Afghanistan: Regional Challenges on the Way Out
The Atlantic Council of the United States, Washington DC
To start addressing the question of the role of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Mr Shuja Nawaz first pointed out that we have a serious crisis developing in the next few years. The Afghan state is unable to control its border; thus arms and groups can cross where and when they want in many places along the border. With the withdrawal of international forces starting, we have, potentially, a situation comparable to the 1990s, where every country chooses its champion. If we do not change the regional dynamics, Afghanistan’s neighbours will use their proxies to assert their influence and, as a result, the civil war could drag on. Iranians have strong ties with Shiite communities and those ties are only getting stronger. India and Central Asian Republics (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) could be tempted to give support to northern groups, while Pakistan will probably continue with its current pattern of support to the Taliban.
Pakistan is the key to the conflict resolution in Afghanistan, because since 2001 the Taliban leadership has had a sanctuary in Pakistan. There is therefore no credible perspective of weakening the Taliban without Pakistan’s support. It was also made clear that the Pakistan military is not going to do anything serious against the Afghan Taliban. Further-more, it was questioned the extent to which the Pakistani Army actually has the strength to control the Afghan border without a major change in its priorities: a shift of its major units from the Indian border to the Afghan one. As it has been made clear by Mr Nawaz the border area is getting out of control mainly due to Pakistani policies. This was discussed as an issue in its own right and reflects to a large extent Pakistan’s identity-related in-securities. It concerns both Afghanistan’s irredentist claim on the territories located be-tween the former Durand Line and the Indus River as well as the primacy of the ethnic identity of the Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also an economic problem for Pakistan, as smuggling across an unrecognised border deprives the Pakistani state of billions of rupees every year.
Following what was argued at the conference, relations with the United States are more complex and are only minutely accounted for by the prevailing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Although part of the Pakistani army probably wishes the United States would depart the scene, Mr Nawaz contended that
Pakistan would prefer on the whole that the United States stay and share the burden. An isolated Pakistan is one that would have fewer resources to devote to promoting its interests in general and against India in Afghanistan in particular. So, what should the US do? According to Mr Nawaz, it should change the current policy and stop trying to convince the Pakistani generals that their understanding of Pakistan’s national interest is wrong. If they think that India is the threat, so be it. It is more useful to negotiate within their paradigm. The Pakistani military, like all other regional players, is anticipating the failure of the coalition’s current strategy. At the same time, the Pakistani Army has a problem of its own: if the coalition does not negotiate, the Taliban will grow increasingly autonomous and in the longer term will escape Pakistan’s control (see what happened in the 1990s). As is frequent in a proxy war, the Pakistani military cannot easily transform a military success into political victory. Here is the (potential) common interest with the coalition. The best end-game for Pakistan is not a 100% Taliban victory. It is a coalition government where they can play the Taliban card in order to neutralise India. This gives the coalition a rational basis on which to negotiate with Pakistan. The coalition needs Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban leadership and the last thing either the coalition or Pakistan needs is a Taliban leadership that is completely out of control. From the coalition’s point of view, the return of a Taliban leadership under an international guarantee in Afghanistan must be a priority, since the Taliban would then be less under Pakistani control. The Taliban would be happy to be back in Kabul. This is how you can change the game with Pakistan.
American and Pakistani interests differ in this regard on important matters. As indicated by Mr Nawaz the current Afghan government is perceived by Pakistan as hostile because Tajiks supposedly control all the important positions (at the expense of the Pashtuns). Because they are thus alienated, the Pashtuns revolt against Kabul, supporting the Taliban insurgency. For the United States, the return of a Taliban regime would mean sanctuary in Afghanistan for hostile terrorist groups. From this perspective, what should be the key proposals to the Pakistani military if the U.S. wants to start negotiations with the Taliban leadership? Pakistan’s interests are well known, most notably its opposition to an Indian influence in Afghanistan and more generally to large foreign bases in Afghanistan in the long term (a concern shared by the Iranians). The second Bonn Agreement is key to the stabilisation of Afghanistan, with the implicit understanding that Afghanistan will be neutralised in the future, and that no foreign power shall use its territory as a threat against a regional power. In Mr Nawaz’s view, other regional powers will support the new Afghan regime if, and only if, the neutralisation of Afghanistan is credible and is accompanied by international guarantees. Finally, it was argued that one cannot take one year to make sure that one wants to negotiate and three years to be sure the agreement is sound: by then it will be too late. The right timing is more along the lines of six months to one year for the whole process. Considering that the level of investment from Western countries in Afghanistan has reached a plateau and will be going down, there is not much time to negotiate…
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