For peace in Afghanistan, talk to Pakistan

To initiate a fresh approach in Kabul, the US must understand and address Islamabad’s strategic anxieties

Gulf News

The Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy review provides an opportunity to confront a central truth: No strategy, even with more troops, will succeed without taking Pakistan on board and the affiliated Haqqani network that is responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against the US and its partners in Afghanistan.

After more than $30 billion (Dh110 billion) in assistance to Pakistan since 2002, it is understandable that critics of the current US policy toward Pakistan advocate a more coercive approach: slapping further conditions on assistance.

The trouble is that such “sticks” are unlikely to change Pakistan’s policy, because its existential concerns are tied to broader regional priorities. To get Pakistan to alter its approach in Afghanistan, the US must understand and address Pakistan’s strategic anxieties.

The Pakistani military, in particular, is moved foremost by their country’s rivalry with India. Leaders in Islamabad worry that India’s support may embolden their counterparts in Kabul to forcefully challenge the validity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and reassert Afghan claims on Pakistani territory.

While most of India’s aid to Afghanistan has been economic, India has stepped up security assistance in recent years, including military equipment, to bolster the Afghan security forces against the Taliban. Other Indian efforts, like financing for Iran’s Chabahar port that allows landlocked Afghanistan to bypass Pakistan, have stoked Pakistani concerns. The Pakistani security establishment looks at the Taliban as a check on Indian activity in Afghanistan and has doubled down on its efforts to counter deepening Afghan-India ties.

Yet Pakistan’s goal is not continued chaos in Afghanistan. Nor does it wish for a Taliban victory, as this would strengthen their militant kin in Pakistan. What Pakistan wants is a reconciliation process that ushers the Taliban back into the political fold in Afghanistan, without allowing the militants to control the country once again. The Taliban would counterbalance Indian influence in Afghanistan, and an inclusive political settlement would prevent their radical ideology from taking hold or spilling across the border.

US policies toward Pakistan have long underestimated the centrality of this regional dynamic in defining Pakistani choices. An approach that links efforts to enlist Pakistan’s support in Afghanistan to a strategy aimed at improving India-Pakistan ties could change this.

Better India-Pakistan relations are necessary to reduce Pakistan’s apprehensions in Afghanistan. They also serve other long-term American interests: eliminating terrorist threats from the region, reducing the risk of nuclear war and supporting a greater global role for India.

To achieve this, the US should facilitate an India-Pakistan dialogue on the full range of economic and political issues, including their mutual concerns in Afghanistan, without trying to stage-manage the results. The United States’ playing this role should be contingent on Pakistan preventing cross-border terrorist attacks in India.

President George W. Bush encouraged such a comprehensive dialogue after a dangerous nuclear standoff in 2002. Within three years, India-Pakistan relations had made unprecedented progress. Terrorist movement from Pakistan across the border dropped dramatically, and India and Pakistan got extremely close to signing a deal on Kashmir. The budding rapprochement was cut short in part by an internal political clash within Pakistan.

The US must also get serious about a political settlement in Afghanistan that involves all elements of Afghan society, including the Taliban. An opportunity to start this process has been created by last week’s agreement between President Ashraf Gani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan to resurrect the stalled Quadrilateral Coordination Group (the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China). The US should back this effort as a means of getting the Taliban to the reconciliation table. Other regional consultative forums like the Kabul Process, started by President Gani recently, will remain useful in keeping a larger set of important countries engaged.

Without reduction in Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan, the Afghan government will be unable to rally its people behind negotiations. So in exchange for getting a say in reconciliation through the Quadrilateral forum, Pakistan must take verifiable steps to curtail the financing and arming of the Taliban, target those Taliban elements that oppose talks, and give those willing to negotiate with the Afghan government the freedom to do so. The US also should work closely with China to encourage Pakistan. China has committed over $60 billion in investment in Pakistan and risks losing it if the region remains unstable. Recent conversations with senior Pakistani officials suggest that a window of opportunity exists. Pakistani officials recognise that the Trump administration will have little patience with them. At the same time, they will not move if they see this as ignoring Pakistan’s own security needs.

This new, more strategic approach would give Pakistan the incentives it needs to work with the US on common priorities across the region. And it does so without eliminating any US options should Pakistan still fail to see the benefits for its own future.

—New York Times News Service

Stephen J. Hadley, chairman of the United States Institute of Peace, was national security adviser from 2005 to 2009. Moeed Yusuf is the institute’s associate vice-president of Asia programmes.

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