Rafi Ullah Kakar
Ten years on, the events of 9/11 and the resulting ‘War on Terror’ have transformed the political landscape of South Asia in profound and dramatic ways. As the US unsheathed its sword and prepared to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attacks, Pakistan, given its important geo-strategic location and record of past support to the Taliban, soon captured the attention of US policymakers. Pakistan’s cooperation in the impending ‘War on Terror’ was swiftly solicited through a combination of promises and not-so-subtle threats, marking a U-turn shift in Islamabad’s Afghan policy – a policy which until then had revolved around support and patronage to the Taliban regime. With this strategic shift, the stated goals of Pakistan’s Afghan policy sought to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan and cultivate friendly ties with the Karzai regime.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long history of troubled relations, oscillating between periods of mistrust and stability. In the years soon after Pakistan’s creation, relations between the two countries unfortunately remained estranged mainly due to Kabul’s irredentist claims to the territories east of the Durand Line and its ardent support for the ‘Pashtunistan’ movement. During these early decades, Pakistan, being pre-occupied with the security of its eastern border, adopted a ‘defensive policy’ vis-à-vis Afghanistan that sought to secure the Western border and curtail Kabul’s support for Pashtun and Baloch separatists. Pakistan’s strategic agenda in Afghanistan, however, evolved into a very ambitious and assertive one over the course of the anti-Soviet war during which it began to pursue the notorious ‘strategic depth’ policy. In pursuit of ‘strategic depth’, Islamabad, buoyed by the defeat of the Soviet Union, extended its support to Pashtun Islamists from Afghanistan in the hopes of neutralizing Pashtun irredentism, training and indoctrinating recruits for the Kashmir ‘Jihad’, and attaining safe access to resource-rich Central Asia. Finally, Islamabad threw its weight behind the Taliban – a decision that eventually proved to be very costly both domestically and internationally.
The altered geo-political realities of the post-9/11 world provided Pakistan an opportunity to repair its tainted international image, bury poisonous past history, and begin a new chapter of cooperative ties with Afghanistan and other regional players. Instead, Pakistan squandered this opportunity by continuing to maintain links with extremists and using them as tools to advance her strategic interests in the region. In the post-9/11 period, Islamabad appeared to be pursuing a two-track policy regarding Afghanistan. At the official level, Islamabad professed to pursue peace and stability in Afghanistan and friendly relations with the Karzai government. Pakistan’s economic interests in Afghanistan, indeed, required peace and stability with its neighbor. Moreover, it would also have given an incentive to the Afghan refugees who had been a burden on the Pakistani economy for the last three decades to return home.
Notwithstanding the above goal, there was a second track in Pakistan’s Afghan policy that appeared to contradict the first. A stable and strong Afghan government was desired only if it would be reasonably friendly, if not subservient, to Pakistan. Wary of the Northern Alliance’s domination in the Afghan government and growing Indian influence, Pakistan sought to ensure at-least a friendly if not pliant (though obviously desired but not achievable in those circumstances) regime in Kabul. To realize this objective, the Pakistani military establishment continued to provide tacit support to the Taliban in the post-9/11 period. Actually, the military establishment was deeply apprehensive about New Delhi’s significant economic, diplomatic and political influence in Afghanistan which it regarded as an ‘encirclement’ move. It also feared that given the rising Indo-US nexus, epitomized, among the others, by the US-India nuclear deal and US support to India’s bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council, the US may give India a greater role in Afghanistan’s affairs upon its withdrawal. Thus, these concerns provided Pakistan an incentive to maintain its links with the Afghan Taliban as part of its ‘hedge strategy’ against India.
Although the military did belatedly start hunting down the Pakistani Taliban in the Northwest tribal areas, it continued to turn a blind eye to the activities of Punjab-based extremist groups and the Afghan Taliban whom it regarded as the ‘good’ Taliban. As a matter of fact, Islamabad’s self-defined distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban was ironic and bizarre given the commonly acknowledged fact that all factions of the Taliban protect and support each other, possess the same ideological bent of mind, and operate under the Al-Qaeda umbrella. Pakistan’s ‘inability’ and ‘failure’ to refuse sanctuaries to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents in the tribal belt was, in fact, partly explained by its lack of ‘political willingness’ to fight this menace. Thus, despite being a frontline ally in the ‘War on Terror’, the military establishment did not completely give up its links with these elements and continued to rely on the Afghan Taliban for countering the dominance of the pro-India Northern Alliance.
In addition to this, another objective that remained a central pillar of Pakistan’s post-Taliban Afghan policy was the issue of Pashtun representation in the Afghan government. Since the Bonn agreement was finalized in 2001, Pakistan, in order to counter the dominance of Northern Alliance, has repeatedly made demands for an increased Pashtun representation in the Afghan government. Many Pakistani strategists and analysts believe that Pashtun alienation was the primary reason of Taliban’s resurgence and their growing popularity in Southern Afghanistan. Thus, in order to bring stability to Afghanistan, the Pashtun grievances, they argue, must be addressed and their representation in the power structures must be enhanced. As a matter of fact, Pakistan’s demand of increased Pashtun representation is tantamount to interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Moreover, it is also suspected that the euphemistic demand of ‘adequate Pashtun representation’—dubbed by some critics as ‘the liberal façade of strategic depth’—is a masked term and cover up for empowering the Afghan Taliban whom many in the security establishment wrongly regard as the representatives of the Pashtuns. Actually, the imaginary ‘Pashtun resentment’ card is played by the military to project its wish list vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
Given Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Asia and the interest of various regional and extra-regional players, Pakistan’s policy towards this western neighbor is bound to generate serious geo-political consequences. In the past, Pakistan antagonized many countries in the region by patronizing the Taliban and training a global network of Jihadists for achieving its regional strategic goals. Islamabad’s attempts in the 1990s to further its commercial interests and extend its political clout to Central Asia for forging a ‘Muslim security belt’ did not succeed. In the wake of 9/11, Pakistan’s pragmatic U-turn shift marked the end of its international isolation and honeymoon with the Islamists. All of a sudden, its status elevated from an international ‘outcast’ to a frontline ally in the Global War on Terror, much to the disappointment of India which aspired to use this opportunity to get Pakistan declared a state sponsoring terrorism. Pakistan’s subsequent role in the dismantling and disruption of Al-Qaeda network won it considerable international applause and heralded a new chapter in its foreign relations.
However, the allegations of ‘double-game’ came to haunt its foreign relations and international image again. Besides Washington, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asian Republics, Russia, and even China have time and again expressed their unease at Pakistan’s dubious policies regarding terrorism and its sponsorship of militant groups. One unintended consequence of Pakistan’s policies is that it has greatly damaged the Kashmir cause. The moral legitimacy and support that Pakistan’s Kashmir stand used to enjoy internationally has faded away; and now, very few countries are willing to either support our stance on Kashmir or pressurize India for a peaceful resolution. As a consequence of Pakistan’s Afghan policy, today goodwill for Pakistan in Afghanistan is in terribly short supply; whereas hostility and suspicion seem to be on the increase. Aimed at countering India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan and the region, Islamabad’s Afghan policy, quite ironically, has pushed Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asian Republics closer to India; thus facilitating New Delhi’s regional agenda which seeksbroader ‘pan-Asian’ influence. Moreover, as a result of Pakistan’s policy of using Islamist extremists as tools of foreign policy, today religious fundamentalism has emerged as a more formidable threat than both India and Pashtun nationalism combined—the two primary shaping factors of Islamabad’s Afghan policy.