Has Pakistan’s Afghan policy really shifted?

Has Pakistan’s Afghan policy really shifted?

By Javid Ahmad and Daniel Twining

Since the 1970s, Pakistan has approached Afghanistan through a doctrine of strategic depth. The latest incarnation of its longstanding Afghan policy, directed from military headquarters in Rawalpindi, has been to prop up the Afghan Taliban as a means of extorting concessions from Kabul or even toppling the pro-Western Afghan government altogether.

However, recent good-faith gestures by Pakistan — freeing influential former Taliban officials and reaching out to the non-Pashtun leaders from the erstwhile Northern Alliance — have been widely interpreted to signal a perceived shift in its Afghanistan policy. The change in Pakistan is emanating from Rawalpindi, which the civilian government in Islamabad gingerly follows. For years, Pakistan has hesitated or refused to release Afghan Taliban leaders to participate in talks on a political settlement to the Afghan conflict. Surprisingly, it is now pushing for reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government via a peace roadmap by 2015.

These breakthroughs raise the inevitable question: Is this a real strategic shift, or merely a tactical response to current circumstances? While Pakistan has many real reasons to alter its longstanding Afghan policy and truly abandon strategic depth, several factors may explain Rawalpindi’s new approach to its neighbor.

First, radical Islamic ideals that appeal to unemployed youth are now also affecting lower-level members of Pakistan’s military. Although this blowback effect has not yet been turned into tangible threats within the military, Pakistan continues to address the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. Mindful of this reality, Pakistan’s fretful military realizes that if this trend continues, it will most likely create subversive insiders in the force that will threaten its stability from within.

Second, Pakistan has been made a part of the regional peace framework via the Istanbul Process. Despite its intransigence over engaging in genuine regional cooperation, recent nudges from regional governments through the Istanbul Process have pressured Pakistan to become a more active and constructive partner in the effort. Pakistani hesitation to work collaboratively with its neighbors is driven largely by concerns about the deeper role India could play in any regional framework, augmenting its rising influence across Afghanistan.

However, growing distrust between Rawalpindi and the Afghan Taliban and heightening home-grown insurgency now supersede anxieties about India. The soaring number of Taliban attacks on Pakistan’s security forces and military installations, coupled with the alarming number of casualties the army and civilians endure every month, not only has troubled Pakistan but also signifies that its nexus with the Taliban may not be entirely fruitful. Most vitally, Rawalpindi is uneasy about the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and the northern frontier becoming a safe haven for various Taliban groups joining forces against Pakistan.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe that any shift in Pakistan’s policy is short-term and tactical.

First, several of Pakistan’s political parties are now supporting radicalization and flirting with jihadi mindsets. Most recently, Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, claimed that the Taliban are fighting a "jihad" in Afghanistan that is justified by Islamic law. Such public statements in support of criminal activities are not only misguided, but also inspire violent extremist ideologies that mislead uneducated and impressionable Pakistani youth and provide a space for insurgents to recruit. Unless this attitude changes, the viability of any positive policy shift is questionable at best.

Second, the media in Pakistan, rather than being a force broadly supportive of peace and stability in Afghanistan, often does the opposite. A broad cross-section of Pakistani media links the impending troop withdrawal directly with the United States’ failure in Afghanistan. Elements in the mainstream media are also raising paranoia and anti-Americanism among the people, while openly advocating the insurgency next door.

Third, even if Rawalpindi’s change of posture is sincere, the shadow of history in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations hampers this policy shift. The underlying thinking in Rawalpindi may well be that it can still achieve its traditional goals through different means. Most Afghans remain highly skeptical of Pakistan’s goals in their country, recognizing that Rawalpindi is unlikely to abandon its long-held objectives in Afghanistan, particularly at a time when Western forces are drawing down.

Perhaps most importantly, there most likely will be no positive shift in Pakistan’s strategy unless and until it genuinely supports political inclusivity in Afghanistan. Despite its recent overtures to some of the non-Pashtun political leaders, Pakistan still seeks a pliant government in Kabul through its privileged relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan has to do more to overcome the considerable mistrust it carries among non-Pashtun groups in order to facilitate any policy shift.

While there may be a realization in Rawalpindi that its current Afghan strategy has not succeeded, there are few tangible signs of an actual policy shift. While it remains to be seen how ongoing events will unfold in coming months, perhaps one of the most visible shortcomings of the peace roadmap is the absence of contingency plans should reconciliation not proceed as envisaged.

Kabul must carefully review the terms of the negotiations, resist the temptation of trailing into and accepting conditions that privilege Pakistani interests at the expense of Afghan sovereignty, and avoid reaching a hasty, high-risk peace deal that could potentially compromise the security of the Afghan people. Pakistan’s recent gestures are a good sign, but given its history in Afghanistan, regrettably these signals do not appear entirely reassuring.

Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views reflected here are his own.