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Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
Report 262 / Asia

Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan

As Pakistan seeks to consolidate its fragile democracy, it should seize the moment to improve relations with its Afghan neighbour. Its biggest challenge comes from within. The civilian government has to regain control over national security and foreign policy from the military.

Executive Summary

Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have been largely characterised by mutual mistrust and devised through a narrow security prism. While it will require considerable effort to end deep-seated animosity, both countries share close ethnic, linguistic, religious and economic ties. Longstanding Afghan migration to the territories that now compose Pakistan makes them an integral part of Pakistani society. Yet, military-devised interventionist policies, based on perceived national security interests, including support for Afghan, mainly Pashtun, proxies, have marred the relationship. The incoming Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has offered to expand bilateral ties, providing Islamabad fresh opportunities to improve the relationship. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has responded positively, but the Pakistani military and civilian leadership’s preferences toward Kabul are diverging further as Afghanistan’s transition draws closer. By recalibrating relations toward economic ties and seeking solutions to the presence of millions of Afghan refugees on its soil, Pakistan could engage more constructively with its neighbour.

Sharif’s top priority, stabilising a faltering economy, will be elusive in the absence of security and hampered by an unstable neighbour; hence his government has reached out to Afghanistan, hoping to reduce bilateral tensions and contribute to post-transition Afghanistan’s stabilisation. The Pakistani military high command, however, continues to hedge its bets, either actively or tacitly supporting a resurgent insurgency, which threatens to undermine Afghanistan’s transition.

Since the Taliban’s 2001 ouster, Afghan insurgents have found safe havens in Pakistan. The command and control of the three main militant groups – Mullah Omar’s Shura (council), Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami and the al-Qaeda-linked Haq­qani network – are based in and operate from Pakistan. These havens have and could continue to undermine Afghanistan’ efforts to confront the insurgency after the security transition in December 2014.

Pakistan’s interventionist policies are also undermining the peace at home. The Afghan insurgents are aligned with home-grown Pakistani tribal extremists, who in turn are part of a syndicate of sectarian, regional and transnational jihadi groups. With the support of their Afghan counterparts, Pakistani tribal extremists are challenging the state’s writ, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, bordering on Afghanistan. Military-led initiatives to counter such threats, based on appeasement deals or heavy handed-military operations against Pakistani Taliban factions, have proved ineffective.

The opening of spaces for Pakistani extremists, using their ties with their Afghan counterparts, to attack Pakistani targets from safe havens in Afghanistan, underscores the importance of ending all support, direct or covert, to Afghan proxies. Yet, much depends on the ability of civilian governments in Pakistan to wrest control over national security and foreign policy from the military in a fragile democratic transition.

Since Pakistan’s democratic transition began in 2008, two successive governments have wanted to mend fences with Afghanistan, including through a policy of non-intervention, failing in the face of military intransigence. The first ever transfer of power from one elected government to another, after the May 2013 elections, provided an opening to strengthen civilian control over national security and foreign policy, including in the relationship with Afghanistan. However, ongoing anti-govern­ment demonstrations, begun in August 2014, led by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan and cleric-cum-politician Tahirul Qadri, have strengthened the military’s ability to extract concessions from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, particularly regarding one of the most sensitive regional relationships, that with Afghanistan.

Yet, there are still opportunities, not least because of the new government in Kabul that is reaching out to Pakistan, for Sharif to reset the relationship by expanding ties beyond a narrow security focus. Until the democratic transition stabilises, enabling the government to end tacit or direct support for Afghan proxies, Sharif should work with Kabul to expand economic ties, including by upgrading and expanding infrastructure, including road and rail links connecting the two countries, reducing cumbersome security measures, combatting corruption and beginning talks on a free-trade agreement. The two countries would also benefit from easing cross-border movement and providing economic opportunities to their citizens. Improving the relationship would, however, require Pakistan to ease the uncertain and insecure lives of the millions of Afghan refugees on its territory. Islamabad should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Until it does, it should enact a national law for refugees that codifies long-term protections and rights, and respects the right of non-refoulement.

Islamabad/Brussels, 28 October 2014

Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to continue unabated in 2018, despite the U.S. effort to step up its military campaign. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to utilise its influence with Afghan political actors to help rebuild trust and increase prospects for mediation.

This commentary on the escalation of danger in Afghanistan is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan is likely to witness escalating violence and could also face political crisis. President Ashraf’s National Unity Government (NUG) should work with U.S. officials to ensure Washington’s new strategy has a political, not merely military, component. It also should reach out to opposition politicians and parties, advance preparations for credible parliamentary elections and counter the perception that power is being centralised along ethnic lines – all measures the EU and its member states, which retain influence in Kabul, should encourage. With the U.S. for now determined to escalate its military campaign against the Taliban insurgency, prospects for progress toward a political settlement in 2018 appear dim. Still, beyond their contribution to the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces, the EU and European leaders and member states should continue to emphasise the importance of such a settlement and help preserve channels of communication to the insurgency.

A military strategy with no political framework

Washington’s new Afghanistan strategy involves stepping up the military campaign against the Taliban through U.S. airstrikes and mostly Afghan-led, U.S.-supported ground offensives. U.S. President Donald Trump removed deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while increasing the number of troops on the ground by 4,000, to reach a total of 15,000 (still far below the 100,000 deployed as part of the 2011 surge). European NATO allies have committed to sending more military personnel to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Although the increase is modest – less than a thousand officers – it is a symbolically significant expression of support. U.S. officials maintain that the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and leave the group no choice but to enter into talks about a political settlement, although when such talks would take place is unclear. U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban – or at least encourage them to enter talks with the Afghan government – appear to have petered out.

Over the past year, the Taliban have stepped up their offensive, launching massive high-casualty attacks, sometimes by driving military vehicles – usually stolen from the Afghan army – laden with explosives into military and police compounds. These demoralising bombings are likely to continue. The Taliban also could continue their pattern of spectacular urban attacks to shake public confidence in the government; a 27 January attack, which saw insurgents detonate explosives packed in an ambulance on a busy Kabul street, killing more than 100 and injuring at least 200, mostly civilians, is only the latest such strike. For some years already, insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated equipment and, in some places, engaged Afghan forces in direct – as opposed to asymmetric – confrontation. The Taliban also appear to enjoy stronger connections than ever before to outside powers, not only their traditional patron (Pakistan), but also Iran and Russia. Afghan civilians are likely to bear the brunt of any escalation.

The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit.

Prospects in 2018 for serious progress toward a peace process are slim. U.S. officials say their new strategy integrates diplomatic and military efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet diplomacy clearly has been downgraded. The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit, however, as cuts to U.S. military assistance almost certainly will not alter the strategic calculus of Islamabad’s security establishment that drives Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

U.S. and Afghan officials pay increasing attention to what they describe as a growing threat from foreign terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP). In truth, however, non-Taliban groups contributed only a small percentage of the violence in 2017. Despite dramatic and shocking attacks in urban centres, the IS-KP has, for the most part, been held in check by U.S. and Afghan forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other.

Politics in crisis

National politics are likely to suck oxygen from counter-insurgency efforts as President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government may well face a political crisis in the coming year. Parliamentary elections, already postponed in October 2016 and now scheduled for July 2018, are at risk of further delay while presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Delayed reforms and preparations risk undermining prospects for clean polling, according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan. Insecurity across much of the country may also obstruct a credible vote.

The government faces a political opposition that is larger and more diverse than previously has been the case during the post-Taliban era. Afghan politics may be factious and fluid, but, at least for now, several groups have aligned against the Ghani government, in part because they see stalled election preparations as evidence it is looking to manipulate the vote. Many accuse the president of tightening his grip on power and deepening ethnic divisions.

Ghani’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who left for Turkey amid a criminal investigation into allegations (which he denies) that he abducted and raped a political rival, has formed an alliance with influential Tajik and Hazara leaders. A spat between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who is resisting the president’s efforts to remove him from his post, also threatens turmoil. Atta has the support of a major part of Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest political parties. That he seems ready to defy the central government so brazenly, even violently, sets a dangerous precedent for regional power brokers seeking to slip Kabul’s grip.

Powerful politicians also are arrayed against the government. Ex-President Hamid Karzai has been mobilising to convene a Loya Jirga or grand council of tribal elders to debate the country’s future. While Karzai argues a council would unite the bitterly divided Afghan polity, his critics accuse him of trying to shake up politics and regain power.

President Ghani has tried to fend off his rivals and shore up his legitimacy with the backing of Western powers. But external support is an inadequate substitute for domestic approval, particularly with elections looming. Ghani needs to invest more in building national consensus, which will be critical to manage conflict and street protests should a political crisis unfold.

Making external influence more constructive

The EU and member states have difficult tasks ahead: they must simultaneously help keep the government from unravelling; support, along with the UN, election preparations; encourage President Ghani to reach out to his opponents; and assist the U.S.-led battle against the Taliban, all the while talking to the insurgents.

Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table.

In this respect, the EU continues to enjoy clout with various Afghan political actors, even if less than some years ago. Their reduced footprint in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the EU and member states provided €30.5 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017 to help the country’s growing numbers of displaced people and other civilian victims. More broadly, over the past decade the EU has provided some €756 million in life-saving aid. It should now use the resulting influence to push for progress toward a political settlement to the conflict. Specifically, it should press and encourage the Afghan and U.S. governments to go down this path, while ensuring that lines of communication to the insurgency remain open. If signs re-emerge that the Trump administration is planning to close the Taliban’s political representation office in Doha, Qatar – which it threatened to do in 2017 but then apparently reconsidered – European leaders should actively discourage such a move. Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table. Indeed, mistrust between the Taliban and the Ghani government means credible third parties will, at some point, need to step in.