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A neutral policy on Afghanistan?

In a policy statement on the challenge of peace in Afghanistan issued on April 25, Pakistan’s Prime Minister made it clear: “The so-called offensives are condemnable and will undermine the peace process. It is not right to seek an edge in dialogue through coercion.” Ever since the Taliban asserted that they would launch ‘spring offensive’, the United Nations and other powers are suggesting them not to resort to such type of an activity which will not only derail the possible peace talks in Doha but will also jeopardise the much-awaited US exit from Afghanistan.

In order to exert more pressure on the Taliban for ceasefire and negotiating with the Kabul regime, the US, Russia and China, in a joint declaration issued in Moscow on April 27, urged the parties involved to reach consensus in order to end armed conflict in the country.

Can Pakistan adopt a neutral policy on Afghanistan? Will New Delhi not take advantage of the situation if Islamabad pursues a policy of neutrality amidst the new phase of conflict and power struggle in Afghanistan following the American withdrawal from the war-torn country? Has Pakistan learned lessons of its past “interventionist” role and policy on Afghanistan and now wants to keep its “hands off” from the world’s most difficult country? These are the questions which have been raised from time to time as far as the past, present and future of Pakistan’s unpredictable western neighbour is concerned.

The peace process suffered a recent setback when the Taliban refused to accept a delegation from Afghanistan composed of around 250 participants representing a cross-section of society. It means intolerant, inward and parochial approach of the Taliban which was responsible for the collapse of their regime after 9/11 is still being pursued. By not becoming a part of the Afghan political process, the Taliban jeopardised hopes for peace. The opening of Afghan parliament and the holding of Loya Jirga boycotted by the Taliban and various Afghan opposition groups further exposed internal contradictions in the state and society of Afghanistan.

Certainly Afghanistan is at a crossroads as the “conflict fatigue” tends to remind the warring parties including the Taliban, the US-led foreign forces and the Kabul regime to mend fences and give peace a chance in the beleaguered country. The statement of our PM which has been welcomed by the US envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, also maintained: “Now, after a long wait, the Afghan peace process presents a historic opportunity for peace in the region and Pakistan is fully supporting the process including the next logical step of intra-Afghan dialogue wherein Afghans will themselves decide upon the future of their country.” The approach is optimistic though, ground realities in Afghanistan are quite different which militate against Pakistan’s resolve to maintain neutrality while dealing with conflicts among the various Afghan factions.

Three major realities question the “neutrality” on Afghanistan expressed by the Pakistan’s PM in his recent statement.

First, Pakistan will have to take a position if the Taliban continue with their violent attacks against both combatants and non-combatants causing enormous physical casualties. While the PM has expressed his resentment over the Taliban’s ‘spring offensive’, the US and Afghan forces continue to launch relentless ground and air attacks against the insurgents. The Taliban’s refusal to have ceasefire with their opponents is another manifestation of a stalemate in the Afghan peace process. In this scenario, Pakistan will have to provide support to those Afghan groups who are fed up with decades of civil war and want to have peace in their country. From any standpoint, Pakistan is the only neighbour of Afghanistan which has suffered enormously in the last four decades, first because of the Soviet military intervention followed by the outbreak of armed conflicts among various Mujahedeen groups and then in the post-9/11 attack led by the US. Henceforth, Pakistan cannot and should not remain oblivious to the changing internal dynamics of Afghanistan and needs to play an assertive role regardless of those who leave no opportunity to assail Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan.

Second, Pakistan cannot remain neutral in Afghanistan when other foreign players like India and Iran continue to play their influential political, economic and security role. Leaving the ground open while remaining neutral will not go in favour of Pakistan’s national security interests. The reality of foreign policy reminds us a basic fact that neutrality cannot be attributed as a sign of weakness. However, it doesn’t mean that Pakistan should follow a policy which it pursued after the Soviet military withdrawal in February 1989 by pitting one Afghan group against another. Pakistan paid a heavy price of its “interventionist policy” in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and 1990s to the extent that “anti-Pakistan” sentiments deepened in Kabul. Instead of tilting in favour of the Taliban or the Kabul regime, Pakistan needs to support those forces in Afghanistan who are mindful of the pain and sufferings of their country more at the hands of their own people than external forces. Pakistan must encourage and promote genuine Afghan leadership to emerge which should break the decades-old monopoly of Afghan political parties and warlords close to power and the Taliban groups. A third force in Afghanistan is the need of the hour which is above violence, terrorism, corruption and nepotism. It is certainly in Pakistan’s interest to facilitate the third force in Afghanistan because unless there is peace and stability in that country, Pakistan will continue to suffer because of violence, chaos and disorder in Afghanistan.

Finally, neutrality in Afghanistan would prove to be counter-productive as Pakistan would not be able to prevent forces which intend to destabilise Balochistan and other parts of the country by using the Afghan soil. After all, Pakistan has supported millions of Afghan refugees for decades and it is the right time that it needs to have an edge vis-à-vis other players in Afghanistan by using the instruments of “soft power” like diplomacy, trade, education, science and technology. A pro-Pakistan constituency in Afghanistan, regardless of ethnic and political variations, is the need of the hour. Therefore, Pakistan must seize the opportunity for peace and make sure that hostile forces are neutralised by seeking better engagement with the people of its western neighbour. Certainly, Afghanistan is a difficult country and is 200 years older than Pakistan as it was in 1747 when Ahmad Shah Abdali integrated various Afghan tribes and laid the foundation of the Kingdom of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, despite its 272-year-old history, Afghanistan has not been able to emerge as a nation-state mainly because of its tribal and backward social system.

Pakistan’s strategic and security interests in Afghanistan cannot be denied because for the last four decades, it has borne the brunt of armed conflicts, foreign interventions and the influx of millions of Afghan refugees resulting in the proliferation of drugs and weapons and sectarian violence in the country. Many of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan were planned in and coordinated from Afghanistan and it is not correct to argue that in the recent past Islamabad has been involved in destabilising its western neighbour. From time to time, Kabul also raises the so-called Durand Line issue and has been critical of Pakistan’s policy to prevent incursions across the borders through fencing, thus making the task of mending fences with Islamabad difficult.

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