Courting Kabul

Posted on August 1, 2015 Articles

Courting Kabul

There is something peculiar about means and ends. It is very easy to confuse one with the other, get carried away and lose all perspective. The news about Mullah Omar’s death, coming right at a time when the delegates from the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government were to meet in Murree for the second round, reveals how much Islamabad has been guilty of just that. The perception that his death can affect the Taliban representative team’s ability to deliver what they promise is totally irrelevant here. What matters here is why Pakistan is often accused of supporting the ragtag army of Afghan clerics.

Stupid as it sounds, it all started with the desire to see a friendly government in Kabul. Now the easiest way to do that would have been to charm it through diplomacy and cooperation. Sadly, the rocket scientists in our policy circles made a mockery of this idea. There, after all, is a sea of difference between establishing friendly ties with a country and trying to install your own proxies there. When you confront any policymaker of those times, the answer you get is interesting. We are told that the Taliban could hardly be called a proxy as they did not cooperate when it mattered. Examples? The Durand Line and the handing over of Osama bin Laden.

But that also shows the desperation in Islamabad. Pakistan wanted to woo Kabul but it ended up alienating almost everyone in and around it. I know this is simplistic. But the relationship between the two countries is so complicated that even the most abstruse explanation may sound stupid. Suffice it to say that Islamabad’s own miscalculations cost it over 55,000 corpses. After 9/11, the desire for a reset in the relationship has been growing. But during the last few years of former president Hamid Karzai’s rule, disillusionment in Kabul grew to such an extent that it felt impossible to find an opening. On the other side, it was believed in Pakistan that Afghanistan had willingly allowed its soil to be used by India to stoke up violence and separatist tendencies in Balochistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is considered a great friend. So our policy circles have put a lot of effort in trying to convince the new administration of their sincerity. Have they succeeded? The answer once again is very complicated. Bits of Kabul seem ready to work with Islamabad, bits of it don’t. Among the educated bureaucracy, there are children of Parcham and Khalq veterans who must have seen Pakistan as the worst enemy during the Afghan jihad. Then there are remnants of the Northern Alliance, many members of which were our allies during the Afghan jihad, but endured great hardships during the Taliban rule. And then there are people left behind by the Karzai administration, who have bitter memories of the past decade. Mr Karzai himself is still relevant in Afghan politics. So there is trust deficit on many levels.

Recently, it has been speculated that the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), is hand-in-gloves with the Indians. The arrest of Latif Mehsud, the deputy of the then TTP chief by the US in Afghanistan, lent credence to such speculations. But that is now water under the bridge. For the first time in the history of the bilateral relationship, Pakistan wants to win over all segments of Afghan society and charm the country as a sovereign state. It is hoped that if the Murree peace process moves ahead, all influential circles within Afghanistan will be convinced of Islamabad’s sincerity. Deep down, everyone knows that what the NDS wants, what leaders like Abdullah Abdullah want, is a better future for their country.

So what happens after Mullah Omar’s death? Will the Taliban movement fall apart and form unmanageable splinters? And if so, will Islamabad want to stop the decay? The answer in both cases is no. When after Hakeemullah Mehsud’s death, Mullah Fazlullah was appointed Pakistan chapter’s head, similar predictions were made. But that’s not how such groups function. Nor will Pakistan try to contain the damage to the group. It will most likely want to support the Afghan government in fighting miscreants. On the question of whether a reset is possible in the bilateral relationship, one has already taken place within Pakistani policy circles.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2015.