All Roads Lead to Islamabad

If the killing of peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani and the attacks on Kabul tell us anything, it's that peace in Afghanistan will only come when Pakistan wants it.


It has been a rough couple of weeks for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The Obama administration’s reconciliation and transition efforts and parallel attempts to repair U.S.-Pakistan relations faced fresh challenges as the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was implicated in major attacks against the United States, NATO, and Afghanistan.  

On Sept. 14, six insurgents launched a 20-hour siege on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul. American officials subsequently assigned responsibility for the attacks to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, just four days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar met at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York to reset frayed U.S.-Pakistan relations. Although some discussion during that meeting addressed a reposturing of the U.S. presence in Pakistan, Clinton primarily reiterated the message already conveyed by top officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen: Pakistan must stop supporting the Haqqani network or else.

On Sept. 17, Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani spoke with Reuters in a rare telephone interview in which he allegedly claimed that his group no longer resides in Pakistan’s sanctuaries. It had moved to Afghanistan, he claimed, where it enjoyed the support of senior military and police officials. Haqqani also said that his group would partake in peace talks with the U.S. and Afghan governments — as long as the Taliban did. But a few days later, on Sept. 20, a suicide bomber thought to be negotiating on behalf of the Taliban assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, a former president of Afghanistan, and head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Initial information alludes to the Haqqani network’s involvement in this attack as well.

So what should we make of all this? Are any real efforts at peace negotiations now dead and buried? The escalations of violence coupled with attempts at diplomatic overtures are emblematic of the underpinnings of the reconciliation effort as defined by the United States: support dialogue, but keep the pressure on. Recent public statements by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker confirm U.S. support for this approach, but the accommodation of this strategy by the Taliban and associated groups suggests that they are beating the United States at its own counterwarfare narrative. This is not to suggest that the current dialogue is wholly legitimate or reconciliation-worthy. Haqqani’s comments should be taken with a grain of salt. He and his father have carefully cultivated relationships with local groups in Pakistan that will not diminish quickly. There is also fresh debate on the Haqqani network’s ideological links with al Qaeda and whether they are so strong that they prevent the type of political resolution the Afghan and U.S. governments seek with the Taliban.

But what’s clear is that Pakistan is at the heart of any possible peace negotiations. As Panetta remarked following the Sept. 14 Kabul attack, "Time and again we’ve urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis, and we have made very little progress in that area…. We’re not going to allow these types of attacks to go on." How far would the United States go to prevent such attacks? Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Sept. 16 that unilateral action in Pakistan by the United States should not be ruled out. The reality is, however, that the United States needs Pakistan, not least for logistics support for the estimated 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

That being said, Rabbani’s death and the attacks on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters come at a time of great transition for the United States in Afghanistan, but more importantly in its relationship with Pakistan. U.S. policymakers and Congress have reached their limits in overlooking Islamabad’s tacit relationships with militant groups in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. Doing so comes at too great a cost to the continuing efforts in Afghanistan, not to mention President Barack Obama’s planned force drawdown. The United States will no longer tolerate Pakistan’s rumored role in these attacks; but the reality on the ground indicates that Pakistan’s patience with the United States has also run out.

Fresh public criticism in Pakistan of the United States reflects the view that Washington is failing in Afghanistan and, as a result, continues to desperately use Pakistan as a scapegoat; hence the continued attempts to "corner" Pakistan regarding its support of the Haqqani network. Privately, however, the view espoused by the Pakistani political and military establishment remains that Washington has excluded Islamabad from a seat at the negotiating table and, as a result, Pakistan has no choice but to continue to hedge against a reconciliation process that potentially does not work in its favor. Chief among Pakistan’s fears is that the Afghan government would look favorably toward India, allowing for an expanded Indian diplomatic and development presence in Afghanistan that would threaten Pakistan’s sense of security. Ultimately, Pakistan’s recurring links to attacks on U.S. and Afghan interests signal Islamabad’s view that the United States cannot go at it without Pakistan — if the United States continues to exclude it from peace talks with the Taliban, Pakistan can undo the entire process.

With regard to Rabbani specifically, the official Pakistani view will recall that he was warmly welcomed in Islamabad as part of the High Peace Council’s efforts to engage Pakistan on reconciliation — something it thinks the United States has sorely failed to do. Nonetheless, the perception in Pakistan was that his Northern Alliance affiliation and non-Pashtun status could have worked at odds with Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghan President Hamid Karzai may feel pressure to appoint an ethnic Pashtun as Rabbani’s replacement, or at least someone more in Pakistan’s favor.

Beyond Pakistan, Rabbani’s death is a hugely symbolic blow to the public image of Afghan-led reconciliation — with strategic implications for Karzai’s efforts to garner public support for a return of the Taliban into Afghan political life. The High Peace Council’s efforts provided public diplomatic cover for evolving private negotiations. They also incorporated regional actors and reconciled, moderate Taliban into discussions, allowing Karzai to show the Afghan public that the Taliban may be willing to talk under certain conditions — and that the region could be engaged positively on Afghanistan’s future.

Rabbani’s death challenges these notions. It limits the political space within which Karzai can convince multiple competing actors to subscribe to reconciliation, ensure a smooth transition from International Security Assistance Force control to an Afghan lead, and secure a deal on what Karzai views as a personal legacy issue. These multiple actors include Northern Alliance groups that view Taliban and Pakistan involvement in reconciliation with continued suspicion. The increased frequency of attacks linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence will only harden these groups’ calculus toward Pakistan, against Karzai’s reconciliation efforts, and increase their tilt toward India and Iran. As a result, U.S. regional engagement efforts are likely to become infinitely more complex. Washington already struggles with a severe lack of engagement with Iran and an inability to balance the competing interests of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. These dynamics also stand to derail ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan (which to date has produced minimal tangible results), but have the potential to increase confidence on both sides regarding their respective policies in Afghanistan.

Rabbani’s death and other recent attacks also reveal the increased strength of Taliban penetration into Afghan security, police, and government circles, serving as reminders to others involved in reconciliation that their lives are potentially endangered. As for Afghan’s tribal political calculus, Rabbani’s death may adversely impact the involvement of Tajiks in the peace process and possibly worsen tensions between Pashtuns and Tajiks, which could threaten prospects for a reconciliation process that adequately represents Afghanistan’s minority interests. The irony, however, is that the practical implications of Rabbani’s death are less significant: The High Peace Council was never all that empowered as a negotiating force by the Karzai government and was never recognized by the Taliban as such.

Ultimately, these grim events reaffirm the view that the path to reconciliation in Kabul runs through Islamabad — and Pakistan aims to make sure that the United States knows this full well.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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