My piece for ANN (link) where I argue how Pakistanâ€™s Prime Minister is struggling to taking charge of the countryâ€™s security policies, away from the security forces, and turning around its economy. Pakistan in real terms has no choice but to facilitate a peace process given the likelihood of more instability after 2014.
Afghan President Hamed Karzaiâ€™s visit to Pakistan has ended without concrete outcomes. However, in terms of building trust with Pakistan and negotiating the future of Afghanistan this was a significant development. The impending pullout of NATO/ISAF combat troops from Afghanistan and forthcoming presidential elections in April 2014 require the nebulous peace process to be accelerated. The Afghan government accuses Pakistan of letting the Taleban use its soil for attacks against the country and Pakistan denies this charge adding that its leverage with the Afghan Taleban is limited and exaggerated by all concerned parties.
During the parleys between Pakistanâ€™s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Karzai the issue of the Afghan Talebanâ€™s former second-in-command Mulla Baradar and facilitating a direct contact between the Afghan Taleban and the Afghan High Peace Council must have been discussed. The press conference held by both leaders comprised statements of good intentions but avoided specific references to the issues discussed and agreements made.
Predictably, Nawaz Sharif mentioned trade and energy related matters and was upbeat about the completion of ongoing projects. The real issue â€“ getting the Taleban on the negotiating table â€“ was missing in the public statement. Historically, Pakistanâ€™s regional security policy is an exclusive domain of its powerful military and premier intelligence outfit, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. While Karzai is close to completing his term and is concerned about his legacy and holding a peaceful transition, Sharif is gradually moving towards setting the institutional frameworks right. The national security committee is being revamped and Sharif is keen to take charge of the complex policy environment.
Paranoia about Indiaâ€™s goals in Afghanistan
During his first address to the region, Sharif had indicated his desire to build peace with India and respect the right of Afghan people to decide on their future course after 2014. His national security adviser had given similar signals and assured of Pakistanâ€™s maximum cooperation in facilitating a dialogue. How far the civilian government can play its role depends on the internal power dynamics and how well Sharif and his cabinet assume powers within the tricky complex civil-military relationship that has informed Pakistanâ€™s foreign policy since 1980s.
Nawaz Sharif won the 2013 elections as he promised a better economy, jobs and handling of the energy crisis. As a businessman he realises that without regional peace these objectives are simply not achievable. This is why his approach to India and to a great extent Afghanistan is driven by the quest for stability. Pakistanâ€™s military also wants a settlement that will give its exhausted forces a breather from the ongoing insurgencies in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions as well as Balochistan province. The relentless attacks of the Pakistani faction of Taleban, the Tahrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), have led to thousands of deaths as well embarrassing attacks on key security installations.
At the same time the paranoia about Indiaâ€™s goals in Afghanistan causes much anguish in the policy circles, especially the military. Much has been said on how the India-Pakistan rivalry dogs the peace process in Afghanistan and this factor cannot be wished away. For this purpose, Pakistan and India have to talk to each other rather than escalating the conflict. It remains to be seen how future events unfold but Pakistanâ€™s concerns about alleged Indian cross border support to Baloch insurgents and the TTP via Afghanistan, regardless of their validity, are real and need to be addressed.
The cynics are wrong
In the short term, the Karzai administration and the High Peace Council will get Pakistanâ€™s support contrary to the cynical views on this subject. Pakistan cannot afford more instability after twelve years of war in its neighbourhood, which has spilled over into its tribal and settled regions. If the peace process fails Pakistan will suffer as much as the Afghan people who must not be allowed to become victims of another prolonged conflict, and as some fear, a civil war.
The Sharif-Karzai meetings must be followed up with concrete measures and policy shifts. Pakistan should use whatever influence it has to ensure that a dialogue between Karzai and the Afghan Taleban takes place. At the same time, India and Pakistan need to engage with each other. Sharifâ€™s insistence on the continuation of a bilateral India-Pak dialogue therefore is crucial and the Indian policymakers must also weigh in the costs of prolonged conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Most importantly, the proverbial elephant in the room â€“ i.e. the US â€“ needs to come up with a clearer withdrawal plan and how it views the post-2014 arrangements. Many observers in Pakistan hold the view that US interests in the region may just be continued to be projected through other means and in the post-war power-matrix Pakistan may just enter into another phase of instability. The presence of Western troops beyond 2014 is going to be a strategic red alert for Pakistan, Iran and China and will not contribute to the quest for sustained peace.
One thing is clear though: Pakistanâ€™s political parties and its civil society stand with the Afghans in this crucial phase and are most vocal that the militaryâ€™s strategic paradigm should change for good. Given the energy deficits in the region, Afghanistanâ€™s stability is only going to benefit its neighbours, allowing for Pakistan to emerge as an energy trade hub with pipelines, railroads and highways.
For this to happen, a regional settlement following an Pakistani-Afghan dialogue is the only way forward.