The South Asia Channel

Too Late To Tango? Ashraf Ghani’s Risky Outreach To Pakistan

A resurgence of fighting may mean Ghani's strategy of reaching out to Pakistan is too late. But did he have other options?

CAMP DAVID, MD - MARCH 23:  Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani makes a brief statement to the news media before starting talks at Camp David March 23, 2015 in Camp David, Maryland. After a series of meetings about security, economic development, American support for the Afghan-led reconciliation process, the four leaders will hold a news conference.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MARCH 23: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani makes a brief statement to the news media before starting talks at Camp David March 23, 2015 in Camp David, Maryland. After a series of meetings about security, economic development, American support for the Afghan-led reconciliation process, the four leaders will hold a news conference. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Afghan Taliban have announced their spring offensive and followed it up with spectacular attacks around the country. This puts Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a bind, given that he had gone out on a limb to reenergize the peace process with the Taliban by engaging with Pakistan. Does the renewed spring fighting in Afghanistan mean that his strategy has failed?

Ghani’s likely diagnosis is that the enduring Taliban insurgency is a symptom of an undeclared but constant state of hostility between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is precisely because he believes that Pakistan is the problem that he is trying to address it. His gamble is that if he can satisfy Pakistan’s main concerns regarding Afghanistan, then Pakistan may force the Afghan Taliban to strike a political deal with Kabul.

Ghani’s move is probably more a reflection of his lack of alternatives than any liking for Pakistan or naiveté about how much he can trust his neighbor. It is nonetheless a dramatic departure from former President Hamid Karzai’s policy of trying to coerce Pakistan into giving up support for the Taliban or attempting to engage with the Taliban without Pakistan’s support. Over the past decade, Pakistan has been able to maintain the Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries and thwart attempts at peace talks when it wanted to.

Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan policy has long been driven by four basic considerations, which have never properly been understood by Washington or others. Foremost, for Pakistan, Afghanistan remained a playground for its larger regional competition with its traditional foe, India. At no cost would Pakistan’s leaders allow India to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. By extension, Pakistan did not want a government in Kabul that was sympathetic to India, or any other regional player, to the point that it appeared antagonistic towards them. Third, Pakistan recognized that it could not openly defy the world’s only superpower — and was also benefiting greatly from its funding — and so it wanted to achieve the first two goals while remaining part of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. And finally, it did not want any development in Afghanistan or any of its own policy choices to increase the risk of domestic instability within its borders.

From Islamabad’s perspective, the U.S. reaction to 9/11 provoked its worst fears: the growing warmth of the Indo-U.S. relationship, Pakistan’s view of Karzai as a pro-India leader who used Pakistan as a scapegoat for his internal policy failures, and a massive terrorist backlash within Pakistan that Islamabad considered to be a spillover of U.S. policies in Afghanistan and its own need to back the United States. And so, while continuing to offer significant tactical counter-terrorism support to the U.S.-led “global war on terror,” the underlying logic of Pakistani policy during the Karzai years was to accept, or even to abet, controlled chaos in Afghanistan as a means of keeping itself relevant and preventing a comfortable existence for actors that it feared would undermine its interests in Afghanistan and the South Asian region.

Ghani moved to address Pakistan’s concerns on all four counts. First, he has continued to defend his strategy and has been praising Pakistan’s support in private and public. Second, by suspending an arms deal with India he has indicated that he will not try to play the two countries against each other, as Karzai did. It was interesting to note that even during his recent visit to India, he seemed to pay particular attention to how his statements would be received in Islamabad. Third, with the United States continuing to withdraw while backing the idea of a peace process, Kabul and Islamabad are finally able to engage in a rapprochement that eliminates Pakistan’s perpetual worry that Washington would provide it no space on the negotiating table where Afghanistan’s future might be decided. And finally, Kabul’s principal ask is no longer for Pakistan to militarily go after the Afghan Taliban, it is to get them to the negotiating table.

The new phase got off to a positive start. In the months that have followed Ghani’s initial overtures to Pakistan, there have been intense military-to-military exchanges as well as cooperation on intelligence. Pakistan’s North Waziristan operation appeared to have disrupted the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which has been so deadly in Afghanistan. Earlier in the year, many in Kabul attributed the dip in suicide attacks to Pakistan at least momentarily staying the hand of the Haqqanis. Talks have just been held in Doha, Qatar between representatives of the Taliban and Ghani’s government (individuals attending in their personal capacities), a possible hint that Ghani and the Pakistani military have reached an understanding on how to move forward.

Ghani’s political calculus depends on Pakistan’s willingness and ability to push the Taliban to negotiate seriously. This is surely a high-risk strategy because of Pakistan’s traditional spoiling role in Afghanistan. But a more worrying concern is that even if Pakistan had the desire, it lacks the ability to force the Taliban to make a deal that the insurgency considers to be against its interest.

Ghani is clearly not willing to give up on his strategy yet — despite the Taliban’s offensive. During his recent trip to India, he signaled a willingness to stick with his approach through this year. This could be because he has worked out a longer timeline with Pakistan to test its sincerity than many have the patience for.

That said, if there is no follow-up to the Doha talks, and violence in Afghanistan continues to rise, domestic opponents of Ghani’s policy in Afghanistan — which include still-powerful figures like Karzai — may turn up the heat on the Afghan president for having given so much and received so little.

In other words, resolving the Pakistan puzzle, even if possible, may no longer be sufficient. This is because the nature of fighting in Afghanistan is clearly changing. The presence of Pakistani Taliban on Afghan soil, pushed there as a result of Pakistan’s North Waziristan operation, as well as groups identifying themselves as the “Islamic State” — which are likely breakaway groups of the Afghan Taliban — mean the existence of new, autonomous groups that are less likely to negotiate, or splinter groups that have explicitly repudiated their links with the Quetta-based Taliban leadership.

Then there is the issue of the Quetta-based Taliban’s own calculations. It is not entirely clear what the negotiation process could deliver for the Taliban that will be attractive enough for them to lay down arms. If the Taliban leadership does not see significant returns from the process, and meanwhile note that the process is creating divisions in their ranks, they may determine that their only real option is to continue to try and destabilize the Kabul government through violence. The attraction of this strategy would only increase if the perception grows that the national unity government in Kabul is likely to fail. This is one area where the international community can be helpful: by providing the diplomatic, financial, and military support to counter the perception that the unity government will collapse, and thereby preventing hedging strategies by Afghan political actors that could hasten that collapse.

Afghanistan and Pakistan’s recent entente may be too little too late to work, but there don’t seem to be many other options for Ghani. But not allowing Ghani a chance to take his effort to its logical conclusion is only making failure a self-fulfilling prophesy. We can all be at least as patient as Ghani.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Scott Smith is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.

Moeed Yusuf is the associate vice president at the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia. The book examines crises between regional nuclear powers and specifically the role of stronger third parties in crisis management. This article draws on and extends the findings of the book.

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