Pakistan’s stake in Afghan stability
Pakistan and Afghanistan have several problems. Some that include differences over the Durand Line or the access to Afghan truckers to Indian cities and back will take time to settle
Pakistan sent a high level military delegation to Kabul last week. Soon after, a 15 member Parliamentary delegation visited the Afghan capital and held talks with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Andullah and Hamid Karzai. The ISI chief also made a secret visit to meet his counterpart.
The activity gives one a sense of déjà vu. Army chief Raheel Sharif was in Kabul in December 2014. In January 2015 DG ISI Rizwan Akhtar called on President Ghani. Next month both the COAS and DG ISI were together in the Afghan capital. In May Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a joint press conference in Kabul with President Ashraf Ghani where he pledged support for Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban. He was accompanied by the COAS during the visit. Finally Pakistan arranged peace talks in Murree which were billed as “A major breakthrough” in an editorial appearing in Afghanistan Times, a paper otherwise known for Pakistan bashing.
Within months the bonhomie ended giving place to the all too familiar mutual recrimination. Whether the ongoing talks will lead to positive results or end up in yet another era of mutual hostility remains a matter of conjecture.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have several problems. Some that include differences over the Durand Line or the access to Afghan truckers to Indian cities and back will take time to settle. The most urgent issue on which everything else depends is the establishment of peace and stability in the two countries, which can only be achieved through mutual cooperation between the neighbours. This needs to be settled urgently. What is more this is achievable.
Pakistan and Afghanistan will continue to be under attack from terrorists in case they maintain an attitude of mutual hostility. Both sides accuse each other of hosting terrorists who launch attacks on their respective citizens and security personnel. For decades fugitives from one country have found shelter in the other.
Some of the most devastating attacks that have taken heavy toll of lives in Pakistan have been orchestrated by TTP and its offshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) which have set up headquarters in Afghan districts adjoining Fata. These attacks include the one at Wagah in November 2014 killing 60, three deadly attacks in Parachinar in 2015 and 2017 killing about a hundred people. Umar Masood Naray who masterminded the APS attack in December 2015 too operated from Afghanistan. The two major attacks in February this year i.e., the one in front of the Punjab Assembly killing 12 and the other at the Sehwan shrine that took toll of 90 lives were presumably planned and directed from Afghanistan.
Former COAS Gen Raheel Sharif told at a Washington dinner on 20 November 2015 that the armed forces had lost 5,000 uniformed men in this fight, including those from the Rangers and police
These attacks were no doubt facilitated by local contacts who sheltered and guided the suicide bombers to their targets. But the masterminds who planned and provided funds and wherewithal to launch the attacks were in Afghanistan. Blaming Kabul however won’t do. Even if the Afghan government had the will it lacked the capacity to take on the Pakistani terrorists along with the Afghan Taliban. Even Pakistan is worried of the backlash of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network in case it was to take them on alone.
Like Pakistan Afghanistan too is not sure of the political kudos it will get in case it was to kick the hornets’ nest on its own. Together and with confidence in each other and with vision of commonly agreed goals the two can take the risk in their stride.
The cost Pakistan had to bear while fighting terrorists has been forbidding both in human and material terms. Former COAS Gen Raheel Sharif told at a Washington dinner on 20 November 2015 that the armed forces had lost 5,000 uniformed men in this fight, including those from the Rangers and police. He forgot to note that many times more civilians died or were incapacitated in terrorist attacks. When a single bread earner dies it means a long period of deprivation for the entire family.
These figures do not include the military losses during the Operation Zarb-e-Azb. On June 2016, the then army spokesman, Lt Gen Asim Bajwa, told media 490 soldiers of the Pakistan army died in the line of duty during the Operation while work was still remained to be done. As the media had no access to the theater of war, there is no count yet of the civilians who died in friendly fire.
The war on terror has led to both visible and invisible costs for the economy as pointed out in the annual report of the State Bank of Pakistan for 2016. We are told that the war cost Pakistan a total sum of $118b. What is more in the period 2002-2016 the war drove away foreign investment, stalled domestic investment, froze exports, and slowed down trade. “Both economic growth and social sector development have been severely hampered by terrorism related incidents,” maintains the report.
Opertion Zarb-e-Azb succeeded in establishing the writ of the state in North Waziristan. But, as was the case with the earlier military operations in Swat and South Waziristan, numerous terrorist commanders and foot soldiers managed to escape. In the case of Zarb-e-Azb around 1,500 militants are supposed to have crossed over to hostile territories in Afghanistan where there was no mechanism or will to take them on.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb was accompanied by Information Based Operations (IBOs) and cleansing operations in cities and rural areas outside the tribal belt. In February Pakistan army launched ‘Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad’ across the country. The operation was aimed at indiscriminately eliminating the “residual/latent threat of terrorism”, consolidating the gains made in other military operations and further ensuring the security of Pakistan’s borders.
As a result of these operations there was s a marked reduction in terrorist attacks inside the big cities of Pakistan. However some of the most horrendous attacks have also taken place after the operation. The situation in the tribal areas is far less satisfactory. A Fata Research Centre report issued in April indicates an uptick in both the number of attacks and the number of casualties in tribal areas. The reason obviously is their proximity to Afghan provinces where the terrorists have established sanctuaries.
The lesson is clear: Pakistan cannot hope to live in peace as long Afghanistan is insecure. What has stood in the way of an understanding between the two countries are mutual suspicions inherited from the past with new additions made in recent times.
Pakistan army has long nurtured the desire for strategic depth in Afghanistan. Political governments have generally treated Afghanistan as Pakistan’s fifth province. No self respecting nation can allow itself to be treated like this, least of all the Afghans who have withstood the might of the British and Russian empires and the onslaught of the Soviet Union followed by the American invasion. What has been in the mind of those seeking strategic depth or treating Afghanistan as a backyard was Pakistan’s lager size, population and military might. They saw Afghanistan as a landlocked country which depended on Pakistan for import of basic food items and had a small and ineffectual army. As an unnamed military source recently put it, “They also have about 1,000 generals, most of whom are appointed because of their tribal affiliations rather than on merit. The problem is that you can’t teach a donkey to gallop.” Sniding remarks of the sort are not conducive to boosting mutual confidence. This is an imperialist outlook which has been strongly resented by those who interacted with Pakistan’s military brass or political leadership.
Pakistan tends to use strong arm tactics rather than polite diplomacy to resolve disputes. The sudden and prolonged closure of borders causing losses to businessmen, forcing shortages of food items and medicines in the neighbouring country, and denying access to Afghans seeking medical treatment or studying in Pakistan, is the most recent example.
It is forgotten that while Afghanistan needs Pakistan to access the markets abroad, Pakistan is equally dependent on Afghanistan for access to Central Asian markets and for getting gas and power through Afghanistan.
Pakistan must not demand a friendly government in Afghanistan. It has to treat Afghanistan as equal and ungrudgingly allow it free passage in accordance with international law as a right rather than a favour. It should encourage mutual trade and open the doors of its educational institutions and hospitals for the Afghans. Pakistan will in due course have a friendly government in Kabul without asking for it.