The South Asia Channel

Islamabad’s (Charm) Offensive

Talk to most any Afghan, and you’ll get an earful about how Pakistan has treated its smaller neighbor: the use of proxies, the tendency to see Afghan Pashtuns as pliant Pakistanis-in-waiting rather than independent political actors, and the persistent fixation on the Indian presence in Afghanistan. These criticisms, while often legitimate, overlook what has been ...

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Talk to most any Afghan, and you’ll get an earful about how Pakistan has treated its smaller neighbor: the use of proxies, the tendency to see Afghan Pashtuns as pliant Pakistanis-in-waiting rather than independent political actors, and the persistent fixation on the Indian presence in Afghanistan. These criticisms, while often legitimate, overlook what has been a relatively sophisticated and restrained diplomatic strategy by Pakistan over the last couple of years. As part of what appears to be a coordinated campaign by both diplomats and the military, Pakistan has made efforts to minimize border tensions and go out of its way in public to emphasize its deference to Afghan sovereignty.

Talk, of course, is cheap. Many Afghans simply do not take Pakistan’s pronouncements at face value. Decades of border tensions over the disputed Durand Line, public accusations about each countries’ respective links to Islamist groups, and personality clashes have clearly bred mistrust. Most recently, the Afghan intelligence service directly fingered Pakistan for the deadly attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul. All the same, Islamabad’s charm offensive has helped to keep Afghanistan-Pakistan relations from deteriorating into overt dysfunctionality — for now.

Pakistan’s leaders, as uncertain as anyone about the outcome of the upcoming Afghan elections, appear to have adopted a wait-and-see approach, keeping tensions with Afghanistan under control, while quietly retaining longstanding links to reliable proxies.

What are the chances that this approach will change once the results of the Afghan elections — which might not be known until run-offs conclude in late spring or early summer — finally become clear? In the short term, the election outcome is unlikely to precipitate a shift in Islamabad’s posture toward Kabul — with one notable exception.

The Abdullah Outlier

That exception has a name: Abdullah Abdullah. Of mixed Pashtun and Tajik descent, Abdullah is viewed by Islamabad as a Tajik partisan who is closer to India, more bitterly opposed to the Taliban, and more fundamentally hostile to Pakistani influence in Afghanistan than any of the other leading presidential candidates. (These views are not without warrant: Abdullah was a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose Northern Alliance received support from India; and he sent his family to New Delhi when the Taliban came to power.) Although they are loathe to admit it, the Pakistanis see an Abdullah victory as a very bad outcome, and one to which they might be forced to reevaluate their wait-and-see posture.

Polling in Afghanistan, while not highly reliable, suggests that an Abdullah victory is at least a distinct possibility. Moreover, the recent death of Vice President Mohammad Fahim may serve to consolidate the Tajik vote, further boosting Abdullah’s prospects. Setting aside whether an Abdullah victory would be good for Afghan politics and governance, it should be an unsettling prospect for U.S. policymakers. Pakistan may well hold a caricatured view of Abdullah’s pro-Tajik and pro-India orientation, underestimating the degree to which he would adopt conciliatory big-tent politics as president, but perception itself can be a powerful driver of Pakistani strategic behavior.

Perhaps even more than the possibility of post-election chaos in Afghanistan, an Abdullah win might spur Islamabad to begin aggressively hedging its bets — leveraging the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and its own intelligence operatives to mobilize against the reemergence of a pro-India Tajik-dominated government. Such a Pakistani response might be enough to raise the new Indian government from its policy stupor and precipitate a quiet but dangerous proxy escalation in Afghanistan.

Would this happen quickly? Probably not. Any changes to Islamabad’s deferential diplomatic posture may well lag behind the introduction of more intentional and covert on-the-ground hedging. But a win by Abdullah, in contrast to the other leading candidates, is most likely to give the Pakistani government incentives to pivot from a wait-and-watch posture to something more proactive.

About Those MRAPs

There are a host of other more practical ways in which the Afghan election may shape Afghan-Pakistani relations. The election outcome, for example, may well influence the transfer of materiel from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. The Washington Post recently reported that 20 countries, including Pakistan, have expressed an interest in mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles from U.S. stocks. (It remains unclear how many of these are still in Afghanistan, though the majority appear to have been returned to the continental United States.) These vehicles would be made available through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) process on an "as-is, where-is" basis, meaning that the U.S. government sells them without warranty or delivery.

For Pakistan, MRAPs are more than a prestige purchase. The Pakistani military has faced a serious threat from militants employing roadside bombs — even while it has been accused of not doing enough to stymie the flow of so-called precursor materials, such as calcium ammonium nitrate, originating in Pakistani territory. Even if Afghan EDA were made available, Pakistan would have to consider whether it really wants to assume the heavy financial and maintenance costs associated with taking on a fleet of ageing, battered MRAPs.

But there is also a political dimension to all of this. Left unsaid in the Post article is the fact that Afghanistan may have a say over whether MRAPs or other EDA equipment may be removed from its territory for transfer to a third party. Under the typical "as-is, where-is" rules governing EDA, Pakistan would have to inspect and claim the equipment in Afghanistan, and then arrange for its onward transport to Pakistani territory — a process that requires acquiescence from the government of Afghanistan. Even though U.S. Defense Department officials insist that the Afghan security forces do not need and cannot sustainably maintain any more military vehicles, many Afghans would like to keep as much equipment as possible, and failing that, would like to keep it from the hands of the Pakistanis.

There may be workarounds, but they could prove expensive or politically thorny in other ways. In theory, the U.S. military could transport the equipment on Pakistan’s behalf, but it would bear the cost and also incur the resentment of Kabul. Alternately, the United States could stage some of the equipment elsewhere in the region, but that too comes with financial and political costs. There is already some opposition in U.S. policy circles to transferring any more military assets to Pakistan, and this opposition would almost certainly increase if the United States had to incur costs in connection to the transfers.

The Post article also drew attention in the region, leading to a series of conflicting reports about possible EDA transfers from Afghanistan. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) released a statement clarifying that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan "does not provide or intend to provide any such equipment, including MRAPs, from Afghanistan to Pakistan." There was a pointed declaration from the upper house of the Afghan parliament decrying any possible transfer as a "breach of agreement in the war on terror." The Pakistani defense secretary, for his part, expressed optimism that the transfers would still take place. Most recently, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad issued a release noting that final determinations of EDA have yet to be made, and that if approved, EDA "is likely to be sourced from U.S. stock outside Afghanistan."

Whether the EDA is sourced directly from Afghanistan, or from other staging sites in the region or the continental United States, it would still present Washington with political challenges. Most likely, the ISAF statement was designed to ensure that talk about equipment transfers (a low ISAF priority) does not impede progress on facilitating a "constructive bilateral relationship" between Afghanistan and Pakistan (a high ISAF priority).

Ultimately, whether Pakistan gets MRAPs or other excess equipment may depend not only on how many are left in-country when — or if — a bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul gets signed, but on the tenor of the Afghan-Pakistani diplomatic relationship in the weeks following the upcoming election. In the end, it may be Afghan politics more than U.S. policy that sets the conditions for the disposition of this equipment, and signals in the early days after the election how Kabul intends to deal with its larger neighbor.

Joshua T. White, PhD, is the Deputy Director for South Asia at the Stimson Center. He previously served as Senior Advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuatwhite.

Tag: AfPak
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