Since the summer of 2018, the United States has been negotiating a deal with the Taliban that would facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, initiate a ceasefire, forge a counter-terrorism understanding between the two warring parties, and kick-start the intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban has so far refused to engage in formal negotiations with the Afghan government but they have participated in some unofficial and secret talks. Pakistan, who has been providing sanctuary to the Taliban over the last 18 years, has a crucial role to play in peacemaking efforts. While recently Pakistan has offered to assist with the peace talks, uncertainties remain as Islamabad continues to see Afghanistan through the lens of its geopolitical rival, India. Islamabad has long sought a subdued government in Kabul through its strategic depth policy to fend off India’s threat to its northern border.
In February 2019, after the attacks on the Indian military in Pulwama, relations between India and Pakistan soared. India claimed that the attack was planned in Pakistan and retaliated with surgical strikes. Pakistan denied the charges, shot down India’s jets and closed its airspace to commercial flights between Kabul and Delhi. The Pakistani ambassador in Kabul warned that the worsening India-Pak relations could jeopardize the Afghan peace process. Foreign Minister, Mahmood Qureshi, warned the US that “India's ‘aggressive posture’ could affect joint efforts for peace in Afghanistan.” In August Islamabad-Delhi relations further deteriorated when Prime Minister Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that gave special autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. On August 6, 2019, during a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament, one opposition leader, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif, emphasized that India's actions in Kashmir can hurt peace in Afghanistan and alleged that Modi’s administration was an impediment to peace. Islamabad’s envoy to the US also asserted that deterioration of the situation in Kashmir could harm the US peace efforts.
This past September, when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the US, Afghanistan was on the top of the agenda for discussion with President Donald Trump, but, yet again, Afghanistan was linked with the issue of Kashmir. Mr. Khan said, “We also want to talk about all three neighbors: Afghanistan, India, Kashmir [sic] and of course Iran.” However, Islamabad’s Kashmir efforts have got little attention in the international arena, including in China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend. In the meantime, India has rejected the US offer to mediate saying that the dispute is a bilateral India-Pakistan matter.
India’s presence in Afghanistan has triggered the feeling of encirclement for Pakistan but Kabul and Delhi have been cautious and have not entered greater security cooperation. The focus rather has been trade ties, development aid, and limited security assistance. Delhi has invested over $3 billion in development projects such as building the country’s parliament, training some Afghan civil servants and military officers, providing educational scholarships, and most importantly investing in the construction of Chabahar port in southeastern Iran which will connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2019, the trade volume between Afghanistan and India reached nearly $1 billion and expected to increase to $2 billion by 2020. On the peace efforts, India has supported the US peace initiative and maintained that the process should be inclusive and “Afghan-owned."
In some ways, Pakistan has played a positive role in initiating US-Taliban talks in Qatar. Islamabad had released the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar from its custody to participate in the US-Taliban talks in Qatar. The talks had produced an agreement “in principle.” However, the negotiations were canceled by Mr. Trump who cited dissatisfaction with the deal and the Taliban’s insistence on violence. With Mr. Trump’s recent visit to Afghanistan, the talks are expected to resume. Pakistan has repeatedly reaffirmed its support to the process and also has participated in diplomatic forums such as the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan ministerial forum and a recent China, Pakistan, Russia, and US meeting in Moscow. The Moscow meeting has issued a communique endorsing the current peacemaking efforts – signaling a positive sign for international cooperation. Also, PM Khan has inaugurated a 24/7 customs facility at the Afghan-Pak Torkham border crossing and deemed it as a transformative project for the region.
Afghanistan and the US have welcomed these positive developments, however, a recent US Congressional Research Service report said Islamabad continues “to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliably anti-India element in Afghanistan.” The existence of many Pakistani fighters in the ranks and files of the Daesh in Afghanistan also raises questions about the viability of peace in the country even if a political settlement is reached with the Taliban. Some Afghans remain skeptical because of the escalation of violence and the Taliban's unwillingness to enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan factions. For the first nine months of 2019, the number of civilian casualties remained record-high at 8,200 - 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured. Additionally, there are on and off Afghan-Pak Durand Line skirmishes that continue to take military and civilian lives.
Undoubtedly, internal political dynamics are key to the success of peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan but the role of neighbors, in particular Pakistan’s policy toward the country, remains equally crucial. Improvements in Pakistan’s behavior such as in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the US are positive signs but it seems as if the strategic depth policy is well alive and Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan through India’s lens. This policy has proven to be futile in many ways and a lose-lose situation – there is no Pakistan friendly government in Kabul, the issue of Kashmir remains unresolved, access to Central Asia is a challenge, and Afghanistan continues to suffer from violence. Pakistan must change its strategic depth policy. Instead of trying to fend off Delhi’s influence with militancy, Islamabad can secure good relations with Kabul through economic development and respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty. This will be in line with Prime Minister Khan’s vision, which is "to promote peace and prosperity in the region and move towards resolution of conflicts.”
Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @Saberibrahimi