There’s no alternative to the Ghani initiative.
On Aug. 30, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told Newsweek that Pakistan’s “extensive dossier” on India’s covert activities against Pakistan would be shared with Susan Rice, the U.S. national-security adviser, who was visiting Islamabad and Rawalpindi. But Asif was not part of the happenings that day; he was in Sialkot tending to his constituents. No statement from Rice or her staff mentions either the dossier or Pakistan-India relations.
According to U.S. and Pakistani officials, Rice discussed Afghanistan (Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, the Haqqani network, rising levels of violence in Afghanistan and the threat to regional peace) and invited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the White House in October. Her message was clear: Pakistan must move against the Haqqani network. The implication being that Operation Zarb-e-Azb hasn’t taken on that group. Rice also made plain that the recent attacks in Kabul were carried out by Haqqani fighters and were unacceptable.
Pakistani officials (the Army, really) had their own complaints. Sources say Rice was told about Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in the eastern and northeastern provinces of Afghanistan and the reluctance of Kabul to take out Pakistani Taliban emir Mullah Fazlullah. They also complained about elements within Kabul (both in the National Directorate of Security and the political opposition to President Ashraf Ghani) that are making every effort to derail Ghani’s reach-out to Pakistan and Islamabad’s Murree effort to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. They also expressed displeasure at Ghani’s using the media to lash out at Pakistan. Rice was also told that the leak by the NDS of Mullah Omar’s death was designed to sabotage the second round of talks in Murree between the Kabul government and the Afghan Taliban. She was also informed that the Haqqani network’s top leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is now the No. 2 of Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who, despite opposition from Omar’s son and the Qatar-based Taliban faction, supports talks.
Afghanistan is not a linear affair and Pakistan is not the only actor responsible for streamlining it. Not enough is being done by the U.S. and Kabul. On any given day, one can draw up a list of all that has been wrong with U.S. policy. But two important factors need to be put on the table.
One, for all the years that the U.S. was actively present in Afghanistan, Islamabad continued to play the spoiler and signaled that it could—but would not—deliver until it had got a seat at the table. This is where the second factor comes in. Ghani assessed Pakistan and its concerns correctly. He took two important steps: moving away from India to allay Pakistan’s fear of Indian influence in Kabul, and reaching out to Pakistan to give it the role Islamabad had been asking for.
In return, Ghani wanted Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table and ensure that the level of violence in Afghanistan came down visibly. In the short term, it’s relative peace that Ghani requires to survive the piranha-infested political waters in Kabul. He took a big political risk by reaching out to Pakistan; there’s any number of political and other actors in Kabul’s diffused power configuration that were and remain opposed to Ghani’s Pakistan initiative.
Ghani put the ball in Pakistan’s court but didn’t get much out of it. Not because Pakistan didn’t play straight with him but because, in reality, Pakistan does not have the kind of leverage it has been marketing. Partially, this has to do with the ground situation. The Taliban are not a monolith any more. While most of the old guard stayed in Pakistan, rather comfortably, the ground saw the emergence of local commanders who actually did the fighting and thus acquired their own clout and carved out their own satrapies.
In many ways, the Haqqanis are the only ones who provided frontline leadership, which is one reason that Mansoor aimed to strengthen his hand by pulling Sirajuddin to his side. How does Pakistan move against the Haqqani network when Mansoor’s group is the only bet, so far, for negotiations with Kabul?
This is just one part of the problem. Another has to do with the stalled talks. With the NDS outing news of Omar’s death and the internal disarray it has caused, how does Mansoor remain relevant in the short term? Presumably: by ratcheting up violence against Kabul to seek legitimacy with the outliers before he can get enough support to start talks again. This is precisely what Ghani thinks is unacceptable because higher levels of violence play into the hands of his opponents and makes his Pakistan policy look flawed and hasty.
Not least ironically, it’s not just some of the hardline Taliban groups that want to continue fighting. Elements opposed to Ghani’s Pakistan initiative constitute the other group that would like to benefit from the violence to discredit Ghani’s policy. If violence were actually to come down and talks got underway, they would lose out to Ghani. That would make them politically weak and irrelevant and, conversely, make Ghani stronger. So they will continue to play spoilers.
The situation is complex but that does not absolve Pakistan of its responsibility to formulate a policy that seeks to exploit the leverage it has got through the Ghani initiative. The implication of this argument is that it would be naive on Pakistan’s part, after having played the spoiler, to now express surprise and dismay at other spoilers. Pakistan’s policy cannot—and should not—remain confined to simply pointing to and complaining about the spoilers. Instead, Islamabad should factor them in.
Ghani’s Pakistan initiative is on the ventilator and reviving it will be no easy challenge. Yet, there’s no alternative to the process he started. The foremost step should be to open the backchannel and restore confidence. That would require a realistic, frank assessment of what can and cannot be done immediately. There will be violence but there should be some mechanism for handling its fallout. That could include an understanding that both sides will let off steam publicly but stay engaged behind the scenes.
At the same time, Pakistan will have to lean heavily, as much as it can, on the Afghan Taliban to ensure that they rein in whatever groups need to be put on a tighter leash to give Ghani a respite and to restart talks. One of the biggest mistakes for both sides would be to get into blame-game mode and allow a further slide. That’s something neither can afford.
From our Sept. 5-12, 2015, issue. Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider