The triangular politics of Afghanistan

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Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi

The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan share a goal of eliminating terrorism and terrorist groups in and around Afghanistan. But they diverge on the strategies to achieve this goal. Their priorities differ, and each one talks about their own agenda regarding Afghanistan rather than harmonizing them. This has deepened mutual distrust as each one pays little, if any, attention to the other’s concerns about the political and military stalemate in the country.
The US does not want anyone to talk about its role in creating Islamist militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s to oust the Soviet military from Afghanistan. President Donald Trump’s speech of Aug. 21 on US priorities in Afghanistan underlined his desire to obtain a quick military solution by dispatching more American troops to the country, and he expects Pakistan to fully adhere to the US security agenda in the region.
The Kabul government has not been able to cope with the Taliban’s challenge to Afghan security and stability. Kabul blames Pakistan for its inability to eliminate the Afghan Taliban, arguing that they operate from safe havens there. Afghanistan is encouraged to adopt a negative attitude toward Pakistan due to the strident US disposition toward Islamabad.
Washington and Kabul now judge Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts on the basis of their relevance to achieving the US-Afghan agenda of subduing the Afghan Taliban and their allies. They hardly pay any attention to what bothers Pakistan in Afghanistan’s troubled situation.
Islamabad’s concerns include the permanent presence of Tehrik-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan (TTP) and its allies in three Afghan provinces adjacent to the Pakistani border, from where they attack Pakistani border security posts and nearby villages.
Islamabad is also concerned about what it views as the active use of Afghan territory by India’s intelligence agency and what it terms to fund the TTP and dissident groups causing trouble in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. India and Afghanistan deny this but it hardly convinces Pakistan.
Lately, Pakistan is adopting measures to enhance security on its border with Afghanistan in order to check unauthorized movement of people. It is not getting any concrete cooperation from the US or Afghanistan in this respect. Kabul has opposed Pakistan’s policy of strengthening border controls, and instead wants Islamabad to take firm action against the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan.
It is not easy to distinguish Afghan Taliban fighters from about 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Pakistani Pashtuns. Afghan Taliban fighters enjoy support and sympathy among Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Some parts of Afghanistan are not under government control. These areas are managed by the Afghan Taliban and other militant elements, or by tribal chiefs who maintain sympathetic relations with them. There is a two-way movement of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and their allies across the border. They cannot succeed in pursuing their terrorist agendas without local support and networks.
So the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan should recognize that a one-sided blame game will not address the problem of terrorism in the region. They need to formulate a shared approach to deal with terrorism, whose primary roots are in Afghanistan but with external links. Public denunciation of Pakistan by the US and Afghanistan, or American statements about fixing a timeframe for Islamabad to take action against terrorist elements, will not be helpful.
Pakistan may not meet US expectations about countering terrorism. But can Washington or Kabul secure peace in Afghanistan by totally disregarding the geographic reality of Pakistan’s immediate neighborhood, and the historical and ethnic linkages between Pakistan and Afghanistan? The same applies to Pakistan, whose stability is linked partly to Afghanistan’s.
These three countries should adopt a realistic approach toward each other’s security concerns. There is hardly any choice for Washington and Kabul to substitute Pakistan with some other country for peace in and around Afghanistan.
Another reality needs to be kept in mind by the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia and China are equally interested in securing peace and stability in Afghanistan, and they would not like Afghanistan to become an American security outpost.
They are now employing their diplomatic skills to seek a regional solution to the Afghan problem through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Though these efforts have not so far produced any significant result, they are evoking much interest in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region.
Peace and stability in and around Afghanistan require a more comprehensive approach than what the current policies of the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan are striving for. But these three countries will remain the key players. They need to pay more attention to each other’s complaints, while working with other states that have stakes in the region.
India can make a positive contribution toward peace and stability in Afghanistan by toning down its belligerence toward Islamabad and working with states in the region, rather than viewing Afghanistan as an opportunity to increase security pressures on Pakistan.
The author Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based geo- political analyst.)