Following the visits of Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Chief of Army Staff and the ISI Chief to Kabul, and then of the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Islamabad – all in space of last two months, there seems to be a positive movement in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan in November 2014, and his meetings with Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif have been reported as a big success by the local media.
There is optimism across the Durand Line that the bilateral relations are ready for a positive reset. And this is a welcome development.
But this positive development is likely to face a stiff challenge from the multiple Taliban factions and their supporters in Pakistan. The real question would be – whether the above two sections see the Pak-Afghan reset between Kabul, Islamabad and Rawalpindi as a part of their Endgame, or against their interests.
Afghan Taliban and the Pak-Afghan reset
After the bilateral visits identified above, there were two major suicide attacks in eastern Afghanistan. The first one in a play ground where the Afghans were watching a volley ball match, and the second one on a British embassy vehicle; both attacks killed more than 60 people together. The attacks signify that the multiple Taliban factions have their own agenda and may not be along the same lines on a Pak-Afghan reset. With the multiple Taliban factions well entrenched and having safe havens on both sides of the Durand Line, an Endgame not in sync with the State, efforts would be detrimental to the larger push and only undermine the regional stability.
None of the multiple Taliban factions – the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network and the TTP, have any successful dialogues with the governments in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban – led by the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, until now have shown no signs of reaching any understanding with the government in Afghanistan.
There were two parallel processes with the Afghan Taliban – one within Afghanistan, and the second one outside it. During the previous regime, Hamid Karzai, with approval from a Loya Jirga established an Afghan Peace Council to dialogue with the Taliban. Multiple meetings at formal and informal levels reached nowhere; the process only saw more targeted killings of the members of the Peace Council. Until today, there have been no signs of the Afghan Taliban wanting to engage the government in any meaningful dialogue.
Outside Afghanistan, there was an international process in engaging the Afghan Taliban, initially involving multiple actors in Europe, but finally settling with the US taking lead through Qatar. Referred as the Qatar process, this initiative also did not succeed. Though Karzai was blamed for scuttling this process, in retrospect, it appears that the Afghan Taliban was not interested in any successful engagement.
Perhaps, the Afghan Taliban has been bidding time and waiting for an opportune time. Early this year, it was waiting for the elections to take place and see the process fail. Despite the two rounds of elections and the huge crisis that followed between the two contenders – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, thanks to the American pressure and the pragmatism shown by both groups, today Kabul is stable. Certainly the Afghan Taliban did not expect this. It should have been expecting an unstable political process, indirectly supporting its return to Kabul.
Now, the Afghan Taliban is likely to wait further till the end of 2014 and the complete withdrawal of international security forces. With gaps in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency grid and the question over the continued international assistance to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces, all that the Taliban has to do is to wait for some more time.
Also, the Afghan Taliban should find the international situation in its favour. Recent developments in Syria and Iraq have already started changing the focus of the international community from Afghanistan to Middle East. The international community considers the ISIL and not the al Qaeda and Taliban as a major threat to international stability. Such a perception should be seen as an opportunity by the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network alike. The international community may have the watch, but the Taliban has all the time.
What will be the endgame for the multiple Afghan Taliban factions towards the Afghan-Pakistan reset? If they are bidding time to strike, can they be brought on board by Kabul, Islamabad and Rawalpindi? And, can the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan be really reset, without the Afghan Taliban being onboard?
Taliban Supporters in Pakistan
At this moment, it is also not clear that the supporters of the Afghan Taliban within the Establishment (military and the ISI) in Pakistan. The question by Sartaj Aziz that why Pakistan should target those groups which are not fighting them should not be seen as an individual perspective. A substantial section within Pakistan (and its Establishment) considers that the Afghan Taliban is not a threat to them. In fact, they are perceived as a strategic asset vis-a-vis Kabul to achieve Pakistan’s long term interest.
There is no evidence to believe that the supporters of Afghan Taliban in Pakistan have completely changed their minds and are willing to look at Afghanistan in a different framework. Is Pakistan today ready to give up the Taliban and its leaders who are hiding in various parts of Pakistan? This will be the most important factor in any Pak-Afghan reset.
Unless the Haqqani network is dismantled and other Afghan Taliban leaders are handed over to Afghanistan, there is no reason for anyone to believe that the Taliban backers within Pakistan’s Establishment have a changed mindset today.
Role of the Pakistani Taliban
Besides the Afghan Taliban, there also is a strong network of Pakistan Taliban. Though divided into multiple factions, the Pakistani Taliban have been using Afghanistan as a backyard for their offensives east of the Durand Line. Most of them, even today consider Mullah Omar as their Supreme Leader.
Like that of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban also entered into multiple dialogues, including the latest one early this year. None of these dialogues achieved any major breakthrough; the TTP used as a strategy to divide the public opinion within Pakistan and confuse the larger national debate.
The larger question that needs to be addressed in this context is: what is likely to be the endgame of the TTP factions, if Islamabad and Kabul decide to reset their relations? Will they abide the larger relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and decide to give up their arms?
A section within Pakistan would even prefer the multiple factions of the TTP to join the Afghan Taliban and fight on the other side of the Durand Line. If Afghanistan becomes stable, with or without Mullah Omar and Haqqani network, what will Fazlullah and Khorasani in Swat and Mohmand do? What will the Punjabi fighters of the TTP, refereed as the Punjabi Taliban do, if Kabul, Islamabad and Rawalpindi decide to work together?
And what about the al Qaeda?
Finally, a short note on the likely response from the al Qaeda to Pakistan-Afghanistan reset. With a serious challenge from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to its international credibility within the jihadi world, and sections of the Taliban fighters willing to join the IS in Pakistan, the al Qaeda also is facing an existential challenge in South Asia. Given its investments and entrenchment in the Af-Pak region, and given the challenge to its supremacy in the Middle East, the al Qaeda is likely to refocus more within South Asia. The announcement of the al Qaeda network in South Asia by al Zawahiri recently is no coincidence.
Will the al Qaeda take a backseat and applaud the Afghan-Pakistan reset? Or will it use its network across the Durand Line to upset any understanding between the two countries? Pakistan and Afghanistan have taken a first step to restore the much wanted normalcy between the two countries. Will they also succeed in restraining the multiple Taliban factions, al Qaeda and their supporters in the Establishment? The success of the first rests on the second.
By arrangement with Rising Kashmir