As the new U.S. administration is set to unveil its “regional approach” to untangle the Afghan imbroglio, Afghanistan and Pakistan are stepping forward, albeit with a nudge from powerful neighbor China, to resume diplomatic relations after a full year of deadlock and a mutual blame-game.
The breakthrough in re-establishing diplomatic contacts came during a meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana on June 8.
To bring the two sides to the negotiating table, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be visiting Islamabad and Kabul to “facilitate” bilateral talks, Pakistan’s adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz told the Pashto language Radio Mashaal last week. Wang and his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts will also discuss revival of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), constituted over a year ago to find a negotiated settlement to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan
This development comes days ahead of the disclosure of the yet-to-be made public “regional strategy” of the new U.S. administration for Afghanistan. Early reports indicate the strategy includes sending a few thousand more troops to help reverse advances by an emboldened Taliban by supporting, equipping, and training the Afghan security forces.
Yet another development regarding Afghanistan was seen in mid-April when Russia hosted a 12-nation summit in Moscow. Among others, the participation of Pakistan, India, China, and Iran apart from Afghanistan was conspicuous.
With several key developments happening around Afghanistan, the new U.S. strategy, asking for a “regional approach,” carries both the risk of failure and the potential for success depending on how the strategy is dealt at the implementation stage. And the very first in line is Afghanistan’s closest neighbor, Pakistan.
Pakistan and the “Regional Approach”
It has been 16 years and three U.S. administrations since 9/11, but the war in Afghanistan, the longest in the history of the United States, is still far from over. One key reason, often mentioned in public debates and media reports, is the Taliban’s outside support base, which obviously refers to Pakistan.
The “regional approach” means the new U.S. administration has come to understand that the Afghan conflict has outside dimensions and is not going to be resolved without addressing those factors. Explaining this situation, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that the regional strategy would be “connected to the geographical reality of where this enemy is fighting from. As you know, it is not just from Afghanistan.”
Since 2001, the U.S. military has lost 2,300 lives in Afghanistan. During the same period, the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars on civilian and military aid, besides providing over $30 billion in assistance to Pakistan. Still, the war is not going anywhere. Instead, the Taliban are advancing on cities and challenging the writ of the government throughout the country.
The very first step in the new “regional approach” is to talk straight to Pakistan, exactly the way the Bush administration did in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
If taken that way, this approach could bring the United States and Pakistan either side by side against the Taliban or face to face with each other, depending on the level of understanding and the give and take between the two allies in the anti-terror war.
To stand side by side with the United States, Pakistan will need to do away with its present Taliban policy either by persuading the militants to stop fighting and start negotiations with the Afghan government or expelling their leadership from Pakistan and even initiating action against them.
But before Islamabad begins persuading the Taliban or initiating action against them, if that point ever comes, the United States and Afghanistan will have to win over Pakistan’s trust. Given the past 16 years of experience in Afghanistan, the trust level is very low and will continue to be so unless Washington and Kabul address Pakistan’s concerns and demands.
Some of Pakistan’s demands can rightly be called wishful thinking — for example, demanding that the United State interfere in Pakistan’s dispute with India over the Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas or asking Afghanistan to deny any role for India in that country. Neither the United States nor Afghanistan is going to accept any such demand.
Still, some of Pakistan’s concerns and demands, such as the claim regarding the use of Afghan soil by India to create trouble inside Pakistan or Pakistan’s border dispute and water issue with Afghanistan, are logical. It is quite understandable that such concerns need to be addressed by the United States and Afghanistan if the duo is interested in winning all-out support from the nuclear-armed country.
Ghani’s November 2014 visit to Islamabad and his meeting with Pakistan’s then-Army Chief General Raheel Sharif at the General Headquarters was his government’s clear signal of the willingness resolving all disputes with that country. Making progress now will require a reaffirmation of that gesture.
However, there is also a second scenario where we may see Pakistan and the United States face to face if the former refuses to facilitate talks with or initiate action against the Taliban and its Haqqani affiliates.
Despite denials by numerous officials, including former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, about Pakistan’s strategic depth policy in Afghanistan, the country is still providing space, if not outright support, to groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the anti-India Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), formerly known as Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LeT). Pakistan’s goal is to ward off a threat from its much bigger eastern neighbor both from the east and the west.
In their private discussions, Pakistani officials often express concerns about possible blowback in case of any government action against the three groups.
Given Mattis’ awareness of Pakistan’s sensitivities and concerns, an outright confrontation between the United States and Pakistan is a distant possibility. However, widespread suspicions about Pakistan’s dubious role in the anti-terror fight may cost the country its status of non-NATO ally or see it labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.
“It is a very complex relationship we have with the government of Pakistan, but your concerns are all well-founded,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quoted as replying to a question from Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher had asked why the United States is giving financial assistance to Pakistan while the country is continuing its “support of terrorist elements in Afghanistan.”
Since the United States’ alliance with Pakistan is not solely dependent on U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, the worst-case scenario is not a possibility. Additionally, any confrontation between Washington and Islamabad may provide more space and opportunities to groups such as the Islamic State, TTP, Haqqani Network, Taliban, and LeT to further increase their strength by expanding operations in the region.
Bringing China In
There is a third option that could bring stability in the region and that’s the expanding Chinese involvement on all fronts, including its recent role in hosting a Taliban delegation in Beijing.
China has both economic and strategic interests in the region and its $60 billion investment plan in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is most visible proof. In addition, China is part of all the three major groups and summits – the 12-member Moscow summit, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – that have stakes and interests in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
While the United States is not member of the SCO and Moscow summit, Russia is out of the QCG. However, China, the regional stalwart and greater stakeholder, maintains a presence in all three grouping and has taken on a more proactive role in recent months.
When Russia called the Moscow summit on June 8, China was one of the key members. And in early 2016, China played the lead role in formation of the QCG with the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as its members. Afghanistan’s other two neighbors, India and Russia, were not included and the reasons were obvious — objections from Pakistan, in the case of India, and the United States, in the case of Russia. In the SCO meeting in Astana, again it is China playing the lead role along with Russia.
“China has had a proactive and positive involvement in Afghanistan and related issues, both bilaterally and within the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG),” Mushahid Hussain, a leading Pakistani expert on China’s foreign policy in the region, told me during an interview last week. “Pakistan and Afghanistan both neighbor China and whatever happens there has a direct or indirect bearing on that country,” he added.
China, being a major stakeholder, can connect the colliding parts and bridge the gaps arising out of misunderstandings and disputes rooted in history, geography, and political and strategic interests.
China’s dream of stronger economic cooperation will materialize only when there is peace in Afghanistan, which is key to regional economic activity. A truck full of Indian pharmaceuticals or electrical products will reach Afghanistan only when there is peace between India and Pakistan. Likewise, a Pakistani truck full of food products, textiles, and footwear will be able to cross Amu Darya into Central Asia and the EU markets only when there is peace in Afghanistan. By the same token, electricity and gas from Tajikistan and Turkmenistan will light houses and run factories in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India only when situation in Afghanistan is stable enough to carry forward the proposed projects.
China’s Belt and Road initiative is unlikely to hit the target if a perpetual conflict is raging in Afghanistan, with blowback effects on Pakistan and the region. The murder of two Chinese citizen in Pakistan’s Balochistan province earlier this month is a signal of the brewing trouble if the situation persists.
Besides being able to influence the decision-making of Pakistan’s military leadership, China has good rapport with the Afghan Taliban as well. Last year, Beijing hosted a delegation from the Taliban’s Qatar Office as part of its back-channel diplomacy.
China is also fully mindful of the repercussions inside its own borders in case an extremist government takes over in Afghanistan. It was Chinese pressure that forced Pakistan to launch a decisive operation in June 2014 in its North Waziristan tribal district against the TTP, who were hosting, among others, militants with the the China-focused Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
China is the only country that can persuade and even push Pakistan to come to reasonable terms for withdrawing support from the Afghan Taliban. In the Pakistani political jargon, friendship with China is mentioned as taller than mountains, deeper than oceans, and sweeter than honey. But at the same time, Pakistanis are mindful of the fact that all the tallness, depth, and sweetness will evaporate like a bubble if China feels its economic and strategic interests are at risk because of Pakistan’s policies.
In shaping the new “regional approach,” the United States needs to take China on board before offering carrots or showing sticks to its Pakistani allies. Without Chinese involvement, any outside effort to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the negotiation table will end up as another round of the snake and ladder game.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.