Contrary to popular opinion, it is not so much the 2014 wrap-up of the coalition combat mission in Afghanistan, or even the watershed Afghan presidential elections to be held in a few weeks -- although both events are of historic proportion -- that might determine the future of the country, but rather the complex dynamics at play between Afghanistan and Pakistan, itself engulfed in Taliban-style insurgency. Without a reset in relations that have been rocky for the past six decades, it is hard to imagine stability taking hold and leading to economic prosperity in a highly volatile part of the world.
The United States and its international allies can and should play a constructive role, based on equal treatment of both countries, to ensure that jihadi extremists -- and not just al Qaeda -- are not bolstered in this year of transition, but rolled back or reintegrated into civil society through a successful reconciliation program, by adopting a new strategy that borrows from the playbook of past experiences and lessons learned.
One of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's legitimate friction points with the United States is America's unwillingness to admit that a source of instability and terrorism lies beyond Afghanistan's borders, primarily in Pakistan, and that the international community's peace bid has yet to succeed because of Islamabad's duplicity . While the blame cannot be entirely one-sided, the Taliban based in Pakistan have almost been elevated to an undeserving de jure status as a credible interlocutor, partly because of the weaknesses and a lack of coordination among other players.
Irritated, Karzai has tried to shun Western intermediaries by holding back-channel talks with the Taliban, whose identity and motivations are unknown. Most Afghans, including the government-sponsored High Peace Council, consider such tactics risky when they are uncoordinated and played from a position of weakness.
The other theory is that Karzai is taking a belligerent stance toward the United States to bolster his own credentials with the Taliban (and Pakistan by extension) who were, at one point in the pre-9/11 era, in league with him to mop up Kandahar province during the 90s era of warlords.
Karzai has long pressed Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, but the religious militia, on principle, is opposed to talks until foreign troops leave the country.
However, both NATO and Karzai are leaving this year. Although Karzai is eager to remain relevant, Afghan political elites and all leading presidential contenders have expressed their desire to pursue the reconciliation track with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose albeit using different tactics.
Both neighbors need to take advantage of this transition to build lost capital, engage in confidence-building measures, and find points of convergence to counter the spread of extremism that poses a real threat to the aspirations of the majority in both societies.
While some Pakistani elites are conscious of the imminent threat posed by the Taliban to the country's stability and its image of a tolerant and inclusive society, many are still under the spell of past narratives, when the use of radical non-state proxies was considered a cornerstone of security and justification for what is now seen as an overblown India-centric defense dogma.
That is until the beast came home to bite the hand that feeds it in the form of dozens of militant organizations mostly harbored in the tribal belt.
In this context, it is refreshing to hear Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's security and foreign affairs advisor, say that militancy has become an "existentialist threat " to Pakistan. Especially as this term was previously used to designate India.
The reality is that extremism and terrorism are existential threats to Afghanistan as well. There is no room for double standards in this case.
While Pakistan is busy experimenting with another round of peace talks with its own multi-shaded insurgency, it is also sending signals that there is a chance the Afghan Taliban might engage with other Afghans.
Still an untested novelty, there are signs that Saudi Arabia is in discussions with Pakistan to slowly entice the Taliban toward reconciliation, which could eventually lead to disarmament and reintegration. That is welcome news, as long as all relevant sides, including Kabul and Washington, are engaged and on-board.
As Aziz recently admitted in Washington during bilateral strategic talks, it is unlikely that any serious attempts to kick-start reconciliation efforts can be envisaged prior to the election of a new Afghan leader. But that timeline could change over the next few weeks if all sides see strong incentives to reopen the talks that were suspended last year after a botched attempt to open a Taliban liaison office in Doha, Qatar.
Pakistan has recently expressed a set of policy concepts in regard to future steps in Afghanistan, some of which have irritated Kabul and prompted harsh words by Karzai advisors who see such rhetoric as meddling. They include:
- The notion that the Taliban will not be able to capture all of Afghanistan in the face of a stronger Afghan security force and a resentful population.
- Containing the anti-Pakistan insurgency by enabling the Taliban's de facto control of territory on the Afghan side of the border and/or aiming for a power sharing arrangement outside the bounds of the Afghan constitution. (These are non-starters for Afghans.)
- Claiming that the outdated doctrine of seeking strategic depth -- to expand its zone of influence inside Afghanistan to prevent encirclement in the case of war with India -- is no longer viable.
- Realizing that economic welfare and regional integration trump all other interests in view of the youth bulge and growing demand for natural resources.
The Afghans, for their part, have had little trust in Pakistani claims in the past and are seeking evidence of a paradigm shift. These include:
- Commitment to non-interference and sovereignty; Though to define territorial integrity, the Durand Line, a colonial-era border issue, should be tackled by the Afghans at some opportune time after 2014.
- Cooperation at all levels to fight terrorism and militancy through better border management (an agenda item being discussed this week at a trilateral summit between the Afghan, Pakistani and Turkish leaders in Ankara), intelligence sharing and shutting down militant sanctuaries.
- Addressing outstanding resource sharing issues under international law, including water rights that stem from rivers flowing from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
- Elevating economic cooperation as a priority to benefit both nations and regional integration under organizations such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), but also through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms in sectors such as transportation, energy, and communications.
A reset in relations can only take place if the above issues are addressed with new thinking, political will, and policies based on mutual gain.
A spike in militant activity, attempts at disrupting elections, using India as provocation by either side, or seeking a none-sided peace deal that threatens either Afghan or Pakistani stability would not only embolden the forces of radicalism on all sides, but would eventually endanger regional and global security.
The only option left for the international community is to encourage, by all means, a re-think in Pakistan, followed by a reset in Afghan-Pakistan relations that aims to expand-- not restrict -- space for moderation, stability and prosperity.
Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).