Pakistan, US and Afghanistan have a lot at stake as the endgame in Afghanistan approaches. Unless the three join hands to uproot militancy, each one will turn out to be a loser.
Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has to realise that it is in the vital interest of the country to work together with the US to eliminate extremism from the region. Once the US and allies are out of Afghanistan, Islamabad will have to face the monster with its own meagre resources and manpower. The resilient Al-Qaeda and TTP affiliates have consistently developed their expertise in asymmetrical warfare. The losses that they can inflict on an isolated Pakistan are going to be incalculable. Losing a resourceful ally committed to fighting the common enemy would be disastrous.
The US has to understand that it cannot hope to bring the endgame in Afghanistan to a satisfactory conclusion without wholehearted support from Pakistan. It won’t do to announce that with OBL killed the US has achieved its mission while the Hydra-headed monster called Al-Qaeda remains ensconced in the Pak-Afghan borderlands. What is more, it is making its presence felt in Yemen and a number of countries in Africa. A continuing estrangement between the US and Pakistan will encourage the militants and require greater sacrifices in human and material terms from Washington.
Washington, Islamabad and Kabul have tried to find alternatives that can rid them of their interdependence without success. Washington has found that while it can import supplies for the US-led Nato troops from Central Asian routes, the replacement is time consuming and much more costly. As things stand, the US is short of both time and money. Pakistan has discovered that while China remains an all-weather friend, it too would like Pakistan to root out terrorism.
Both Washington and Kabul have talked about involving India in the peace process in Afghanistan. While India can do a lot to help Afghanistan rebuild itself, it can hardly play any significant role in bringing peace to the country. It shares no border with Afghanistan and has little influence over tribes living astride the Durand Line crucial to negotiate peace. After burning it fingers in Sri Lanka, the Indian Army would want to avoid another costly and embarrassing disaster of the sort.
Transition which is the key issue in the endgame constitutes a leap in the dark. Turning over Afghanistan to American-financed Afghan forces is highly risky. Taliban fighters will press harder and Afghan troops, lacking sophisticated communications and fire support currently provided by the American forces, would mostly desert or be overrun.
Once the American-led Nato troops are out, the government in Kabul bolstered by the US and its allies would not survive long. This could lead to a highly chaotic situation in Afghanistan. With ethnic tensions still playing a vital role, Afghanistan’s integrity would be at stake. This would have unhappy consequences for Pakistan also. A Pashtun rather than a multi-ethnic state bordering Pakistan could exert a pull on its Pashtun population. This could revive the dead and buried movement for a united Pashtunistan.
Pakistan needs to win over Afghanistan not through pressure but a projection of soft power. Most of all, Islamabad has to realise that in view of the size of its economy it cannot play the role of a regional overlord. To be able to live in a friendly environment, Islamabad has to make the improvement of ties with its neighbours a cornerstone of its foreign policy which it has neglected to do so far. In the case of Afghanistan, Islamabad has to replace Quixotic notions like strategic depth with relations based on equality and mutual help and assistance. Islamabad rightly reacts strongly when friends try to act as masters. What it fails to realise is that Afghanistan too resents when treated as a fifth province of Pakistan. This forces it to seek alliances not liked by Pakistan.
The countries bordering Afghanistan are highly concerned about the shape of things in Afghanistan after the exit of the US-led Nato troops. Marc Grossman must have been apprised of their worries as he visited almost a dozen capitals this month. The opportunity offered by the tripartite Ankara talks in November and Bonn Conference a month after to reach an understanding must not be lost by the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.