The Pulse

Pakistan and Afghanistan: Thy Neighbors, Thy Rivals

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The Pulse

Pakistan and Afghanistan: Thy Neighbors, Thy Rivals

Since peace talks were stalled in Doha last month, tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have flared.

The head of the Afghan army, General Sher Mohammad Karimi has suggested that the conflict in Afghanistan could end “in weeks” if Pakistan told the Taliban to cease the insurgency. Going far beyond an implicit suggestion of Pakistan’s influence over the militant group, General Karimi openly accused Islamabad of giving shelter to Taliban leaders and stoking the insurgency in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban are under (Pakistan's) control – the leadership is in Pakistan," Karimi said in an interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk program, broadcast on July 3.

The allegations are the latest in a series of accusations leveled by Kabul at Islamabad and represent a new low in bilateral ties. Significantly, they come at a sensitive time, when international negotiations associated with creating a stable Afghanistan are delicately poised. Only last month, the Afghan government denounced planned talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha, which have since been put on hold. According to reports, Pakistan played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The fact that the U.S. and Pakistan seem to be supporting peace talks with the Taliban despite the Afghan government’s strident opposition may have fuelled growing fears of being sidelined in the peace talks and in effect constraining its own ability to influence the outcome of such discussions. Indeed, according to Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, the opening of the Taliban office, with the trappings of an embassy, in Qatar last month may have strengthened the hand of hardline elements within the Taliban as well as its Pakistani patrons.

In an op-ed in The Indian Express on July 3, Riedel wrote: “The Taliban's patrons, the Pakistani army and its ISI intelligence service, were pleased with the outcome. The Pakistani generals believe time is on their side in Afghanistan, that America has already lost the war and that their clients will prevail.”

 Which is why Afghans were particularly outraged after Pakistan floated the concept of an Afghan power-sharing arrangement between Kabul and the Taliban as part of a peace talks "end game". In a meeting last week between Pakistani national security adviser Sartaj Aziz and Afghan ambassador Umer Daudzai, Islamabad is reported to have suggested that Kabul adopt a form of federalism by ceding power in some Afghan provinces to the Taliban. That idea is anathema to the Afghan government, which has demanded that any peace talks with the Taliban be incumbent on the Taliban ending its violent campaigns and respecting the Afghan constitution.

More importantly, if reports of the Pakistani proposal are true, then it would suggest that there is little change in Islamabad’s strategy from the 1990s, when Pakistan used the Taliban as part of its grand bargain to maintain a favorable government in Kabul. Indeed, during the years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the Taliban was seen as the perfect ally to keep Pakistan’s arch-rival and the elephant in the room – India – in check.

For five years, India remained in the wilderness, without diplomatic representation and little in the way of leverage. However, the toppling of the Taliban regime and installation of a friendly government under President Hamid Karzai led to a ratcheting up of Indian diplomatic and economic assistance in the last decade, much to Islamabad’s chagrin. With Afghanistan set to undergo a momentous security and political transition in 2014, Pakistan with its latest proposal seems to be hedging its bets by once again viewing the Taliban as an insurance policy against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.

That strategy is fraught with risks and will almost certainly intensify geopolitical rivalries over Afghanistan and potentially destabilize the region. Pakistan’s evolving Afghan policy may also prove to be a litmus test for the newly elected government of Nawaz Sharif, which has vowed to chart its own foreign policy, traditionally the preserve of the security establishment.

Rather than engaging in a futile zero-sum game, India and Pakistan will do well to institute a dialogue on Afghanistan to better manage the period of heightened political and security uncertainty after 2014. Such a conception is hardly unrealistic given that India and China held their first standalone dialogue on Afghanistan in April, despite being regional rivals with competing interests.