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Perceptions from Islamabad: Pakistan’s twin objectives in the Afghan endgame. June 14, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Motwani, Nishank, Pakistan , trackback

Nishank Motwani

The NATO summit held in Chicago last month confirmed that NATO’s combat forces would be withdrawn by the end of 2014, leaving behind an unknown number of training units in Afghanistan. As the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) mission to hand over combat command to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) draws closer, Pakistan is shifting gears to protect its strategic interests in the Afghan endgame. Understanding Islamabad’s objectives is thus essential to evaluate where it stands and how and why its defined ends oppose the desired goals of Afghanistan and its US-led ISAF stakeholders.

Map of Pashtun majority areas (in green)

One such report authored by Pakistani analysts at the Jinnah Institute in 2011—a premier Pakistani think tank—outlined Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan as per the perceptions of its foreign policy elite. While the focus of this report is on Pakistan’s twofold objectives in Afghanistan, one must draw attention to how the once celebrated title of Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally” today instead symbolizes the many fractures in the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship.

According to the Jinnah Institute’s report, Pakistan’s foreign policy elite has conveyed two fundamental objectives that determine their country’s Afghanistan policy.

The first concerns the political settlement in Afghanistan and its impact on the stability of Pakistan. Pakistani officials stress that a political settlement in Afghanistan must not lead to a negative outcome that is insensitive to Pakistani state interests or causes resentment among Pakistani Pashtuns. Since the time Pakistan established bilateral relations with Afghanistan in February 1948, its approach has been to focus predominantly on Pashtun political factions in Afghanistan due to its own ethnic Pashtun population. It is estimated that 30 to 35 million Pashtuns in Pakistan represent 15 to 20 percent of the country’s population. Also, Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising about half its estimated 30 million population. The large numbers of Pashtuns on both sides of the border served as an opportunity for Pakistan to favour and engage with Pashtuns living in Afghanistan with the objective of empowering them to eventually control the levers of power in Afghanistan.

Such an approach that favoured engagement primarily on ethnic terms with Afghan Pashtuns neglected developing linkages with other Afghan ethnic groups. It also overlooked bilateral exchanges in political and economic areas with Afghanistan. As a result of the preference accorded to Afghan Pashtuns and their Pakistani brethren, Islamabad is faced with a potentially complex situation concerning the need to ensure the inclusion of Pashtun sensitivities and representation within a political settlement in the Afghan conflict without it being perceived as unfavourable to this ethnic community. Pakistan is concerned that an unfavourable political settlement to the Afghan conflict in which the Pashtuns perceive themselves as losers might, in fact, catalyse an ethno-nationalist Pashtun movement on either side of the border. Then again, it is precisely this type of concern that has been exploited by Pakistan’s civil and military establishments to give Pakistan the means to exercise and maintain its leverage in Afghanistan as per its policy of strategic depth. For instance, Pakistan’s support of the Taliban regime—a mainly Pashtun movement—from 1996 to 2001 elevated Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan to an unprecedented level. The five-year rule of the Taliban regime and their subsequent ouster from power in November 2001 has not diminished Pakistan’s interest in seeing their inclusion in a future Afghan government as a way to protect Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and to maintain a degree of influence post-2014. The Taliban are Pakistan’s best-known strategic asset in the Afghan endgame and it is their continued existence through the backing of the ISI that frustrates the arrival of a political reconciliation in Afghanistan that would prevent the Taliban from access to official instruments of power.

The second condition of importance to Islamabad is that the future government in Kabul must not be hostile towards Pakistan and should not allow its territory to be used as a staging ground against Pakistan’s interests. This applies to the ANSF and other regional actors, but in particular to the United States and India—both of which have been cultivating closer linkages with local stakeholders in Afghanistan.

Although the Pakistani report indicated that Kabul should not adopt policies that are hostile towards it, the same message needs to be expressed to Islamabad with respect to its backing of the Taliban and other insurgent networks that are responsible for destabilizing Afghanistan. In other words, Islamabad is against the idea of Kabul reserving the right to target the insurgents responsible for attacking Afghan civilians and security forces that operate from Pakistan. For Pakistan to seek Kabul’s cooperation to ensure its sovereignty is respected and not violated, Islamabad must adhere to the same principle and stop providing support to insurgents that are undermining Afghanistan’s security and stability. Until and unless Pakistan withdraws its backing of the insurgent groups targeting Afghanistan, Islamabad is not in a position to demand from Kabul that it renounce its prerogative of retaliation against hostile attacks or to act pre-emptively to disrupt such attacks from taking place.

The disconnect between Islamabad and Kabul highlights another point of contestation, which essentially questions Islamabad’s response to a retaliatory or pre-emptive strike by the ANSF against insurgents in Pakistan. Moreover, would an operation by the ANSF on Pakistani soil provide Islamabad with the necessary justification to increase its covert support to insurgents fighting the Afghan government?

At this point, it is unknown if the ANSF would target insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and how Islamabad would respond to such an operation on its territory. The risks of eliminating insurgents in Pakistan for the ANSF go beyond the lethal dangers they would encounter on the ground and spill over and into a dangerous strategic competition against the powerful Pakistani Army and ISI. Any such incursion by the ANSF risks triggering a disproportionate response from Pakistan’s security establishment on a scale that could seek to wrestle the Afghan government’s limited control of its territory.

Despite these risks of acting against the interests of the Pakistani Army and the ISI, Afghanistan’s government and the ANSF also risk losing public support if it is perceived that they are unwilling to challenge an aggressive neighbour and are unable to provide Afghan citizens with security. Consequently, due to Pakistan’s continued support of the Taliban and other insurgent networks, the Afghan government and its security establishment perceive Pakistan more as an enemy than a friendly neighbour. This perception has limited Islamabad’s engagement with Kabul and its ability to influence affairs in Afghanistan. However, continued marginalization of Pakistan risks antagonizing Islamabad further—a situation the Afghan government can ill afford given the drawdown of foreign forces in 2014.


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