The South Asia Channel

Why Pakistan is Ignoring the Afghan Election

Though Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been linked in Western minds, with the "AfPak" designation reigning supreme in the collective conscience, the two countries are more disconnected now than ever before.

Afghanistan is hardly mentioned in Pakistani media or public discourse, but there is a growing anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan. Some may even say it's a uniting factor in this election. Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of directly controlling anti-democratic forces such as the Taliban, and providing funding and safe havens for anti-state elements, all with the supposed intent of pushing Afghanistan into instability and chaos. Taken at face value, it would seem that Pakistan is the source of all the country's ills. Ironically, this is similar to a narrative that plays out frequently in the Pakistani media, except that Pakistan's bogeyman of choice is the United States.

However, it is interesting to note that Afghanistan's other neighbors rarely feature into this conversation of interference and destabilization, despite evidence to the contrary.

Iran, for example, has a long history of involvement in the country. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the NATO commander in Afghanistan, told reporters in 2010 that there was "clear evidence of Iranian activity" in Afghanistan, including cases of "providing weapons and training to the Taliban." A year later, British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated this when discussing "evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry" which are "clearly intended to...kill Afghan and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] soldiers." Although this involvement is common knowledge, it is not often discussed in the Afghan media or addressed in statements from the presidential palace. This may be due to the fact that Iran backs at least eight newspapers in Kabul and controls nearly a third of Afghan media. Perhaps if Pakistan followed suit, it wouldn't be subject to the same ire.

Whatever the reason for this Afghan focus on Pakistan, it is clear that Pakistan will be blamed for any pre-election violence. Whether these allegations can stand up to scrutiny or be seen as being in the national interest is another question entirely.

The Battle at Home

So what exactly does the Pakistani leadership think of the upcoming Afghan elections and who is their candidate of choice? The short answer is that, frankly, they don't seem to be too concerned with the election or its outcome.

Pakistan is facing a multitude of domestic issues, including acute energy shortages, rising inflation, sectarian violence, the discovery of mass graves in the increasingly restive Balochistan province, and anti-state groups challenging the government. This is further compounded by changes in the political landscape with a relatively new government in power: Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party is trying to translate his campaign promises into actual governance policy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; the young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is challenging militancy while trying to consolidate his party in Sindh; and Jamaat-e-Islami (the Pakistani chapter of a political party which also has a presence in Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh) is operating under a newly elected leader against the backdrop of peace talks with the Taliban.

When the politicians have a moment to breathe, it's back to the favorite national pastime of criticizing America. There seems to be little interest or time for Afghanistan.

The Pakistan army, which has always been a keen observer of and is often seen as the custodian of Pakistan's Afghan policy, is also operating under truly new leadership for the first time in 15 years. The new Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), brings with him a younger cadre of officer corps with a fresh perspective. With attacks on Pakistani troops increasing and a potential operation in North Waziristan, they seem to be more focused on issues of territorial integrity and internal security.

One place where there is discussion on Afghanistan, however, is in the corridors of the National Assembly where Awais Leghari, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is leading efforts to develop a policy document focused on strengthening state-to-state relations between the two countries. 

The Myth of the Pashtun Connection

Although the ethnicity and perceived loyalties of Afghanistan's presidential candidates have always influenced the preferences of Afghanistan's neighbors, perhaps it is time for a change.

Conventional wisdom says that, because of ethnic ties, a Pashtun leader in Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan. The origins of this thinking lie in the 1980s, when Pakistani and American intelligence agencies propagated Islamic fundamentalism to curb Soviet communism. Since then, it has become the dominant prism through which policymakers view the countries' relationship, strengthening the belief that the Pakistani establishment's concept of national security is synonymous with "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.

However, the preference for a Pashtun leader can be actually be traced back to the 1880s, when imperial Russia concluded that a Pashtun king was in its best interest as it would curtail Afghanistan's involvement in the north and shift any expansionist aspirations towards the south (into what is now Pakistan and Iran).

Given the current presence of radicalized youth in both countries who may feel a resonance with pan-Islamic expansion, as well as the growing influence of American and Chinese economic interests and the looming withdrawal of international forces, traditional Russian fears may well be reawakened. It certainly forces a reexamination of exactly whose interest would be served by a Pashtun leader.

A clear example -- Pakistan has experienced a Pashtun Afghan president for the last thirteen years, and despite Hamid Karzai's strong personal ties to Pakistan, the presidential palace has always been the first to point fingers and fuel anti-Pakistan sentiment.

Of the three front running presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah is the only one perceived as non-Pashtun and has therefore been cited as the only candidate with whom Islamabad would take issue. However, his public stance towards Pakistan has been the most balanced and positive and in the changing regional landscape, he may in fact prove to be the right candidate for stronger Afghanistan-Pakistan ties.

No matter which candidate wins the election, a peaceful democratic transition in Afghanistan is in Pakistan's best interest.

Faiysal AliKhan is a Carnegie Fellow in the National Security Program at the New America Foundation.

 

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images