- Pakistan cannot afford enemies next door
Recently, a US State Department official said “we genuinely believe that a shift in Pakistan policy in aligning with our [US] strategy is very much in Pakistan’s own interests. A future course of our relationship…rest[s] in the hands of Pakistani leaders.” The man who said that was Henry Ensher, the acting deputy assistant secretary for Pakistan for the State Department.
What the State Department official basically said was this: we expect Pakistan to change its regional security policy with the one which helps the US in achieving its interests in the region. Rather than asking Pakistan to align its so-called old security policy with the US, wouldn’t it be a good idea that Washington replaces its old policy of putting blame on others to with a more regionally aligned policy?
The State Department’s official statement largely reflects the growing consensus in Washington that it’s Pakistan which has to introduce changes to its policy if the country is interested in partnering with the US. For months now, there has been a consistent effort on the part of the US to convince Pakistan of why it stands to gain by working with Washington’s security agenda in Afghanistan. In that consistent effort, we have seen the US rolling back its military as well as its economic assistance for Pakistan. There have been phases when the US has recognised Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts and commitment toward Afghanistan peace. On other occasions, Washington has been seen as blaming Pakistan for what has been a policy failure on its own end: after spending more than $900 billion during the last seventeen years of military stay, the US not made any significant gains when it comes to enforcing its military might or reforming bureaucracy or military institutions in Afghanistan to develop local capacity building to take on insurgent forces operating in the country.
Seventeen years of war and a number of experiments with different policies may not have helped the US in achieving its national security objectives in Afghanistan, but it has certainly put the region on the boil. From demanding an absolute surrender of the Afghan Taliban and terming the group a militant organisation during the early phase of the invasion to making concessions to the group to recognising the organisation as a legitimate political force only shows a failure of the US policy that has not been able to read into Afghanistan’s security and political dynamics. Pakistan’s military establishment which has remained committed to Afghanistan’s peace has always voiced its concerns regarding the US’s policy of finding solutions in Afghanistan without the involvement of all legitimate stakeholders including the Afghan Taliban, which remain a force to be reckoned with. Arguably, it doesn’t make a difference how the world wants to designate the group, what remains a fact is that Afghanistan’s security woes cannot go away unless the US aligns its security policy with the one which the region is now propagating: bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table to find solution to Afghanistan’s longstanding security crisis.
US cannot expect to achieve anything concrete in Afghanistan without taking on board the concerns of all legitimate stakeholders including the Afghan Taliban
This has all along been Pakistan’s position: the US cannot expect to achieve anything concrete in Afghanistan without taking on board the concerns of all legitimate stakeholders including the Afghan Taliban. This is the same position which Pakistan’s national security establishment, that remains on the front lines vis-à-vis the country’s border with Afghanistan and emanating security concerns, has invariably endorsed. Ironically, while Washington now seems eager to talk to the Taliban and even reportedly considering discussing the group’s demands concerning the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, for propagating the same policy line for years, Islamabad has been penalised.
Washington cannot and should not expect Pakistan to produce any group’s leadership as the former has demanded. One, it’s not in any way in Pakistan’s interest to force a group into talks. The Taliban in Afghanistan will talk when they want to talk. Moreover, considering which political and military force continues to gain leverage in terms of setting an agenda for talks, one cannot minus the influence of the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, it is in no way in Pakistan’s interest to follow Washington’s policy recommendations that call for an adventure on Pakistan’s part against some major stakeholders in Afghanistan.
Cleary, Pakistan and its military establishment wants peace in Afghanistan but not at the cost of Pakistan’s own security: Pakistan doesn’t need enemies next door in the form of Afghan Taliban hating the country for a policy which doesn’t have any strategic gains for Pakistan. One can argue that the tough economic position and a growing international pressure in terms of accommodating the west’s demands in Afghanistan should be a lesson for Pakistan’s policymakers that unless our domestic woes – economic and otherwise – remain in place, states like the US would continue to coerce us.
In any case, Washington doesn’t have a working plan when it comes to stabilising Afghanistan. The recent death of a major military commander in Kandahar shows that Afghanistan’s military remains vulnerable to threats posed by the Afghan Taliban and its growing influence in the country. Moreover, it also shows that unless Afghanistan’s internal political and security troubles are resolved, neighbouring states cannot be of much help.
Washington should focus on aligning its policy with the one which the regional states such as China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan are prospering rather than playing a blame game that’s a tried, tested and failed policy.