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Afghanistan: the Islamic State, still no Taliban government and a looming humanitarian catastrophe
Afghanistan: the Islamic State, still no Taliban government and a looming humanitarian catastrophe
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

Podcast / Asia

Afghanistan: the Islamic State, still no Taliban government and a looming humanitarian catastrophe

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Afghanistan experts Ibraheem Bahiss and Graeme Smith about the Taliban’s relationship to transnational militancy, including its efforts to fight the Islamic State’s local chapter and its ties to al-Qaeda. They also discuss why the Taliban are taking so long to form a government, the growing humanitarian crisis and how the region and West have responded so far.

After days of chaos at Kabul airport, including an attack by the Islamic State’s local chapter, the last American plane has left, ending the Americans’ twenty-year war against the Taliban. As yet, the Taliban have not announced a new government, and what its rule will look like remains unclear. Afghanistan’s neighbours, other regional powers and Western governments are still working out what engagement with the new government will entail. 

This week Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh welcome back Crisis Group expert Ibraheem Bahiss, who is joined by Graeme Smith, a long-time Crisis Group consultant on Afghanistan, to discuss where things stand. They talk about the Islamic State in Afghanistan, its battles with the Taliban and the Taliban’s relations with other transnational militants, including al-Qaeda. They also discuss the emerging resistance in the Panjshir valley, why the Taliban are taking time to form a government, the increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis and what the world can do to address it. They talk about how regional governments appear to be positioning themselves regarding Taliban rule, some of the dilemmas this poses for Western powers and how much the Taliban might be prepared to compromise in return for recognition, sanctions relief and aid.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Afghanistan page.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consultant, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul