Afghanistan's Endgame and Pakistan’s Role
Sherry Rehman explains her country’s unique position in helping wind down the Afghanistan conflict.
The term “endgame” is imbued with as many meanings as the number of players seeking to fast-track an amicable solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Some states have higher stakes than others. The U.S. and other troop-contributing countries have focused their efforts on transitioning out of Afghanistan by 2014, but gaps between operations and objectives still fog this war. While an internal consensus among Afghan actors remains the most crucial element of any settlement, there is little doubt that regional players have a key role in facilitating progress. Among them, Pakistan’s role is pivotal but not always understood.
The recent Jinnah Institute–United States Institute of Peace report, Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan, aims at seeking clarity and motive in Pakistan’s current outlook toward Afghanistan, its strategic interests, and the implications of how it pursues them. Given Pakistan’s centrality to peace in the region, in the context of an unstable strategic relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, the articulation of a cogent policy view that includes civil society and state representation in Pakistan bears value for anyone looking to secure a successful transition in Afghanistan.
Intellectual capital on foreign policy is not hard to generate in Pakistan. The challenge lies in connecting the dots and obtaining big-tent representation. The report’s findings are based on several discussions with a wide spectrum of Pakistan’s foreign-policy elite—retired civilian and military officials, analysts, journalists, and civil-society practitioners—with established expertise on Afghanistan and knowledge of the modalities of policymaking in the U.S. It also takes on board the views of senior politicians from all frontline parties as well as the military’s official spokesperson.
The idea was also to find how Pakistan can best pursue its interests in the changing Afghanistan endgame calculus, and what policies the U.S., India, and other regional actors would have to pursue for Pakistani objectives to be met. Pakistan’s goals matter because whichever way one looks at it, either as builder or spoiler, Pakistan is key to durable stability in Afghanistan.
Findings suggest that Pakistani policy elites see their state as pursuing two overriding objectives: one, that the “settlement” in Afghanistan should not lead to a negative spillover so that it contributes to further instability in Pakistan or causes resentment among Pakistani Pashtuns; and two, that the government in Kabul should not be antagonistic to Pakistan nor allow its territory to be used against Pakistani state interests.
No surprises here, but for these umbrella objectives to be translated into actionable policy, it seems Pakistan would need to seek three outcomes.
First would be to seek a degree of stability in Afghanistan, an agenda Islamabad is working on. Clearly, Pakistan’s interests are best served by a stable, efficient government in Kabul that is not hostile toward it. There is across-the-board realization here that persistent instability in Afghanistan will have numerous consequences that Pakistan is ill prepared to tackle.
Second, all see the need for an inclusive government in Kabul. In other words, Pakistan would prefer a negotiated configuration, with adequate Pashtun representation, that is recognized by all ethnic and political stakeholders in Afghanistan. Some opinion makers even insist that a sustainable arrangement would necessarily require the main Afghan Taliban factions—Mullah Omar’s group and the Haqqani network—to be part of the new political arrangement.
Third, there is worry about limiting Indian presence in Afghanistan to development activities alone. The Pakistani foreign-policy enclave accepts that India has a role to play in Afghanistan’s economic progress and prosperity. Yet many believe that the present Indian engagement goes beyond just development and thus raises legitimate concerns in Pakistan. A reluctance to address Pakistani misgivings increases the likelihood of a growing Indian footprint, and, in turn, New Delhi’s greater ability to manipulate endgame negotiations and the post-settlement dispensation in Kabul. As the Pakistani security establishment sees the dynamic, India has interests in Afghanistan, but Pakistan has vital stakes.
Unsurprisingly, America’s Afghanistan strategy is perceived to be inconsistent and counterproductive, not only for Pakistan’s interests but also for enduring peace in Afghanistan. A number of U.S. policy initiatives are identified as problematic. The most scathing criticism is targeted at the political component of the strategy, which is largely seen as subservient to the military surge. Pakistani opinion makers sense a civil-military disconnect in the U.S. establishment; the civilian administration is perceived to favor political reconciliation while the Pentagon still prioritizes greater military gains. Not many are optimistic about the prospects of the U.S. military surge. While there is recognition that military operations over the past year have degraded the Taliban’s capacity, virtually no one is convinced that this can put an end to the insurgency or that it can force the main Taliban factions to negotiate on America’s terms.
Pakistani prognosis for a successful endgame is bleak also because of the belief that the U.S. would want to retain some long-term security presence in Afghanistan and use its bases there for counterterrorism missions against Al Qaeda and other high-value targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a scenario that worries many Pakistani stakeholders. This will likely create unease among the Afghan Taliban and a number of regional countries.
In terms of Pakistan’s role in the endgame, there is a growing distrust of U.S. intentions, opaque at the best of times, even more convoluted today. Pakistani policy circles believe that the U.S. would continue to push the Pakistan military to “do more” to stamp out militant sanctuaries while it tries to open up direct channels for talks with the Taliban. After the Raymond Davis episode and the bin Laden killing, the confidence gap between the two states is believed to be so deep that the U.S. would continue to pursue its own preferred outcomes while sidelining Pakistan’s security establishment in the political-reconciliation process.
Pakistan, therefore, has a tough task in balancing its interests. On the one hand, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are believed to be causing an internal backlash in terms of militancy and deepening the state-society rift within Pakistan. On the other, Pakistanis appreciate that a premature U.S. troop withdrawal would lead to added instability in Afghanistan and a surge in unintended consequences for Pakistan.
It is believed that Pakistan has tried to balance these two competing aspects by providing significant counterterrorism and strategic support to the U.S. at the same time that it has held back from targeting the Afghan Taliban and other Pakistan-based groups operating against International Security Assistance Force presence next door. This strategy has proven costly in terms of the militant backlash Pakistan is facing internally, but capacity constraints jostle with intent, as some say that Pakistan remains unconvinced it will be able to bring core militant groups to the table to navigate a settlement in Afghanistan if it targets all actors. Those who argue that the “commitment deficit” is an old narrative in Pakistan’s priorities also insist that there is worry about Pakistan losing all leverage to protect itself on a conflicted open border, with links between the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban and the Afghan Taliban growing, along with coordinated attacks in the urban heartland. These policy discussants, in fact, argue that if Pakistan opens too many fronts with the militants, the fallout would compromise stability at home to unmanageable proportions.
The bottom line: Pakistani foreign-policy circles believe that without greater clarity, America’s Afghanistan strategy will not just defeat U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, but dangerously destabilize Pakistan. In the absence of a silver-bullet solution, things can only improve if an immediate yet patient effort at inclusive reconciliation in Afghanistan is initiated because a genuine intra-Afghan dialogue will ultimately produce a dispensation in Kabul that is sensitive to Pakistani interests.
The encouraging caveat here is that despite the perceived need to reconcile with the Taliban and isolate Al Qaeda, there is zero appetite in Pakistan for Afghanistan to return to Taliban rule. A bid to regain lost glory by Mullah Omar’s Taliban is seen as leading to conditions in Afghanistan that run counter to Pakistani objectives, most notably stability. The Pakistani state is thus no longer believed to be pitching for a return to Taliban supremacy akin to the 1990s.
Other impediments to a peaceful Afghanistan settlement include skepticism about the viability of a regional framework, lack of clarity on the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate, the unstable political and economic situation in Afghanistan, and concerns about the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces to manage the security vacuum or to remain a stabilizing force.
Finally, although this was not a consensus report, rebuilding ties with the U.S. is privileged widely over a strategic disconnect. Despite the spiral of distrust embittering current Pakistan-U.S. ties, the dividends from building on convergences are considered instrumental in any endgame calibration of mutually desired outcomes. This can be accomplished with much less pain if there is an appreciation in American policy circles that Pakistan’s actions in the region may be motivated by fear rather than ambition.