The US Secretary of State has talked of an intensified diplomatic push to bring the Afghan conflict to an end through a responsible reconciliation process led by the Afghans and supported by intense regional diplomacy. She also implied that what were being earlier stated as pre-conditions could now be considered as the end conditions sought. She has also said quite unambiguously that Pakistan had to be part of the reconciliation process if it was to succeed. There is now a distinct possibility that there could be a move towards direct negotiations with the Taliban without being overly selective. The Pentagon, however, continues to push for a durable and sustainable situation through military operations.
It would be realistic to assume that Secretary Clintons current thoughts must have been discussed during her meeting with the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff in Munich a meeting that the Foreign Minister did not attend. Earlier, the Army Chief had briefed NATO in Brussels and then had a meeting on a US aircraft carrier with the US military top brass, followed by a paper that he presented to President Obama in Washington and then another meeting with US military commanders at a resort in Oman.
The media had reported that in the paper given to the US President, the Army Chief had stressed the need for balance that could be lost by overextending without consolidating something that is happening in Afghanistan and could happen in FATA. He had also indicated Pakistans interest in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan deliberately omitting friendly to distance current thinking from the past strategic depth concept. The other points in the paper indicated the need for a political track to complement the military surges and a focus on the final results sought in Afghanistan. There now seems to be convergence on major strategic directions. A recent White House paper has, however, pointed out that there is no clear path towards ending the insurgency in FATA in spite of the 147000 troops committed and that the clear part of strategy has not been followed by hold and build. The precarious economic situation has been indicated as a serious problem. There can be no end to the insurgency in FATA as long as the Afghanistan situation is not resolved and hold and build can only realistically happen if there is balance and consolidation in cleared areas as well as economic and social uplift through enhanced communications and contacts. The economic transformation of Pakistan through specific measures would, of course, be a game changer for the region because then Pakistan could effectively work on many fronts to resolve issues.
Pakistans criticality for the situation in Afghanistan focuses much attention on its internal environment. With elections scheduled in 2013, the present elected government is set to complete its tenure. The government has ensured harmony in civil-military relations so that fundamentals like security, foreign policy, counter insurgency, counter terrorism and the economy are comprehensively addressed. The situations that led to intervention in the past have been allowed to play out with the result that public opinion and pressure has become significantly important. An independent judiciary is not mired in the past under political pressure and is acting to resolve ongoing issues. An independent and increasingly responsible media is fostering debate and influencing opinion. The most challenging issues facing the government are the economy and the internal security situation and it is in these areas that there are serious resource constraints that need to be addressed. Because of the long shadow that the Afghan situation casts on Pakistan the relationships with the US, UK and other NATO states are important and require nurturing in spite of transitory setbacks and sometimes contradictory policies and opinions.
There are several positive indicators that possibly give a sense of future directions. The resumption of the IndiaPakistan dialogue in a comprehensive format indicates a push towards a threat reduction strategy as does the acceptance of India as a part of the trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan implying an acceptance of its presence there. The change of faces in Afghanistan brings in people who could break from the past hostility towards Pakistan to its acceptance as a major player a trend that needs to be encouraged through high level visits and follow-up interaction.
The Afghan-led reconciliation process should be supported in every possible manner and not undermined by acts that humiliate or stoke anger. A discernible scaling down of ambitions, acceptance of realities and a focus on internal situations is slowly emerging this could alter regional relations and economics if all the stake holders accept responsibility for encouraging these trends and doing everything possible to prevent events that can disrupt or slow this process.
There is a time window available now that the governments of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can exploit to forge a regional cooperation arrangement through bilateral and trilateral interaction. This is not the time for exploitative policies based on past mindsets.
The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff. He is now associated with Spearhead Research.