see alternate routes to enhance its connectivity with Central Asia and beyond. Despite Pakistan-Iran repeated statements on collectively utilizing their geostrategic advantages, Indian media tends to discuss the two in contrasting terms. Contrary to US policies on Iran, prominent US Generals have also discussed the scope of ‘supporting Indian initiatives via Iran’. The race for shaping influence around the Central Asian states also appears in expedited motion. Recent reports paid special attention to US overtures to Kazakhstan- the Kazakh President’s recent meeting with Trump administration was viewed in this light. Reportedly, acquiring Kazakh support for the US ‘South Asian Strategy’ was  one of the focal points of the recent meetings.  President Trump also initiated telephonic talks with the Uzbek President in order to discuss regional security. President Ghani on his part, paid a visit to Uzbekistan in December 2017. Reportedly, this led to the formation of “C5+1” (5 Central Asian states and Afghanistan) dialogue platform- aimed at discussing regional issues. Uzbekistan is also engaging in major infrastructural projects with Afghanistan. The Russian foreign ministry has once again reiterated its support for appropriate political solutions to the Afghan crisis. However, some sources speculate Putin may be interested in seeking an opportunity to work with the US in the Afghan arena, likely as means to prevent further spread of IS and to control the narco crisis.  

Conclusion:

The regional developments are shifting at a fast pace – multiple national interests find themselves in alignment or in clashes. Pakistan must keep in view the broader regional developments and leverage its own advantages accordingly.  The Chinese supported economic openings with Afghanistan are a positive step. Pakistan and Afghanistan ties must be broadened and improved. At the same time, Pakistan may vigilantly work towards enhancing trade and connectivity with Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia. Prominent analysts are of the view that any substantial connectivity framework with Afghanistan would depend on US support and its concerns regarding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); but this ‘predicament’ may also provide Pakistan a chance to further explore economic and security ties with the Trump administration.

It is also imperative that US acknowledges some fundamental Afghan political issues and respects Pakistan’s concerns. The final outcomes of the recent reported developments with Taliban are yet to emanate. However, in this case Pakistan needs to place its own long term security interests first.    

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