Article initially posted in The Indian Express
The Heart of Asia (HOAC) Conference, jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Pakistani capital Islamabad last week, was bookended by two devastating terrorist attacks in Kandahar and Kabul. As the Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani was being honored with a 21-gun salute in Islamabad, the Taliban were in the midst of a 20-hour-long assault on Kandahar airport that killed at least 54 and injured dozens more. And before the ink dried on the HOAC pledges the Taliban penetrated the relatively secure diplomatic enclave in Kabul in a brazen attack on the Spanish embassy in which 8 people perished. The Afghan High Peace Council called it a slap in the face of the peace process. The Taliban, which has formally claimed both attacks, is clearly sticking to the fight-talk-fight strategy even in the winter months, which generally bring a relative lull in the violence in Afghanistan. That the Taliban chose a key conference on peace to shed blood from Kandahar to Kabul is not only the jihadist group’s way of painting the Afghan government as weak but is the harbinger of yet another bloody spring and summer fighting season come Nowruz, the Afghan New Year 2016.
The HOAC, known alternatively as the Istanbul process, has been underway since 2011 predominantly on the Afghan initiative but has not been able to evolve into a tangible mechanism to deliver and measure steps towards peace in Afghanistan. Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s speech at the recent conference alluded to this shortcoming and called for developing what he described as verifiable mechanisms counter the jihadist terror threat, which he cast in regional rather than country-specific terms. The Afghan president was careful in choosing his words in Islamabad but not so much when giving interviews toGerman and French media a couple of weeks prior where he clearly stated that “Pakistan was in a state of undeclared war against Afghanistan” and “a major trust deficit” exists between his country and its eastern neighbor. Whether one conference, actually fifth in the HOAC series, can bridge that mistrust chasm seems highly unlikely, Dr. Ghani’s optimism notwithstanding. The Afghan officials attribute the ‘success’ of the conference to several factors: 1) Pakistani Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif acknowledging Afghanistan’s sovereignty and its central government and constitution in his speech; 2) the US and China acting as guarantors for the peace negotiations with what they term as ‘reconcilable’ Taliban and oppose – through all available means- the irreconcilable ones who do not fall in line; 3) commitment for a high-level meeting in early 2016 to draw a region-wide comprehensive counterterrorism and security strategy.
To the Afghan officials the litmus test of the seriousness and sincerity of the Pakistani side would be whether it is willing to restrain the Taliban, especially its Haqqani network affiliate, from conducting large scale attacks against at least the civilians if not the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The bloodbath at the Kandahar airport and then Kabul appears to have already betrayed the newfound Afghan trust at least in the capacity, if not the will, of the Pakistani security establishment to rein in the Taliban. The chief of Afghan National Security Directorate (NDS), General Rahmatullah Nabil took to Facebook to post a scathing critique of not just Pakistan but also of President Ghani, chiding the latter for letting ‘the 5000-year-old Afghan history kneel before a 60-year-old Pakistan’. The Afghan intelligence chief followed his Facebook political salvo with aresignation blaming the president for interfering in his work and asking Nabil to step down. Needless to say Dr. Ghani accepted the resignation promptly. Under ordinary circumstances a spy chief picking up a tiff with his boss might not have made much of news but General Nabil’s resignation sent the Afghan rumor mills in an overdrive with the media asking if he was fired on Pakistan’s behest. A visibly upset Dr. Ashraf Ghani formally denied the charge but the die seems to have been cast.
The Afghan media then reported that Dr. Ashraf Ghani conceded way too much in Islamabad without getting little if anything in return. Aleaked news was cited through which Pakistan has apparently demanded that Dr. Ghani act against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allegedly hiding in Afghanistan, restrain the “anti-Pakistan rhetoric and individuals” in government and media, accept the disputed Durand Line as the formal border between the two countries, limit Indian influence in Afghanistan, and deny support to Baloch separatists and Pashtun nationalist in Pakistan. This litany of Pakistani demands, which the Afghan government has not yet denied was made of it, means that we are back to square one in the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship despite the fanfare at the HOAC. This is theexact same list of demands that Pakistan’s successive military dispensations from General Pervez Musharraf to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani have been making overt the past 14 years; nothing seems to have changed under its incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif. Pakistan this month marks the anniversary of a deadly TTP attack on the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar, Pakistan. The APS tragedy is supposed to have been a watershed moment in Pakistan’s counterterrorism effort after which the country would not differentiate between the so-called ‘good Taliban’ who fight against Afghanistan vs. the ‘bad Taliban’, who attack the Pakistani state. While the Pakistani military operations have degraded the TTP’s capacity to launch massive attacks inside Pakistan, many of the jihadist cadres have been pushed over into Afghanistan, which was also pointed out by Dr. Ghani in his HOAC speech. Additionally, while the Pakistani military spokesman claims that over 21000 terrorists have been captured and another 3400 killed, no foreign or domestic media persons have been able to verify that claim. Similarly, there is no evidence whatsoever that a single high-ranking Afghan Taliban or Haqqani network leader was apprehended in the 18 months of Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb military operation.
Combined with Pakistani assertion that it has done enough to hamper the capacity of the Afghan Taliban and its Haqqani network associates to attack Afghanistan, Islamabad’s demands seem to have put the onus of securing peace wholly on Kabul. And that fits well with the pattern of Pakistan’s peace pledges to Afghanistan, whichstart before the first snow and melt away with the first thaw, making way for the brutal Taliban attacks. Pakistan has never had a political ally in Afghanistan and has thus never been keen on a political solution. The closest Pakistan came to having a political partner was the vicious fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hikmatyar in the 1970s-1990s. What is at stake, however, come spring 2016 is not just the military gains that the US, ISAF and ANDSF have made over the years but also the political future of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) that Dr. Ashraf Ghani heads. The Afghan president is bound to face a serious backlash when Pakistan reneges on the pledges made at HOAC. The Afghan political opposition is wary of Dr. Ashraf Ghani putting all his eggs in Pakistan’s basket yet again. Dr. Ghani’s attempt in May 2015 to have the NDS surreptitiously sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Pakistani intelligence service ISI had backfired badly. Many Afghans, including those close to the former president Mr. Hamid Karzai, see Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s trust in Pakistan, without the verification he had pledged, as another MoU-like disaster in making.
The difference this time around is that Dr. Ghani has almost no political capital to squander. The November 2015 massive protests in Kabul in the aftermath of the ISIS massacre of the Hazaras showed that Dr. Ghani is on thin political ice. And this is not lost on Pakistan and Pakistan-backed Taliban, who would love to plunge Kabul into political chaos at a time of their choosing. What Dr. Ghani may have done inadvertently is to bring Pakistan out of a relative diplomatic cold. Similarly, the Indian foreign minister Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s participation may also reinforce the thinking in Pakistan that it can get away with the Mumbai-like attacks in due course of time. The international powers like the US and Britain have been leaning on Afghanistan to engage with Pakistan without ever holding Pakistan’s feet to diplomatic fire over its backing of the Afghan Taliban. The international guarantors can certainly play a major role in monitoring and ensuring non-interference from either side, as Dr. Ghani has asserted. But then again the international guarantors and the principles of non-interference and non-intervention were hallmarks of the May 1988 Pak-Afghan Geneva Accords and yet the undeclared war on Afghanistan has continued unabated since. Unless the Afghan president is able to convince Afghanistan’s international friends to stop evaluating it through a Pakistani lens the attacks like Kabul and Kandahar are likely to continue. Hopefully, Dr. Ghani has secured more than the hollow assurances of non-interference lest the heart of Asia is to continue bleeding.