Paradigm shift in regional scenario
Pakistan and Afghanistan have traditionally had a complicated relationship characterized by mutual suspicion. Northern Alliance heavy Afghan regime under Hamid Karzai had remained heavily tilted towards India and had not only given high preference to India in her internal and external matters but also had adopted a hostile policy towards Pakistan. With the blessing of Washington, Karzai had given full liberty of action to India to emerge as the key country in Afghanistan and to fill up the security vacuum after withdrawal of ISAF. After signing strategic partnership agreement with India, Karzai allowed Indian military to train Afghan Army officers in their military institutions and meet Afghanistan’s defence needs. India took advantage of it and besides consolidating her hold in Afghanistan; she made full use of Afghan soil to foment insurgencies in FATA and Balochistan. India was content that this arrangement would continue under weak unity regime as well because of Dr. Abdullah. In 2014, a stage was being set to induct Indian military into Afghanistan.
The US-India-Karzai led Afghan regime remained a close-knit team and remained focused towards destabilization of Pakistan. Equilibrium between the three strategic partners remained steadfast for 13 years, but with Ashraf Ghani taking over power, and the US military quitting Afghanistan after failing to defeat the Taliban, the balance got disturbed and gave birth to new equation in November 2014. Pakistan, which remained the whipping boy all these years, has replaced the most favored India. Suspicion and distrust piled up for over a decade has been replaced with goodwill, cooperation and sharing. Blame-game has almost ceased and the gap in trust bridged in the wake of ominous threats from the Taliban and other armed militant groups. China, Kabul and Washington seem to have put their faith in Gen Raheel Sharif and see him as the sole silver lining in the otherwise dark horizon. The trio is looking towards Pakistan Army to help in defeating terrorism and bringing peace in war torn region.
Pakistan has long been blamed for harboring and abetting Haqqani network (HN) in its cross-border terrorism. Pakistan military had its own socio-politico-security compulsions to maintain a difference between good and bad Taliban and to target anti-Pakistan militants only. These compulsions restrained Pakistan from launching a military operation in North Waziristan (NW). The concerns were however pushed aside after the gruesome attack on Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2016.
A change in the outlook of new National Unity Regime under President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Dr. Abdullah and also in the thinking of Washington towards Pakistan has occurred essentially because of the across-the-board military operation in NW in which all militant groups based in NW were targeted. Uprooting of HN and Gul Bahadur groups from NW and comprehensive briefings given by Gen Raheel Sharif in GHQ to visiting President Ghani and his military team led by ANA chief Gen Sher M. Karimi, to ISAF Commander Gen Campbell, to US military officials in Pentagon and to British top officials made the difference.
The other reason of extension of whole-hearted cooperation by Kabul is Pakistan’s declared stance that it has no favorites and that it would fully support Afghan led/owned reconciliation process. One more reason is Pakistan’s relatively better clout over Taliban and its critical support in a patch up. More so, it has been accepted by all and sundry that Pak Army is the only one which can fight and win battles against ideologically motivated militants.
In order to reciprocate Pakistan’s laudable efforts in war on terror, while the US declared Mullah Fazlullah as the global terrorist, ANA launched an operation in Kunar against Fazlullah’s men. Five culprits having linkage with Peshawar incident have been arrested on the pointing of ISI. ANA managed to destroy some hideouts and inflicted casualties on TTP men but in the process lost over fifty soldiers. CIA operated drones are at times targeting militant hideouts in inaccessible areas in Shawal Range and along Pak-Afghan border.
Both the US and China look positively and receptively towards the fast growing relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and see it as a healthy development. While China has agreed to take active part in bringing peace in Afghanistan, the US has finally acknowledged the importance of Pakistan and is cooperating. Pak-US relations that were downhill are once again moving uphill.
At the recently concluded Beijing Conference Ashraf Ghani defined five circles manifesting Afghanistan’s future foreign policy. He placed Pakistan in Ist circle (immediate six neighbors) and 2nd circle (Islamic World) and India in 4th circle (Asia). This is indeed a huge shift in thinking of Afghan leadership. What it implies is that Afghan top leadership has consented to prefer Pakistan over India. For a change, the US has readily reconciled with changed priorities of new regime without any ifs and buts.
Kabul dropped another bombshell on India by declining her military aid and training assistance, and to rub salt on her wounds asked Pakistan to train Afghan officers. For the first time 16 Afghan cadets are receiving training in PMA Kakul. To add to India’s woes, Ghani made it clear that he will not allow Afghan soil for proxy war against any neighbor. He further distressed India by inviting Pakistan to host the next ‘Heart of Asia’ Conference, which earlier on was scheduled to be hosted by India. Pakistan’s reservations on use of its trade route by India from Wagah to Afghanistan have been accepted by Afghanistan, USA and China.
On the military front, bilateral visits of senior military leaders and top intelligence personnel have recently increased. Gen Raheel and Corps Commanders 11 Corps and Southern Command undertook trips to Kabul. DG ISI Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar visited Kabul thrice. Militaries and intelligence agencies of both sides are carrying out intimate coordination to manage the porous border, training matters, intelligence sharing and also taking care of each other’s security concerns.
Military commanders and security officials are now regularly consulting to mutually share intelligence and coordinate security operations. Joint border control centres at Torkham and Spin Boldak have been revived to coordinate operations against the militants and share intelligence on illegal cross-border movement.
The US has reconciled to the emerging changes in Afghanistan not by choice but because it has been forced by circumstances. To compensate its natural ally and strategic partner India, Obama undertook a second trip to India and skipped Pakistan. Besides removing the irritants in Indo-US nuclear agreement signed in 2008, and signing another 10 year defence pact, the visitor made the old promise of helping India to earn a permanent berth in UNSC and also elbowed India to become a leading partner in Asia-Pacific Coalition to counter China.
Following conclusions can be drawn from the emerging scenario:-
• Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors have come on one page to establish regional peace and usher in prosperity in this war torn region and to keep out chief trouble maker India.
• Pakistan’s foreign policy has come out of its traditional apologetic and defensive policy and Gen Raheel Sharif has played a key role in making it slightly pro-active by showing the real face of India to governments of Afghanistan, US and UK.
• Although Pakistan has been preferred over India by Ashraf Ghani, India which by now has penetrated in every department of Afghanistan including Army and intelligence agencies will continue with its dirty work of keeping Pak-Afghan relations tense in pursuit of its regional ambitions.
• Irrespective of the US apparent affability towards Pakistan, India will continue to remain its strategic partner and Pakistan a tactical partner to serve its short term goals.
• Genuine peace in Afghanistan will return once all foreign troops go home, Indian interference is curtailed, and Taliban agree to share power.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre. firstname.lastname@example.org