This article was first published on Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.
Few can fail to see the signs of change in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last nine months. Not only has the tone improved, but encouraging steps by both sides point to a possible ending to the nearly 70-year history of mostly discord. Afghans and Pakistanis increasingly appreciate that their domestic insurgencies cannot be overcome without each other and how, in other respects, their countries’ futures are intertwined. These developments would not have occurred without a new Afghan leader’s determination to push a regional political and economic agenda and Pakistan’s reexamination of its strategic options with Afghanistan.
Yet further progress in resetting ties between the two countries is in doubt and the diplomatic gains realized could be reversed. It was inevitable that historic suspicions on both sides would be aroused. Most seriously, a wide body of opinion in Afghanistan questions Pakistan’s sincerity about seeking a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. What is undeniable is the striking disconnect between Pakistan’s highly conciliatory rhetoric and its continued hosting of Afghan insurgent groups. Skeptics insist that the true test of Pakistan’s seriousness would be its expulsion of the insurgency’s Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network. Pakistan’s reluctance to end its patronage of these groups underscores the continued grip of older strategic thinking even as it pursues new approaches to Afghanistan.
Let us accept the fact that a shift in attitudes toward Afghanistan has occurred at the highest levels of Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership. In a clear departure from the past, Afghanistan’s enemies have been declared to be Pakistan’s enemies, and Afghan Taliban fighters are accused of acts of terrorism. Despite having ostensibly broken with the Taliban post-2001, members of Pakistan’s premier intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence, are known to have indulged and at times colluded with Afghan insurgents. By the recent admission of former President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan had sought to weaken Afghanistan as a means of countering Indian influence in the country. Also driving Pakistan’s policies was the belief that international efforts to build a viable Afghan state were likely to fail with the country fragmenting ethnically and geographically. Against that outcome, Pakistan’s Afghan Pashtun clients were at a minimum expected to provide a security belt along bordering Afghan provinces.
Several developments prompted Pakistan’s reevaluation. The United States and its NATO allies, together with the international donor community, have shown a more lasting commitment to Afghanistan than was anticipated. Even in the face of a sharp foreign military drawdown and an unrelenting insurgency, the backing of a large Afghan security force makes it unlikely that the Taliban will easily overrun the country as it did two decades ago. Unlike the 1990s, when Pakistan faced no Pashtun insurgency of its own, policymakers now have to fear that an Afghan Taliban military victory will energize and empower Pakistan’s ethnically and ideologically similar militants.
Pakistan has thus been willing along with Afghanistan and its allies to explore a negotiated way out of the Afghan conflict. As against the uncertainties of outright Taliban rule or a chaotic civil war, a political solution would seem an attractive alternative for Pakistan. A power sharing arrangement that immersed the Afghan Taliban in coalition politics could also act to check its influence spreading to the region. Yet Pakistan has complicated Afghan-sponsored efforts to arrange peace talks by precluding any negotiators but those trusted in an agreement to protect its security interests. A more promising area for coordination with Afghanistan was created in recent years by Pakistan’s hard-pressed Taliban finding sanctuary in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s efforts to enlist the Afghan military to flush them out have naturally raised expectations in Kabul of reciprocal action by Pakistan’s army against the Afghan Taliban.
But as long as a viscerally anti-Pakistan Hamid Karzai occupied the Afghan presidency, deep distrust limited the two countries’ ability to pursue common objectives. Ashraf Ghani’s election, however, brought to the office a leader whose extensive plans for Afghanistan were from the outset predicated on bettering relations with Pakistan. For the first time, Pakistan could now envision having a friendly government in Kabul without needing to subordinate it.
Some in Pakistan, most notably hardliners in Pakistan’s intelligence service, complain that Pakistan’s leaders have gone too far in their reaching out to Afghanistan. But opposition to a normalization of relations is more vocal on the Afghan side. Ghani drew heavy criticism for agreeing to have a few military cadets train in Pakistan and was condemned for reportedly allowing Afghan troops to coordinate with Pakistan forces in military border operations against the Pakistani Taliban. Discussions on trade and broad economic cooperation were also met with suspicion. But it was an agreement several weeks ago for broad intelligence sharing with Pakistan’s hated military that spiked ire among Afghan politicians and with the public.
Under pressure, a politically weakened Ghani has backtracked. In a tough letter to Pakistan’s leaders in late May, he conditioned further cooperation on their meeting a long list of demands, including the immediate cutting of ties to the Afghan Taliban groups and the arrest of their leaders. Predictably, Pakistan has ignored Ghani’s ultimatums. It is plainly in no rush to make enemies of its long sheltered Afghan insurgents and risk their teaming up with Pakistan’s militants to attack the state. More broadly, Pakistan is unprepared to give up on those groups considered strategic assets until convinced that the unity government and a unified Afghan state are likely to endure. Thus at the same time that Pakistan has moved toward policies intended to enhance Afghanistan’s stability, it continues to back forces set on undermining that very outcome
Putting the process of reconciliation back on track will require hard choices by both sides. Even if Pakistan may not be ready to meet demands that it completely rein in Afghan insurgent groups, it can visibly make their cross-border movement more difficult. Pakistan can also be more strategic in using its influence to strengthen those within the Taliban leadership more inclined toward a political solution. At the same time, Afghanistan should not take Pakistan’s facilitation of peace talks as the principal measure of its sincerity. While Pakistan has shown that it can play spoiler, its ability to steer Taliban leaders has always been greatly exaggerated. With the insurgency surging it is hard to see an incentive to accept a ceasefire and agree to join the Afghan political system. Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s prospects for negotiations are even less clear given the increasingly decentralized Taliban and the emergence of the Islamic State.
Progress toward reconciliation has at best stalled. Better communication between security forces is needed to avoid border clashes such as occurred last week. It is all too easy for Pakistan and Afghanistan to slip back into a familiar pattern of mutual recriminations. Neither country can ignore how much their interests have converged and what is at stake. If efforts to improve relations fail, an historic opportunity to put Afghanistan and the region on a course toward stability and economic progress will have been forfeited.