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Opinion: The AfPak tangle

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By Afrasiab Khattak-The bloody summer this year in Afghanistan wouldn’t have been different from the last two years that saw a similar bloodshed had it not been for important political developments at the tail end of the fighting season. On August 21 US President Donald Trump declared a fresh strategy towards AfPak which underlined the regional nature of the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The new strategy also indicated significant changes in rules of engagement some of which can have a definite fallout for Pakistan. On September 4 a communique issued at the end of the BRICS Summit held in China demanded action against notorious terrorist networks (most of them based in Pakistan). The list of terror groups included the name of Taliban. The aforementioned statement also expressed solidarity with Afghan state in its fight against terrorism. These developments made it quite clear that Pakistan’s policy of “good Taliban” has no takers in the world and in case of continuing with this policy the country is faced with definite prospects of international isolation. This is something that has been predicted by the foreign office professionals and political leadership of the country on many occasions but on every occasion the security establishment has come out with a knee jerk reaction accusing the civilians of committing a national security breach. After July 2015 no political initiative was taken for ending the armed conflict which has killed thousands of Afghans. Focus remained on the percentage of Afghan territory under “control” of Taliban and the rise in the said percentage was used as argument for questioning the legitimacy of Afghan state.

However the most recent international pressure was too big to be ignored. So on October 1 COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Kabul with a delegation to hold talks with Afghan leaders. Media has reported about agreements between the two sides on measures for creating conducive atmosphere for peace talks but no one went beyond expressing cautious optimism in the aftermath of talks due to bitter past experience. It seems the two sides have agreed to resume the quadrilateral process of negotiations that was disrupted after only one meeting in July 2015. Taliban had refused to turn up for the second meeting after publishing of the news about the death of Mulla Omar, the founder of Taliban. That was quite a flimsy excuse. Actually Taliban and their mentors wanted to gain time for capturing swaths of territory in Afghanistan for holding negotiations from a position of strength. Since they still haven’t been able to capture and hold a single province in Afghanistan in the last three years and their so called Emirate is still hiding and changing places on the eastern side of the Durand Line to avoid US drone strikes, why would they be participating in the negotiations?

But more important than whims and vagaries in Taliban behaviour is the Afghan policy of Pakistani security establishment. Taliban are regarded here to be the most effective tool for implementing the policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Since the inception of Taliban in 1994 there has been a unique consistency in this pro Taliban policy which has not seen a change even at the height of General Pervez Musharraf’s alliance with the US after September 11. Taliban’s leadership along with their Al-Qaeda allies were not only allowed to enter Pakistan but they could also reorganise here and launch a new round of war in Afghanistan. So far there is no sign of change in this policy on the ground although Pakistani security establishment has lived in denial for the last decade and a half. The contradiction in the position of our official spokespersons is unexplainable. On one hand they deny the existence of sanctuaries and on the other hand they say that they don’t want to bring Afghan war into Pakistan. If Afghan Taliban are not in Pakistan how will the fight against them enter Pakistan? Similarly FATA was supposed to have been cleared from both good and bad Taliban in Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in 2014. But subsequently news about the relocation of Haqqanis from Waziristan to lower Kurram were confirmed by every US drone strike in the area which would take out important commander of the Haqqani network. The latest news about the rescuing of hostages from the same area is a good news on the one hand as precious human lives were saved but on the other hand it confirms the presence of sanctuaries of the Haqqani network. Even official press releases about Operations Khyber 4 indicate certain connection between the IS activities in Eastern Afghanistan and militant positions on Pakistani side of the Durand Line.

Any meaningful change in the Afghan policy of Pakistani security establishment would require inclusion of civilian government in shaping and executing of the said policy. It is a well known and repeated argument in Islamabad that only a political solution can be sustainable to the conflict in Afghanistan. If this argument is valid then keeping Afghan policy the monopoly of military by totally excluding the civilians from the process can be a self defeating line of action. The Pakistani Pashtun political leaders (belonging to political and religious parties) who have deep understanding of the situation and have considerable influence for pushing the solution are kept miles away from the country’s Afghan policy. It is beyond the reason in view of the fact that the flawed nature of the said policy has brought large scale death and destruction to the Pashtun belt in Pakistan. The security establishment has been totally dependent on a tactical approach and has failed to envision a strategic approach in its Afghan policy. It has resulted in worsening of the conflict for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last but not the least Pakistani Afghan policy is the byproduct of the jihadist project of 1980s that is in existence even today. Any other so called change in policy without dismantling it will be like running after the symptoms without touching the root cause.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs