There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip but despite that caveat the initiative taken by the government towards Afghanistan is one that needs to be watched carefully and commended.
It started three years ago. Bilateral visits took place, both at the strategic and operational levels. The idea was to reach out to, and help, Afghanistan mend its internal fault lines. The realisation had another dimension too. Regardless of the United States’ policy and its bilateral relations with Kabul and Islamabad, the two capitals needed to have their own track to resolve issues.
A good policy, it didn’t go too far. Distrust could not be addressed meaningfully, with both sides hedging their bets even as they were trying to explore the prospects of enhanced bilateralism. There was much fanfare over the High Peace Council (HPC) set up by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, with Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani as its head. Professor Rabbani came to Pakistan in January 2011 and it was thought, at the time, that his visit would yield some movement.
That didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Kabul had also opened an internal track, trying to talk to the Taliban. One such effort brought a suicide bomber close enough to Professor Rabbani. The assassination all but spelled the death of that initiative. This, despite the fact that then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani rushed to Kabul to condole Professor Rabbani’s death and Pakistan condemned that dastardly act.
Not enough, said Kabul, alleging the bomber was a Pakistani and implying state complicity. Recrimination and blame game followed. Afghanistan signed a Strategic partnership Agreement (SPA) with India close on the heels of that tragedy, making Pakistan feel the move was undertaken on the rebound. The jig, it seemed, was up.
Fortunately not. In the background, work was being done, both at the Foreign Office and in the Pakistan embassy in Kabul with the latter providing the opportunity to the government to pick up the pieces. That’s hard, painstaking work, done away from the limelight.
The two sides are back again, with Afghanistan relying heavily on Pakistan to help it heal its internal wounds. It’s work in progress, much still to be done. Islamabad wants to assure the non-Pashtun Afghans that it is not in the business of putting them down; that it wants an Afghan peace process which is led, driven and owned by the Afghans. It will act as a facilitator of this process and it is an honest player. The internal balance of power — ethnic and political — is for the Afghans to decide.
At the inauguration of the Pakistan embassy on July 19, the guest list had all the main leaders of the political opposition. Talking to them revealed that while they have grievances, not one of them thinks that Afghanistan can sail alone. Pakistan has to provide the wind for the sails. There was nothing mushy about their sentiments. All of them are hard-nosed. All of them also understand that the ground is treacherous and undulated. But no matter what Afghanistan does, its future stability requires Pakistan.
That is both Pakistan’s primary strength as well as its weakness. A stable Afghanistan brings into play Pakistan’s strength; a warring Afghanistan renders this contiguity — geographical, historical and ethnic — Pakistan’s principal weakness.
The current policy is focused on exploiting Pakistan’s strength.
The HPC is still there, headed now by Salahuddin Rabbani, the scion of Professor Rabbani. The bilateral discussions focused on many issues but the central one was Pakistan’s role as the facilitator and how it can make the HPC relevant. The Pakistani delegation comprised the prime minister, ministers of interior and foreign affairs and yes, most significantly, the director general Inter-Services Intelligence.
The two sides presented their proposals; some tough talk happened, some common ground found. The HPC head will now visit Pakistan. The real work begins then from this tentative step.
I asked President Hamid Karzai about the SPAs (strategic partnership agreements) his government has signed and is signing and perceptions in Pakistan. He said Pakistan remained the “very, very special friend”. He talked about the “particularity” of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. But he agreed that the task ahead is tough. No one wants the snakes and ladders in this relationship.
Much will depend on Pakistan’s next moves when Salahuddin Rabbani arrives here. What will Pakistan offer him? Is it going to ask the Taliban to negotiate? Will it give Rabbani carte blanche? Will it make this bilateral process now the cornerstone of its policy, not just in relation to Afghanistan but also vis-a-vis the United States? Is a mechanism in place?
It would make eminent sense to do so. The US policy, because Pakistan has pulled back from the kind of facilitation it allowed Washington during General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s tenure, is now focused on pressuring and isolating Pakistan in order to compel it to do the US bidding. What safety valve does Pakistan have to release pressure? Help Afghanistan.
Helping Afghanistan helps in stitching up a possible deal between Kabul and the Taliban, despite many problems and imponderables. There are no guarantees but facilitation can go a long way. It will help if Pakistan were to release Mullah Biradar and other Taliban leaders who wanted to open up a channel with Kabul. What direction such talks might take is for the Afghans to figure out. Pakistan’s job is to set the direction.
Not only will it facilitate Afghanistan — though no one should become starry-eyed and think of driving to Kabul via Torkham anytime soon — but it will also greatly help Pakistan in releasing pressure from itself and gain space vis-a-vis the United States and other state actors.
The last time round the security establishment wasn’t fully on-board. They better be this time round. The political government, the FO and Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul, a most adroit diplomat, are deeply invested in this policy. They deserve to make it a success.
It won’t be a neat, linear trajectory. But precisely for this reason, Pakistan needs a proactive policy and wrest the initiative. Active engagement is what it needs. The policy looks good on the drawing board; let’s try and implement it.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.