The picture is depressingly familiar: with another warm-weather fighting season upon Afghanistan, efforts to crowd-source an international fall guy for a war gone south is disingenuously pitting public opinion against Pakistan. Last week Chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Terrorism Ted Poe called on Congress to change DC’s terms of engagement with Islamabad, beginning by labeling it a state sponsor of terror, even as Pakistan reels from a dozen suicide attacks across its four provinces in 2017.
Managing visceral disconnects is never easy, especially in the midst of a messy Trump transition and a unipolar sunset shepherded in by America’s own new world disorder. As Pakistan cleaves through the rubble of 2017, looking to broker peace and stability at home should be the PML-N’s biggest policy imperative, as will insuring itself against the recoil of borderless terrorism and overcompensating for failing Western military policy next door. Seventeen years since the fall of Kandahar and the Afghan war was declared won, the continued shortcomings of an overstretched ANDSF war machine from Kunduz to Helmand continue to backfire squarely into Pakistan’s backyard, while prompting global cries for an early US exit. Islamabad, meanwhile, has been left to walk a tightrope between having a difficult conversation with a recalcitrant Kabul establishment that remains as insecure as it is divided, and confront the moral hazards of sealing an otherwise unpoliceable 2400-kilometer border.
It is certainly true that the dysfunction of a vexed Pak-Afghan-US equation continues to roil regional stabilisation proposals. It is also true that Islamabad is likely to be frustrated in its search for good options. Even so, two imperatives standout. The first is the need to politically re-engage with Kabul. Difficult as this may be, especially in the absence of a foreign policy executive at the helm of affairs, choosing engagement over estrangement will be as critical for short-term equity as it will for long-term security, provided it is anchored in a timeline of transactional conditionalities pertaining to border security, ground intelligence-sharing and sincere CT cooperation. The second is for the PML-N to wake up from behind the foreign policy wheel and steer an otherwise rudderless conversation with Washington, without which Pakistan’s role as a critical cog in the region’s CT machine will continue to find little purchase with global audiences.
The problem is that policy pathways in Kabul and beyond itself are increasingly obfuscated by maximalist power centers, many of which remain blind to the need to rollback terrorist traffic targeting Pakistani civilians. Even so, bilateral disengagement is counterproductive, especially when two states share a porous border (territorial recognition of which is in short supply) and a legacy of mutual disdain. While the punitive tactic of sealing the Pak-Afghan border has triggered a humanitarian crisis on both sides, and is costing both economies millions of dollars with each passing day, Kabul must also be made to realize the importance of equitably shouldering the moral responsibility of denying space to anti-Pakistan terror groups. In addition to the direct blowback of drugs, guns, militancy and social disorder, 76 terrorist financiers and facilitators from the Jamaat ul Ahrar and Lashkar-e-Islam franchises have opened up shop in the bordering enclaves of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan. Added to this is the regional presence of Daesh, which is escalating into something bigger than anything Islamabad or Kabul can confront alone by peddling soft-core CT policies. The attack on Sehwan Sharif, which killed 83 in February, is a reminder of what is at stake as Pakistan continues to single-handedly fight militancy, as is a recent attack this month on a military hospital in Kabul claimed by Daesh. Ergo, Kabul needs to shake off its old biases even as it continues to speak to the geopolitics of the last decade, and start speaking to this one. Nor must Karzai-era holdovers, which continue to wield significant influence over Kabul, be allowed to disrupt reconciliation bids.
If this were not enough, Pakistan must also contend with the slow-churn of America’s own political turmoil and tunneling CT vision on Capitol Hill. The default MO on DC circuits, to trash Pakistan for public and regional consumption, doesn’t help, and is getting old fast. With both defense and donor spotlights on Afghanistan dimming, and Washington choosing to unhelpfully brand Pakistan as part of a coalition of the unwilling, rather than the critical node of CT engagement it has been over the course of its past two civilian administrations, the fact remains that Pakistan remains the only country in the region with a decisive policy on terrorism, and a painstakingly built record of action-based CT successes. Pakistan also remains the only regional player to insist on an Afghan-led political solution to the crisis in Afghanistan, even as Kabul struggles to extend the writ of its state beyond its city limits, controlling or influencing just 52 percent of the nation’s districts today compared to 72 percent in 2015. An estimated 15 percent of Afghanistan’s districts have slipped from the government’s control over the past six months. Now, with Russia having upped its interest in Afghanistan in a manner that may favour the Taliban in the short term, a new Trump team must learn to work with and not against regional players to increase the costs of non-compliance on the Taliban. But again, for the peace to be won, Kabul will have to take the lead by riding on more than just a wing and a prayer. A starting point may be to ask whether the public rehabilitation of Hekmatyar and company was a one-off concession, or a potential roadmap that can be spun to wean off other groups from the broader insurgency.
With Moscow looking to create new roadmaps for reconciliation, it will also be important to ensure that the political dysfunctions of the QCG do not carry forward as new emerging stakeholders look to take on greater leadership roles in upcoming negotiation cycles. Simultaneously, the message that policing multiple revolving doors on the border is critical if there is to be peace in Pakistan must be clearly communicated at multiple levels to both Kabul and DC. Clear lines of policy coordination must also be laid out with Kabul in the search for complementary CT action on the opposite side of the border. And finally with the US cutting dangerously close to “do-more” speechmaking, America must be made to realise that the path to Kabul has to be paved with more than just good intentions. For all the players involved, Kabul included, that will mean going beyond fig leaves and white flags.
The writer works for Jinnah Institute. Twitter @fahdhumayun.