In the current environment, what are the options left for Pakistan? Complete detachment from the emerging situation in Afghanistan is one option.
The results of the 2019 Afghan presidential elections have further complicated the prospects for achieving intra-Afghan political reconciliation. They have pushed down the hope that the newly elected government would be able to form an inclusive team to talk to the Afghan Taliban. While the election authorities have declared the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani as the winner, runner-up Dr Abdullah Abdullah has not only rejected the results but also announced he will form his own parallel government.
The persisting political turmoil in Kabul has increased just a week before the announcement of a deal is expected between the US negotiation team and the Taliban. Many anticipate that the much-awaited deal will bring to the fore the crucial process of nation-building in a war-torn country, where all Afghan stakeholders will not only have to build consensus on a permanent, comprehensive ceasefire, but also reconstruct a new social contract for their country. However, the deepening political crisis in Afghanistan can slacken the peace process, causing a delay in the announcement of the deal. It will increase frustration among the external stakeholders and facilitators (mainly the US) who want to end the decades-old conflict, which is consuming their financial resources and political capital.
The Afghan Taliban deputy and Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani hinted at the Taliban’s internal difference over the peace process in an opinion piece published in the New York Times. However, their differences are not as severe as the trust deficit among their opponents including Afghan and international stakeholders. Political chaos in Kabul is an advantage for the Taliban, which they will use to bolster their bargaining position while dealing with the US and fellow Afghan stakeholders. It is not yet certain how Washington will respond to the simmering controversy over election results.
In the current environment, what are the options left for Pakistan? Complete detachment from the emerging situation in Afghanistan is one option. This can be interpreted as maintaining a neutral position before and during the complicated process of intra-Afghan talks. This would be an ideal but awkward position because of complications that could emerge during the withdrawal of foreign forces and the dialogue process. The US would have to rely on Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban and a few other political actors in Afghanistan.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that Russia, Iran, and particularly India, would maintain a neutral position. India and Iran have their proxies and favourites in Afghanistan, whom they will not abandon. Pakistan will be an easy target of such “favourites” if the dialogue is deadlocked. Pakistan will have to maintain and further diversify its relations with Afghan stakeholders other than the Taliban.
If the exit process is caught in complications, the US can review its approach. But for the global community, the most critical aspect would be long-term economic assistance pledges to help Afghan power elites develop viable economic growth structures. This factor will also dominate the intra-Afghan dialogue. It remains to be seen how Afghan stakeholders, who have divergent interests, will deal with this challenge. It is expected they will build pressure on Pakistan regarding the transit trade agreement and could demand easy access to ports. If Pakistan-India relations remain tense, it would not be easy for Pakistan to make any concession.
The processes of withdrawal and dialogue will be lengthy with all their complexities, but their completion will see the real test for Pak-Afghan ties. Pakistan should have a blueprint for the future and prepare the ground for a long-term strategic and economic cooperation treaty with Afghanistan. This is important in order for both countries to emerge from the Indian-centric strategic hangover and develop their independent bilateral relationship.
By arrangement with Dawn