Pakistan, Ghani and peace: The catch-22

Ultimately and most importantly, a truly rare opportunity for peace was lost


Shahzaib Khan July 26, 2017
The author is a lawyer and columnist based in Karachi. He tweets at @shahzaibkhan901

Few relationships have transformed as quickly in international relations as the love-hate relationship between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan. A few weeks after his election as president in September of 2014, Ghani was already visiting Islamabad. In what seemed to demonstrate a well thought-out foreign policy, Ghani instantly embarked on a multi-pronged charm offensive designed to befriend and appease the Pakistani political and security establishment. The policy was seen as a bold initiative by analysts, considering what existed in a bilateral environment which had been left cold, muddied and severely conflicted by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Ghani, however, was quite different from Karzai. The new president was an accomplished academic, an anthropologist with deep understanding of Afghan-Pakistan societies, and most importantly, an earnest intellectual visionary who was committed to building strong strategic relationships with Afghanistan’s partners to establish peace. So when Ghani insisted on meeting and taking on his Pakistani counterparts, establishing brand new military and strategic hotlines, initiating multiple channels of bilateral dialogue and stressing inter-governmental coordination in a deepened and cordial Afghan-Pakistan relationship, observers predicted a rare opportunity for peace and cooperation in the crisis-ridden bilateral relationship, which would one day lead to sustained peace in the war-torn region.

“I will not come,” Ghani was quoted as saying, almost two years later, earlier this year; Ghani refused an invitation to visit Pakistan. Suddenly, a frustrated and aimless Ghani had given up on a relationship which he had once correctly recognised as the key to peace in the region. What had happened?

It would be reductionist to understand the development of a phenomenon while ignoring its originating environment. And so in an analysis of Ghani, it is imperative to cite Karzai because Karzai was what led to Ghani. The Americans had installed Karzai hoping that he would be able to earnestly establish Kabul’s writ over what may formerly have been the state of Afghanistan, but by then was simply a collection of bordering, quasi-sovereign territories ruled by warlords and militias. Contrary to what Americans had hoped for, Karzai turned out to be an incompetent, visionless head of state, who practically leased out portions of Afghanistan to local militia leaders for continued political support. Under Karzai, corruption ran rampant as the billions of dollars of international aid that flowed into war-torn Afghanistan were distributed amongst its political elite, rather than reaching the intended population. Institutions remained stunted as he appointed close supporters to key positions. American initiatives for peace and nation-building in Afghanistan received little or no support from Karzai as he focused any and all efforts to protect personal political ambitions. One of the most significant of Karzai’s many failures as a self-styled Afghan reformer, however, was an aspect of policy making that had its focus outside of Afghanistan. Few nations have seen the kind and frequency of interventions witnessed by Afghanistan throughout modern history. As such, one of the most important aspects of Karzai’s job description as president was to bring together various external stakeholders and those affected by the Afghan conflict. Arguably, there were no partners more important for Afghanistan than the US and Pakistan. Having successfully alienated the US by undermining its efforts to build an effective Afghan government, Karzai had simultaneously destroyed a working relationship with Pakistan. In Karzai, Islamabad found a negotiator who asked for much, but had little to offer. Having conceded most of his political capital to the warlords that had helped to sustain his regime, Karzai did not exercise any semblance of effective control over areas which may have been of any interest to Pakistan. What transpired was an impotent dialogue where Pakistanis stopped taking Karzai seriously once the little control he exercised in Afghanistan became apparent. Karzai for his part continued to criticise Pakistan for not holding up its end of a bargain which Pakistan had not really agreed to. Islamabad stood to benefit little or nothing from negotiating with a man who had as little to offer as Karzai. International relations rest on bilateral exchanges of benefit, not on one-sided expectations of endless goodwill.

Ghani inherited an Afghanistan that was not just internally dismembered, but also externally isolated. To achieve peace in Afghanistan, Ghani understood that he would have to rebuild bridges that had been burnt by his predecessors. Before attempting to rebuild the burnt bridges, Ghani found out later, however, that he would have to contain the wild waters of suspicion that had swept away any goodwill between Afghanistan and its neighbour under Karzai.

By the time Ghani managed to ascend to the presidency, Pakistan faced turmoil from militancy that had poured over the porous western border of Pakistan into its cities and villages. When Ghani arrived in November 2014, Pakistan faced a barrage of increasing militant attacks targeting its civilians, which were attributed to militants that had their bases across the border. The control vacuum that had existed during Karzai’s reign meant that Pakistan faced threats from an area outside of its territory, inside of Afghan territory, but outside of Kabul’s sphere of influence, essentially no-man’s land. And so, as Ghani reached an earnest hand out to Pakistan, he found the sand from under his feet slipping. While Ghani established hotlines and bilateral dialogue to establish some level of trust in a relationship that was then neck-deep in the waters of suspicion, militant attacks said to be originating from eastern Afghanistan continued to wreak havoc in Pakistani cities. To illustrate this situation, Ghani visited Pakistan in November 2014 bearing an earnest intention of resetting ties. Almost a month later, Pakistan and the world grieved and mourned in shock as a barbaric and revolting terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar claimed 141 innocent lives, 132 of them school-going children. Two of the six perpetrators were Afghan citizens, while the mastermind of the attack was targeted in Afghanistan two years later. It is hard to imagine what may have been going through Ghani’s mind as he made sustained efforts to engage Islamabad in the wake of the deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history. It is hard to imagine how Ghani expected to succeed without, at the very least, hunting down and handing over the perpetrators of the attack to Pakistan. Ghani did not do this because he simply could not; his government enjoyed little, if any, power outside Kabul, and this power was virtually non-existent in eastern Afghanistan. While the intention to work for a relationship may have existed, once again, an Afghan President offered little material help to quell Pakistan’s woes.

As the attacks continued, Pakistan reacted predictably. Its forces cracked down on militant hideouts in its northwest and reinforced the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is no one’s fault perhaps that as the border was reinforced, so was, quite automatically, mutual suspicions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Ghani yearned for peace and Pakistan’s friendship, Islamabad quite naturally found it difficult to trust, maybe not the intentions, but the ability of the now increasingly isolated Ghani.

It was understood that peace could not be achieved in the region unless Pakistan and Afghanistan were on the same page. What has unravelled today is then, a catch-22 that is at once bemusing and deeply, excruciatingly tragic. It turned out that Ghani’s intentions for peace counted for little when Kabul couldn’t guarantee cleansing its eastern regions, that Pakistan could not earnestly engage with Kabul unless militancy from Afghanistan’s east stopped pouring into Pakistan, and that Afghanistan could not establish sustained peace and control in its territory, including in its east, without actively engaging Islamabad. In the meanwhile, suspicions which were the legacy of Karzai, resurfaced, and a once determined Ghani grew frustrated and helpless. Ultimately and most importantly, a truly rare opportunity for peace was lost.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2017.

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COMMENTS (3)

Mashkoor A Shamim | 4 years ago | Reply A good analysis of AF-PAK relationship and its dynamic; but while discussing the cross border terrorism emanating from Afghanistan in to Pakistan the writer missed the role played by the anti Pakistani forces in Afghanistan. Ghani can not be that naive to identify these forces and only blame Pakistan for the state of the relationship between AF-PAK.
Feroz | 4 years ago | Reply Afghanistan's future may be doomed in the near term but a destabilized and terror struck country guarantees that Pakistan will not remain immune from violence and the destabilization bye product. The impact on grand projects like CPEC and OBOR have not been taken into account raising questions about viability of those investments. Continuation of this drift will not affect Afghanistan which is sixteen years in this pattern but imagine the crippling effect on Pakistan. Meanwhile without any rapprochement and the continued presence of terror groups, the US will be willing to squat indefinitely. Afghanistan has lost everything and nothing more to lose, it is Pakistan which has everything to lose.
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