Being a neighbor, Pakistan gives paramount importance to its relations with Afghanistan as Pakistan’s peace and stability depends on Afghan peace and stability. Traditionally, Pak-Afghan relationship has been characterized by mutual mistrust and lack of confidence and third parties have always been a decisive factor in determining the Pak-Afghan relations.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have not developed strategic relations as there have been many factors that hindered the progress in this sphere. Since the formation of national unity government in Afghanistan in September 2014 a paradigm shift was noted in the approach of Afghan government in engaging Pakistan.
At Beijing Conference President Ghani defined five circles manifesting Afghanistan’s future foreign policy. He placed Pakistan in first circle and stated that partnership with Pakistan was an important pillar of Afghan foreign policy. He placed India in fourth circle implying a shift in Afghan thinking. These announcements have been followed by visits of civil and military leadership of both states.
On economic front, Pakistan remains the largest trading partner of Afghanistan and bilateral trade has reached to $2 billion in 2014. Afghanistan has been the third largest destination for Pakistan’s exports. Afghan trade with outside world is also regulated by Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement signed in 2010. Pakistan has extended support to Afghanistan under technical assistance programme in 2003 for infrastructure development projects and some of these projects have been completed while others are under the process of completion.
Being a landlocked state, Afghanistan’s trade has been passing through Pakistan and has been regulated under 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement that allowed transit to Afghan imports from all the countries through the port of Karachi. It was replaced by Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) signed in 2010 that now regulates trade between Afghanistan- Pakistan and the rest of the world. In the post 2014 period, a decrease has been noted in commercial as well as non-commercial transit. Non- commercial transit has been reduced to half due to the withdrawal of bulk of forces. The commercial transit has also reduced to half from more than 75,000 to 35,000 in 2014. There is also evidence of shifting transit from Pakistan to Iran due to improved infrastructure on Iranian side, devaluation of Iranian currency against dollar, reduced transportation cost, and extra charges at Pakistani ports for Afghan transit cargo are reasons for this decline.
There have been some irritants in Pak-Afghan relations. Post 9/11 terrorism has been the major irritant in Pak-Afghan relations. Afghanistan has been accusing Pakistan for supporting and harboring terrorists. Afghan government has been publicly criticizing Pakistan for not doing enough to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. Pakistan has been facilitating the peace process between the US and Afghan Taliban and later on it facilitated the first round of intra-Afghan talks but unfortunately peace process could not be continued.
An increase has been noted in border attacks after Afghan National Security Forces’ assumption of security responsibilities. Earlier, during 2007-2010, 194 border violations were noted while these numbers have been on the rise as 2012 alone saw 732 cross border attacks while in 2013, 23 such incursions were reported.
Apart from these attacks, members of Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan having hideouts in Afghanistan have also been responsible for incursions from Afghan side and had mounted attacks on Pakistani check posts in Chitral, Dir, Kurram and Bajaur agencies in FATA.
Indian role in Afghanistan has been a grave concern for Pakistan. Contrary to the use of Indian hard power in respect to its relations with other South Asian neighbors, the use of soft power in Afghanistan gives rise to many questions about India’s motives. Given the history of troubled India-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan is strategically important for India.
There were hopes that coming to power of the new government in Afghanistan would transform Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Initially, Afghan government tried to address Pakistan’s concerns regarding Indian role in Afghanistan and sought Pakistan’s help to initiate dialogue process with Taliban. Recent cross border firing and killing of troops on both sides gave rise to blame game against Pakistan and disrupted the cooperative interaction between the two states. The relations cannot be normalized or improved unless lack of confidence and mistrust that characterize their relations is addressed. Both sides need to take measures to create an environment that is conducive to peace.
The Afghan Taliban have grown stronger and more deadly over the past 13 years, something Pakistan is often blamed for by Afghans and some in the international community. Thus, Pakistan is seen as the key player in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. However, the Taliban claims their militancy in Afghanistan is completely independent of Pakistan. In this context, there are three major concerns associated with materializing peace talk efforts between Afghanistan and the Taliban. First, it remains unclear whether Pakistan will cooperate in the Afghan peace process and urge the Taliban to stop fighting. Second, and of most interest, is whether the Taliban will listen to Pakistan. Third, Afghanistan’s role in a lasting and enforceable settlement has yet to be determined.
Pakistan is increasingly threatened by militancy on its own soil and fears the consequences of pressuring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. This concern is evident in the remarks of the Pakistani National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz in Nov. 2014. Aziz said that Pakistan should not antagonize groups that pose no threat to it. In reference to the Afghan Taliban he argued: “Why should America’s and [Afghanistan’s] enemies unnecessarily become Pakistan’s enemies and that Pakistan must not make enemies out of them all.”
The Taliban are not likely to listen to Pakistan regarding the peace process for many reasons — threats to internal and political stability, ideological motivations, and trust issues with both the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The Taliban cannot appear to bow to Pakistan’s interests and disarming while there is a continued foreign military presence in the country would be no less than political suicide for the group. In a discussion with the author in early Dec. 2014, Wakil Ahmad Matawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, argued that if the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, agreed to peace in the current situation, he would lose all credibility.
Lost credibility could form fractures within the Taliban leading to the creation of splinter groups. Some argue that like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who left al Qaeda and formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or key Taliban commanders that broke away from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the same will happen to the Afghan Taliban if there is pressure mounted on them to negotiate. There are already rumors that Abdul Qayum Zakir — the Taliban’s number two and former leadership council head of military commission — was cashiered, and in response, defected to Iran where he wants set up a base.
Issues of ideology also plague the Taliban’s relationship with regional powers and can impede the peace process. According to Abdul Hakim Mujahid — who served as Taliban’s ambassador to the United Nations during their rule in the 1990s and is currently serving as the first deputy of the Afghan High Peace Council — during an interview in December 2014 said that the Taliban and Pakistani government have no convergence of ideology, only a shared interest in the conflict. Even ideological differences within the Taliban may prevent the group from listening to Pakistan. While many militants join the Taliban under radical Islamic motivations, others join for financial purposes or to exact revenge for personal grievances.
Illegal businesses — including the drug trade, timber, illegal mining, extortion, and taxing of development projects — not only serve as primary financial sources for the Afghan Taliban, but also inspire many to join the group. Afghan and international forces causing civilian casualties and insulting cultural and Islamic values also boosts the recruitment of non-ideological militants. These militants, pursuing profit or revenge from the Afghan government, will continue fighting regardless of the political settlement. The Taliban’s leadership understands the significance of such recruits within the Taliban’s ranks and, therefore, will not agree to peace negotiations that might result in the non-ideologues leaving.
Taliban leadership also believes that agreeing to negotiate with the government at this juncture will cost them the current influence they have.
Finally, peace may elude this round of negotiations because of the new administration in Afghanistan. First of all, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani endorsing the Bilateral Security Agreement and Status of Forces Agreement with the United States and NATO renewed one of the very reasons the Afghan Taliban fight. Moreover, there is an acute trust deficit between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul administration — trust which is a prerequisite to any sort of settlement between the two sides.
Secondly, the Afghan government does not have a unified stance vis-a-vis peace talks with the Taliban. There are and have been internal elements within the Afghan government that oppose negotiations with the Taliban, and residual factional and tribal rivalries between senior officials intentionally ruin efforts by the government to reach a political settlement.
Ordinary Afghan villagers will also have an impact on peace talks. Villagers, sick of the corrupt and weak local governance favored the Taliban over the government in Kabul, but joined the militancy as a last alternative. The Taliban’s parallel governance has been able to deliver faster courts, with transparent and enforceable verdicts, while local Afghan governments detain innocent civilians and treat them inhumanely, making locals wonder why they should not just join the Taliban.
Due to providing safe-sanctuary, Pakistan certainly has leverage to initiate the negotiation process but there are no indications that the Afghan Taliban will listen to Pakistan. Instead, there are further demonstrations of tension in the Taliban-Pakistan relationship that includes the Taliban sending a delegation to Qatar to cut short Pakistan’s influence over the process — according to Matawakil — and the departure of prominent Taliban commander, Mansur Dadullah, and his fellow commanders from Pakistan, and low ranking Taliban commanders who were prevented from entering Pakistan for their winter break this year. Moreover, given the Taliban’s hatred towards Pakistan for allying with the United States immediately after 9/11, the group does not think favorably of Pakistan.
Internal and political stability of the Afghan Taliban is contingent upon not negotiating. And although the leadership is currently enjoying a sanctuary in Pakistan, given the mixed nature of ideological motivations between Taliban field commanders and the rank-and-file members, the war in Afghanistan seems beyond Pakistan’s control. Moreover, the growing influence of ISIS in the region will lead the Afghan Taliban to intensify its relations with TTP and ISIS so the three can work together to fight on two fronts.
In the meantime, by conditioning the success of peace talks on a commitment from Pakistan, the Afghan government is putting all its eggs in one basket. Afghanistan instead should also do its homework and undertake confidence-building measures to gain the trust of its people, address local grievances, and provide better living and governance to ensure an end to the Afghan Taliban.
Hekmatullah Azamy is research analyst at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS), a Kabul-based independent and policy-oriented think-tank, where he conducts research on peace, security, and development studies. These views are his own.
Tags: Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia, Taliban
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