Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: The Choice Between Alliance and Acrimony

December 23, 2006

One can only imagine the frustration of Afghanistan’s diplomatic corps every time the president lets out -often in his signature impolitic manner- another of his angry and cringe-inducing tirades against Pakistan. The expressed desire of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under its brand new foreign minister Dr. Spanta (a career academic with all the delicate mannerisms that goes with that hollowed profession), has been to establish if not genuinely cordial, then at least the appearances of a normalized, rules-based, and respectable mutual relationship with the government of Pakistan (as indeed with Afghanistan’s other neighbors.) By all indications, the civilian wing of Pakistani officialdom is keen on reciprocating the move towards just such a rapprochement.

It is also clear that apart from an increasingly widening fringe of hardliners -who see in their support for the Taliban an outlet for their own assorted grievances- a majority of Pakistanis are not keen on having their country sandwiched between a nuclear armed India and an unfriendly Afghanistan. They would rather Afghanistan be an ally, or at least a neutral party in the Indo-Pakistani discord over Kashmir -and not necessarily in the form of a Taliban government. In fact, one daresay that most of the ordinary people of Pakistan are not too keen on Kashmiri independence either. As ordinary people anywhere, they would rather their government fix its own house first – and in all fairness, after many exhausting decades of an arms race with India and bloating defense budgets Pakistan can pay some more attention to its own citizens and the services it claims to be providing them.

Likewise, when not prodded on and drummed up by demagogues of their own, the people of Afghanistan would rather forget about the murky status of the Durand line. Indeed those who have calculated the possibility of a further ethnic imbalance that would favor Afghanistan’s historically dominant Pashtun and hence jeopardize the recent political gains made by other ethnic groups of the country would rather the Durand line be granted official and explicit international recognition as a permanent international border through. Given that since World War II international law has regarded most post-colonial borders as sacrosanct (even in circumstances where the de facto status of these borders have been otherwise), just such a formal closing of this open question is the only thing feasible, and indeed desirable.

Risking a venture further into the territory of the devil’s advocate (certainly so in the eyes of many of my compatriots), I would argue that even the Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf, often vilified as condoning and supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, is not guilty of so many simple-minded accusations levied against him. For reasons personal, political, and ideological, the president of Pakistan is at heart a liberal person and would not tolerate the Pakistani society’s slide towards Talibanization and religious fundamentalism if he had the powers to stop it. Indeed, as Robert Kaplan has pointed out, General Musharraf is a “devotee of Turkey’s progressive founder, Musatafa Kemal Ataturk,” and “by all accounts the most liberal Pakistani ruler in decades.” As is clear from his recent memoir, and from his many interviews and statements, the Pakistani president is all too keenly aware of the dangers posed to the Pakistani state and society by the increasing religious fundamentalism and the rising ethno-nationalism of the border regions, exacerbated by the instability in Afghanistan. On that matter, he does not need the government of Afghanistan to dutifully remind him of the stakes.

Instead, a more plausible explanation for General Pervez Musharraf’s having become the singular target of blames and pointed fingers lay in Pakistan’s domestic politics – and in bad PR. Domestically, General Musharraf is pressed from both sides of Pakistan’s peculiar political spectrum. On the one hand, there are the religious fundamentalists who despise his liberal beliefs and US-friendly policies, and on the other, the assorted “democratic” forces who see him as the obstacle to their own rule over Pakistan. This latter group also enjoys a measures of support in the wider world by casting the general as a military dictator and an obstacle to Pakistani democracy – thus contributing to the bad PR factor. Similarly, Afghanistan’s criticism of General Musharraf can be better explained in the light of a range of domestic factors which we will discuss momentarily.

Whither, then, lay the roots of so much acrimony? And how can the differences be settled so that a much needed partnership is formed against the elements that are threatening both countries?

Just as it takes two to tango, so too the Attan* of disharmony between Afghanistan and Pakistan is danced by two willing and interested parties. On the Pakistani side, the partner is the intelligence arm of Pakistan’s security establishment. As one writer has put it, Pakistan’s intelligence establishment constitutes “a state within a state, within a state,” with the Pakistani army being the second of these concentric states. One of the more storied intelligence agencies in the whole world, Pakistan’s intelligence agency was extensively used -and in the process, strengthened- during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By necessity, it was also given a measure of free reign over intelligence and security matters, and as Pakistan was not infrequently ruled by military dictators, the agency was relatively free of civilian oversight and democratic accountability for long periods. By 1990s the agency was strong enough to supplant or support a government of its own choosing in Afghanistan, and there is reliable evidence of its extensive role in supporting the growth and the remarkable military successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Add to this the effects of the Pakistani security establishment’s strategic doctrine favoring the use of Afghanistan as a friendly territory to fall back on during a possible military (nuclear?) confrontation with India, summed up in the code word “Strategic Depth.”

Because of these reasons, the Pakistani intelligence establishment in particular, and the non-civilian wing of Pakistani government in general see the recent developments in Afghanistan as a blow to their security and strategic interests, and are unwilling to relinquish all influence in Afghanistan, and especially among the dominant forces in the border areas. Even at times when these calculations run into loggerhead with the civilian leadership of Pakistan and the balancing act that the president must perform to save Pakistan’s face and its interests in dealings with the rest of the world, the military-intelligence establishment is defiant and gets its own way. Alarmingly, over the past few years there has been an increase in popular support in the border regions and among the growing religious fundamentalist elements for the intelligence community’s position concerning Afghanistan. This alliance has resulted from an alignment of interests, with both the religious fundamentalists and the military-intelligence strategists suffering a setback in Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. Now that they have joined forces, it is increasingly difficult from General Musharraf to effectively deal with either -something he realizes he must do to save his government, and as it appears, his own life.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s antagonists in Afghanistan come from a variety of backgrounds, all represented in the current government of Afghanistan. Until they held the helm of power, the Northern Alliance forces (in particular the dominant faction of Massoud’s supporters) were bitterly opposed to Pakistan, in which it saw a state ally of its former Taliban adversary. Even when their influence was moderated following the 2004 presidential elections (giving Karzai a more open hand to clean house) the official suspicion of Pakistan persisted, and continues to this day.

But suspicion of Pakistan by Afghanistan’s government is not a recent phenomenon and dates farther back than Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. Ever since Pakistan’s creation, and culminating in Daud’s premiership, the underlying foreign policy thrust of successive governments of Afghanistan has been to deal with Pakistan with varying degrees of suspicion, contempt, or outright support for the “Pashtunistan” cause. Whether monarchy, republic, communist rule, or Islamic Emirate, all governments of Afghanistan have managed to trump even their most universalist ideologies to pick their fight with Pakistan over what seems the latter’s original sin of having a large Pashtun population outside of Afghanistan – thanks to the British colonial legacy. The only reason the status of the Durand line is even an question among Afghanistan’s population today is because of half a century’s official drumming up of the issue on part of Afghanistan’s governments. Over time, the successive governments of Afghanistan have managed to effectively reverse the process that is otherwise the norm in the history of international relations: that is, they have successfully thrown open to doubt and questioning (at least among the populace) the status of a de facto and de jure international border, whereas the norm is that de facto borders over time gain de jure legitimacy. The inertia of this dogmatic policy line of previous governments is felt in the current government of Afghanistan’s dealings with Pakistan. In turn, this inertia gives momentum to a similar inertia on the Pakistani side, of having to fend off Afghanistan’s border claims even if by destabilizing that country itself.

Apart from this, the recent spike in government of Afghanistan’s intense criticism of Pakistan can be explained in the light of the intractability of Afghanistan’s insurgency problem and the government’s inability to contain, or put an end to the resurgence of the Taliban in a way that is satisfactory both to the people of Afghanistan and the international community. In other words, the recent bouts of blaming Pakistan is more a blame game than anything else, symptomatic of periods of unsatisfactory performance and the need to rationalize.

What both the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan fail to appreciate is that while they are undermining each other and assigning responsibility for the instability, they are playing directly into the hands of those elements who benefit from the thorny relations at the expense of both countries’ interests, and who are the real sources of instability. The truth of the matter is that Musharraf government needs not less, but more US support to enable him to effectively contain Pakistan’s runaway intelligence community and tackle the increasing radicalization of Pakistani society. Musharraf may be a military general, but he is not a military ruler, and he is opposed to the elements and trends that are jeopardizing the social and political development of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. While he should be held accountable to previous commitments of restoring democracy to Pakistan, in the interim he needs greater international support and solidarity in the face of forces that threaten, as he said in his first address after taking power “the very foundations of the federation of Pakistan.” Increased marginalization by the international community would indeed limit his options and force him to make deals with those elements that he is opposed on principle -for instance the recent ill-thought accord and the military pullback from the Waziristan region.

Musharraf is cornered into making these concessions and dealing with the enemy because, as he has often said, he does not have a willing partner in the government of Afghanistan to jointly coordinate policy and uproot the destabilizing forces from the border areas. Both the US and Afghanistan’s governments should not be surprised to see no positive outcomes from further pressurizing Musharraf’s government to deal with the problem of insurgency. For the US and Afghanistan governments to demand of Musharraf to contain the Taliban and control Pakistani intelligence community’s support for them is reminiscent of when the US and Israeli governments were pressing Arafat to control the runaway elements of the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements. Both men’s hands are tied, and both have to walk their domestic political tightrope.

On the Afghanistan side, as made clear in various statements (all markedly different in tone and substance from the president’s offhand pronouncements) the foreign affairs and diplomatic apparatus of Afghanistan’s government would like to interact with Pakistan as a partner rather than an adversary and join forces to deal with the insurgency problem. In fact, save for the nascent security establishment and the presidency, each weighed down by the expectations to deliver, and bound by the inertia of previous Afghanistan governments’ Durand policy, significant parts of Afghanistan’s populace and its government are keen to open a new chapter in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

Dealing with Pakistan, and with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, is the domain of Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs. The formation of new and constructive mutual relationships with its neighbors, and that of a novel doctrine of foreign and international relationships for Afghanistan that serves its interests in a different international environment seems to be currently sabotaged by those who are glad to score political points. While it is true that the composition of the cabinet is the president’s prerogative, once sworn in, the minister of foreign affairs and his staff serve as much at the pleasure of the president as in the interests of the whole country. To that end, the professional diplomatic corps needs to be given greater operating room and be freed from the political shackles that prevents it from doing precisely this.

With a presumptive “spring offensive” by the Taliban just months away, and with the lessons of the past summer’s events still fresh, it is clear that the governments of the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States need to have a frank and up-front discussion about their mutual concerns and their shared interests. In their own right, the destabilizing forces have successfully aligned their interests and are operating in tandem. To turn around the setbacks of spring and summer of 2006 for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by extension for the US interests in the region, the roots of mutual suspicion need to be addressed and a new chapter in Afghanistan-Pakistan relationships opened. Without this, the prospects for both countries appear grimmer than ever.

*Attan is the traditional group dance among the Pashtun.

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