Cracking the Afghan-Pak nut It is Nothing Short of a Challenge for Pakistan to Reconcile

  0 comments   |     by Salman Rafi Sheikh

It is nothing short of a challenge for Pakistan to reconcile its western neighbour, a neighbour Pakistan has almost never enjoyed cordial relations with. But the need for reconciling the estranged neighbour has never been greater than now. For one thing, Pakistan’s relations with the US crucially depend upon Pakistan’s Afghan policy. For another, China, Pakistan’s prime strategic ally, also sees in Afghanistan a great opportunity to extend the CPEC to and integrate it in its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

It is, therefore, not surprising to see both the US and China supporting the fresh Pakistan-Afghanistan initiative to resolve mutual distrust and establish some sort of institutional mechanism to overcome their differences, one of which is how Pakistan and Afghanistan see cross-border movement of militant groups. Apparently, there has been some progress on this issue as both sides have come up with the notion of ‘taking action against irreconcilable elements.’ What, however, is unclear is who exactly these groups are and how both sides will act against them?

While no details have been shared on whether both sides have been able to develop a common definition of ‘terrorism’, or what constitutes ‘reconcilability’ of militant elements, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have decided to establish a Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), which is qualitatively a broad-based institutional network to enhance co-operation between the two countries not just in matters related to security and anti-terrorism, but also in economic and other issues of mutual interest.

While the key aspect  of dialogue remains security and intelligence cooperation, the fact that others aspects have now become a visible part of dialogue sheds some light on how economic development in the region being done through China’s BRI and CPEC has started to influence bi-lateral relations; hence, the emphasis, during Abbasi-Ghani meeting,  on  Pakistan’s connection to Central Asia, energy transition, and importance of enhancing territorial connectivity through projects like Quetta-Kandahar-Herat and Peshawar-Jalalabad railroad and construction of Peshawar-Jalalabad highway.

The discussion of these projects signifies how China, despite being not a party to this meeting, is still indirectly influencing the dialogue process. Unsurprisingly, as Pakistan’s minister for development revealed, that talks for connecting Quetta to Kandahar were already underway with China. This project would thus be instrumental in connecting Afghanistan with CPEC and thus integrate it with the wider regional economic network. While this, in principle, shows how regional geo-politics is changing due to the ‘China factor’, it also shows the urgency of ending, first and foremost, the war in Afghanistan. For Afghanistan’s successful integration with CPEC, ending the war is of utmost importance not just because war and development cannot go check by jowl but also because the US has been opposing China’s plans to establish an overwhelming economic presence in Afghanistan, and is also opposing CPEC itself.

But for Afghanistan, integration with CPEC means something that can not only be instrumental in ending the war, but also be useful for dramatically changing its regional character. By becoming the central link between South and Central Asia, doors for Afghanistan’s integration with greater Eurasian integration will automatically open, allowing it to not only to considerably expand its regional reach and diversify its relations, but also enable it to reduce its overdependence on the US. However, for any of this to happen successfully, the war in Afghanistan has to end. And this will not happen unless Afghanistan itself decides to do so. While president Ghani’s offer of unconditional dialogue with the Taliban is a positive sign, elements within Afghanistan continue to oppose prospects of politically streamlining the Taliban. Then there is the US that has blatantly refused to engage in direct talks with Taliban and rejected their offer, leaving the observers thinking as to why the US wouldn’t engage in talks if it does want the war to end now.

While there are multiple reasons for the US to keep itself militarily dominant in Afghanistan and to continue to fight the Taliban, the central most reason is to stay in the region to continue to influence the Russia-China sponsored Eurasian integration, a programme which, if it becomes successful, will become a major rival for the West to deal with at global level.

The US, therefore, has no intention of walking away from the Afghan war, as the newly appointed national security adviser said recently. But the regional environment is displaying an explicitly anti-war mood. Its recent illustration came through the recently held Tashkent Conference, where the Central Asian states expressed their willingness to support Afghan peace talks, although mainly out of the fear, as we reported previously, of the increasing presence and militant activity of the Islamic State and its alliance with the CAS based militant groups. Accordingly, China and Russia are banking on this anti-war mood, and are already working to translate this mood into active opposition to the US plan of having an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. And, they have gains some success, evident from the re-opening of Pak-Afghan broad-based dialogue and the agreement reached between both countries on emphatically preventing the use of their soil for cross-border terrorism, and on re-defining the dynamics of their bi-lateral relations.

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