The US departure from Afghanistan as early as 4 July 2021 has led to consternation within Pakistan military establishment. Think tanks in Pakistan have been conducting seminars to fathom the scenarios developing due to this withdrawal. The National Security Adviser (NSA) of Afghanistan, Hamdullah Mohib’s bitter controversial comments of calling Pakistan a “brothel house” has temporarily upset the bilateral talks between the two countries. Afghan-istan President Ashraf Ghani has also been expressing his annoyance over the conduct of Pa-kistan in Afghanistan’s affairs. In his recently published article, “A Path to Peace for the Country and the Region”, he seems apprehensive about the Taliban and their patrons in Paki-stan. Kabul has not forgotten the role of Pakistan during the traumatic horrors of the 1990s. Hence, President Ghani has squarely laid the onus of peace on Pakistan, urging the hybrid government in Pakistan to adopt a constructive approach. He also warned Pakistan not to support the Taliban if it wants to leverage dividends from orderly peace in Afghanistan. He expressed Kabul’s resolve in dealing with the Taliban, both at the peace talks table and the battlefield. With the battleground clearly outlined, Pakistan has to either choose the path of peacemaker or become an international pariah by promoting chaos in Afghanistan. The ball is in the Pakistani court, leaving Pakistan with no choice but to recalibrate its Afghan policy.
The recently conducted seminar at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Islamabad showed the dilemma faced by Imran Khan. The seminar pointed out that the lack of credible govern-ance structure in Afghanistan and highlighted that the intense power rivalry will descend Af-ghanistan into chaos. Pakistan, which has always treated Afghanistan as the extension of its strategic space, may find it challenging to use the Taliban as a strategic asset to leverage the Afghanistan government. Syed Abrar Hussain, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Afghani-stan, made it clear that the regional countries do not want the Taliban to rule Afghanistan again. These countries fear the resurgence of violence and political patronage to terrorist or-ganisations like Al Qaeda and The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Having sunk tril-lions of dollars to bring stability to Afghanistan, the US has clarified that it is only withdraw-ing troops from Afghanistan and is not leaving the country. It wants to stay in the game, and like President Ashraf Ghani, it is too looking for a more constructive role from Pakistan. Paki-stan, therefore, has no choice but to re-evaluate its ‘strategic depth’ policy. The exciting part is how Pakistan is going to play its game.
As the days of the withdrawal are nearing, Washington and Islamabad’s flurry is gathering momentum. Once an alliance partner post-9/11, Pak-US relations have morphed into a trans-actional one over the past few years. For the first five months of the Biden administration, the policy on engagement with Pakistan centred on Afghanistan. The first face-to-face high-level official meeting of the two governments took place in May 2021 between the US NSA Jake Sullivan and his Pakistan counterpart Moeed Yusuf at Geneva. The joint statement is-sued only pointed to the “ways of advancing future cooperation” between the two nations. For the US, Pakistan is vital for ensuring a smooth exit plan and its post-withdrawal security plan. The US has been scouting for options for bases in the region. However, growing clam-our within Pakistan against it may pose problems in its negotiations. In his interview with the BBC, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Pakistan should remain posi-tively engaged in its interest. However, Islamabad is also aware that it has no option but to support the US objectives. The safe US troop’s withdrawal, safeguarding the US investments in Afghanistan and not impeding the political settlement in Kabul are the tasks that the Paki-stan military will have to perform. The telephonic conversation between US Secretary of De-fence Lloyd Austin and Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa on 21 March 2021 may have triggered the US-Pak engagement. However, the 24 May 2021 conversation raises doubt about the secret deal between the US and Pakistan. On 05 June 2021, the bold budget speech by Pakistan Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin of walking away from International Monetary Fund (IMF) guidelines may be one of them to provide succour to Pakistan ailing economy besides the need to provide basing rights to the US forces. The details are likely to get clear in future as both the US and Pak have learned to tread their transactional relationship under wraps.
PAKISTANI FEARS AND WAY FORWARD
On 14 June 2021, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi, while addressing the Pak-Afghan Bilateral Dialogue at Islamabad, asserted that he does “not want to see ‘Talibanisa-tion’ of Pakistan”. He blamed the current Afghan leadership for failing to negotiate the transi-tion in the country. He clarified that Pakistan would not take responsibility for the deteriorat-ing Afghan situation. He made it abundantly clear that the Taliban are Afghani, and Pakistan does not represent them. Imran Khan often called ‘Taliban Khan”, shows the Pakistani close-ness towards the Taliban. Probably, distancing itself from the Taliban has been proving diffi-cult for the Pakistan government. The lack of intra-Afghan trust and lust of Pakistan peddling in Afghanistan affairs has impeded the peace process. With time running out and the dangers of civil war looming large, Pakistan is finding its back against the wall. The increasing vio-lence, the stalemate of negotiations, expanding footprints of the Taliban and influx of large numbers of refugees is something that Pakistan fears most. Having burnt its bridges with the Taliban during President Musharaf’s time, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) finds it hard to leverage its past connection. Qureshi appeal to the world and the Afghan government about Pakistan sincerity in building bridges is finding no takers. As alluded to earlier, statements of the Afghan NSA sums up the mood in the Afghanistan camp. Pakistan must walk the talk and should not sow seeds of dissent. It’s time for it to reset its Afghan policy and avoid being an international pariah.
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