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Pakistan’s Afghan challenge

Pakistan’s Afghan policy, if at all it has one, is in tatters. Traditionally, it has suffered from a surfeit of self-righteousness. But, in addition to just that, it has also assumed the form of a self-destruct mould that refuses to let go. It has virtually become repetitively monotone, dreary and tiresome.

The ongoing quadrilateral dialogue process is nothing but a demonstration of this lingering mindset: an exaggerated attempt to do things which are either not possible at all, or which, if done, would run counter to Pakistan’s perceived objectives of working for peace in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s position as a key player in this latest multi-country effort to forge peace in the war- and strife-torn Afghanistan is based on three principal assumptions: its much-trumpeted ‘influence’ over the Taliban, its interest for genuine peace in its neighbouring country and its perceived readiness to engage in combat with elements that refuse to come to the negotiating table – the so-called ‘non-reconcilable’ Taliban. These assumptions, and the hope associated with them, have either been blown away altogether, or they have been stretched thin virtually to a breaking point.

This has been so because Pakistan’s Afghan policy suffers from a host of paradoxes, the principal one being its inability to treat both the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban as enemies of peace. In its unique appraisal, while the former constitute a terrorist group which is engaged in fighting the state of Pakistan and which has to be eliminated through the use of all means, it has a diametrically opposite appreciation for a similar band of militants dubbed as the Afghan Taliban who are engaged in dismantling the government in Kabul in a bid to imposing its draconian and regressive writ in the country. It is not the former component of its policy that one is in disagreement with. It is the latter which is tantamount to according an outfit of brutal and obscurantist militants a status on a par with an elected government in Kabul.

For an excruciatingly long period of time, Pakistan lived in denial of the presence of the Afghan Taliban on its soil. It is only recently that, in an address at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz conceded the reality: “…now, we have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So, we can use these levers to pressurize them to “come to the (negotiating) table”.

But he was quick not to assume the consequent responsibility of actually bringing them to the talks table on which the whole quadrilateral effort hinges: “…So that is the kind of leverage we have to bring them to the table. But to pressurize them and to negotiate will depend on the parties which are actually negotiating. We can advise the Afghan government, if they want our advice, on what might be acceptable and so on and so forth, but in this task, I think, and according to the road map, all three of us have to share that advice – U.S., Pakistan, and China – so that we collectively decide what is best”. In short, it is like saying that, look, it is not our responsibility. It is a collective responsibility to be shared by all who are engaged in the effort of bringing peace to Afghanistan. That literally pulls one pillar from under the very edifice of the quadrilateral process.

Pakistan’s interest in working for peace in Afghanistan is directly dependant on assuaging its concerns regarding the possible steps that would be taken to keep India out and away from having any continuing stakes in that country. Unfortunately, instead of building on the natural homogeneity that exists in abundance between the people of the two countries, Pakistan has opted to following a top-down policy of either influencing the Afghan leadership to doing its bid, or allegedly using the non-state actors to promote its agenda. This has not helped matters in the past and Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour have been like a bad dream which, given the prospect of a continuity of this patently self-destructive approach, is only likely to get worse with the passage of time particularly as the fighting rages on in Afghanistan generating indescribable pain and angst.

There is also the question of Pakistan not delivering on its avowed promises and commitments. It is neither willing to wage battle against the ‘non-reconcilable’ Taliban post the possibility of the initiation of peace parleys with the Afghan government, nor is it agreeable to fighting the Afghan Taliban and pushing them out of their alleged sanctuaries on its soil in the event they don’t agree to negotiate with the government in Kabul.

I am afraid that, by refusing to come to terms with a sustainable middle ground, Pakistan is gradually eroding its own relevance to the peace process in Afghanistan. This would, inevitably, create the space for other players to move in, India being one of them. Consequently, it would be safe to conclude that in pursuing a policy of zero-sum, Pakistan has actually damaged its own cause as also the prospect of peace in its immediate neighbourhood that was, and remains, so essential for the realisation of its economic dream vide the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Much time has been lost to blighted pursuits. Unfortunately, not much remains for making amends in bringing about a fundamental change in the way Pakistan looks at its western neighbour. It is a question of engaging with Afghanistan, not controlling it. The sooner Pakistan understands it and reconciles with it, the better it would be for promoting its interests within its own borders, as also throughout the larger South-Asian region.

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