The trichotomic foundation and delicate dynamic of Asia’s three key countries; Pakistan, India and Afghanistan is one that is of great relevance to the region. With the withdrawal of boots on the ground and military presence of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, the West is now weaning the country off such dependence. Along with this withdrawal comes a hope and expectation for the most recently established Afghan government, to bear the responsibility of training their army and using all the available resources to deal with the still existing and ever terrifying reality of Taliban. However, this task does not come with a pre-existing agenda and requires certain resources- military, economic, social and diplomatic assistance- from regional allies and adversaries alike.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan share a border, this has only led to increased hostility between the two countries’ citizens and armies. The ‘Durand Line’ has been a point of contention, with the local population still facing tremendous difficulty in accepting the ‘arbitrary’ border drawing decision. The Hudson Institute very recently hosted an event on the Taliban in Afghanistan featuring Dr. Muhammad Taqi and the Afghan Ambassador to the United States, Hamdullah Mohib, and was moderated by Ambassador Husain Haqqani. Incidentally, this event was preceded by the killing of an important Taliban leader, Mullah Mansoor, and the start of the Afghan-Pak border skirmish at Torkham that has cost the lives of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the Durand Line. These two incidents helped set the tone and direction of most of the discussion that took place with a few important points that will be addressed.
The idea that Pakistan is willing to, and practically is turning a blind eye to Afghani Taliban on its soil is alarming and disturbing knowledge. Whilst it is not a surprise to most that Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence had notoriously allowed the Taliban to flourish in and across the border in the 1980’s, it is concerning that it is still home to the Jihadist ecosystem. The intellectual seed of these radical organizations has been sowed in areas of Pakistan in forms of institutions like madrassas (Islamic religious schools mainly containing Salafist and Wahabist teachings), which is extremely difficult to undo. This is indeed a huge question mark on Pakistan’s alleged role against the war on terror because as it seems, this sanctuary of radical programs has immense implications on the character and intentions of the Pakistani government. Here is where the idea of ‘strategic depth’ comes in.
The Pakistani military doctrine behind the concept of strategic depth basically suggests the transformation of Afghanistan into a client state that would essentially be subservient to Pakistan’s security agenda, especially with regards to the equation with India. The notion of making Afghanistan a “fifth province” that would allow Pakistan to run Afghanistan’s foreign policy to further its own agenda would mean that an unstable and unfriendly Afghanistan is preferable over a stable and friendly Afghanistan. Does this then explain why Pakistan has only been adamant and active in fighting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and not the Afghani Taliban? Why is it that Islamabad continues to miscalculate and undervalue the threat of Taliban from across the border, labeling the situation as “premature” when it comes to cracking down on them? Although it can be contemplated that strategic depth is an outdated concept, the Pakistani government has clearly not done enough to prove themselves otherwise. The very fact that Mullah Mansoor, an integral leader of the Afghani Taliban was killed in a drone strike on Pakistani soil is reminiscent of a more dramatic episode that took place in Abbottabad in 2011, killing Osama Bin Laden. The repetition is not only uncanny; it is a frustrating realization for the Afghanistan government that only confirms their apprehensions and adds to the already shaky relations between the two governments and their people.
Such hegemonic aspirations of a country which is only 69 years old is not only ambitious, but also a politically sensitive situation, in terms of the region’s balance of power. Whilst Afghanistan continues to further its bilateral ties with India leading to increased regional cooperation, it seems to be doing this without much concern for Pakistan’s feelings. This is something that Ambassador Mohib quite clearly addressed in his talk, making it known that Afghanistan is willing to cooperate with any partner who wants peace, and it will continue to further its bilateral relations whether those are with Pakistan or India, as long as Afghanistan’s efforts are reciprocated. He emphasized that a peaceful Afghanistan is in the favor of regional stability.
Lastly, the role of the United States is still, as always, an indispensable one. Even though the Pakistani people are the real brunt bearers of their regime’s decisions, in the end it will come down to convincing Pakistani authorities that its idea of strategic depth may be coming at a heavy cost, and that a policy reevaluation is essential; there is no ‘good Taliban’ or ‘bad Taliban. They are both an existential threat to the establishment of peaceful civilization in the region. To limit the leverage that it may have right now, Washington needs to set a price that Pakistan finds too high to keep them from playing this game, and if not, at least they can stop subsidizing it.