The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's New, Optimistic Afghan Strategy

It's very rare that one comes across optimism towards Afghanistan among the security establishment in Pakistan, but when I interviewed a senior member of the country's intelligence community recently, he said of the recent elections in Afghanistan: "[It] doesn't matter if the president is Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, the democratic process in Afghanistan in itself is a sign of stability and progress." Several senior members of the Pakistani security establishment expressed similar views when asked about the Afghan elections, indicating a dramatic shift in Pakistan's policy toward its neighbor that is a refreshing break from the past -- a message that Gen. Raheel Sharif carried on his recent trip to Afghanistan.

The new policy is one of no interference, no favorites in Afghanistan, which is supported by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

But what about the ‘strategic depth' policy -- a vivid idea that Pakistan must control Afghanistan so not to have an enemy on its Western border? "Whosoever talks about the strategic depth policy is either outdated on the issue or is seriously mistaken," remarked one Pakistani security official. While the strategic depth policy was once an integral part of Pakistan's Afghan policy before 9/11, it is now redundant and obsolete. He added that: "The policy was a byproduct of [the] Soviet invasion of Afghanistan under a certain context. It is not sustainable and doesn't make any sense today given how the context and regional dynamics have changed."

With the ‘strategic depth' policy out of the window, India's growing involvement in Afghanistan is becoming more acceptable to Pakistan's security establishment. That is not to say that Pakistan is completely comfortable with it, but more that it is slowly coming to terms with the idea as part of its new ‘no interference, no favorites' policy. "Afghanistan is a sovereign state, and it can choose to have any relations with any country. That should not be a concern for Pakistan, unless third powers are using Afghan soil to target Pakistan," explained a senior military official. On the question of a recent India-Russia deal to provide arms to the Afghan Army, the same official replied with a question: "Has the deal been signed yet?"

The newly found comfort over Indian advancements in Afghanistan can be attributed to three causes: First, Pakistan's security establishment realizes that Afghanistan requires regional partnerships for development. Second, Pakistan feels that, since India does not share a direct border with Afghanistan, it can only have limited influence on ground. Third, Pakistan's security apparatus has developed a relationship of good will and understanding with the Afghan leadership.

There is also a realization within the establishment that there is much to be learned from India in terms of its development strategy of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. While Pakistan may provide hardware and infrastructure development to Afghanistan, Indians are going out in rural Pashtun areas to provide books, medicines, and hospital facilities -- items that affect the people most and create goodwill. If Pakistan wants cordial relations with the people of Afghanistan it must follow the same route.

Most of the Pakistani security officials I interviewed are confident and optimistic about Afghanistan's future -- something that wasn't the case a couple of years back -- because of ongoing trends in the country, such as the elections, the quality of the candidates, and how everyone, young or old, turned out to cast a vote. One of the intelligence officers I talked to was of the view that Afghanistan has even gone beyond its ethnic divide, especially if one looks at voting behavior, and how Tajiks and Pashtuns voted for candidates regardless of their ethnic affiliation. Moreover, the candidates have worked to mobilize the vote across ethnic divides, something that has been met with success. For example, Abdullah was supported by Pashtuns in Kabul and Jalalabad, and Ghani received support from Tajik strongholds in the north. As a result, Pakistan's security establishment does not predict an ethnic civil war breaking out between different ethnic factions, nor with Taliban.

But while there are clear signs of optimism in Afghanistan, there are also certain obstacles to achieving stability in the country.

One could be the ethnic divide in the Afghan National Army (ANA). How will that translate as they battle the Afghan Taliban, which is predominantly Pashtun and has historically fought against Tajiks for control in Afghanistan? In fact, right before 9/11, Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik warlord and hero, was assassinated by the al Qaeda because he opposed the Taliban-led government in Kabul. Several measures, including the introduction of ethnic quotas, have been taken to balance out the Tajik-Pashtun divide within the ANA, it still remains. Northern Tajiks, from the standpoint of Pakistan's security establishment, have always tilted towards India, which is why Pakistan found itself a partner in the Pashtun-dominated Afghan Taliban. In a post-2014 scenario, with the ANA still in a premature stage, will there be an eruption of an even deeper ethnic divide; with Pashtuns in the ANA lending support to the Afghan Taliban in case of Tajik dominance over the ANA?  For Pakistan and the United States, this is a genuine concern and would be a nightmare situation.

Second, the ambiguous status of Pakistan-Afghanistan border has the potential to destroy the ties between the two countries. Without any permanent settlement of the issue -- which has stood since the British first created the Durand Line in 1837 -- cross-border terrorism and allegations that each side is harboring terrorists will continue.

Third, a major point of concern is the status of Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the United States, which has been stalled by Afghan President Hamid Karzai since November. Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they would sign the security pact. The exact nature of the BSA will determine the Afghan Taliban's response, given that the Taliban's first demand is the expulsion of entire foreign military forces in Afghanistan.

Yet despite all of the issues, the security establishment in Pakistan remains highly optimistic about Afghanistan avoiding a civil war and showing all signs of political stability and progress, something that Pakistan's new policy and mindset has wholeheartedly endorsed.

Hussain Nadim is currently serving as the Special Assistant to Pakistan's Federal Minister of Planning, Development & Reform. Previously, he was a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @HNadim87.

 

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