Towards a Pak-Afghan reconciliation?

By C Raja Mohan

Can Pakistan and Afghanistan be real friends? Should India be worried about the talk of a "strategic partnership" between Kabul and Islamabad? My answer to the first question is a conditional "yes," and a clear "no" to the second.

Afghan foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul’s visit to Pakistan last weekend has raised the prospects for a fundamental shift in Pak-Afghan relations. For the first time in years, the two sides seemed eager to find common ground.

During the talks with Rassoul, the Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar reportedly handed over a draft of the proposed strategic partnership agreement.

India should stay out of the current dynamic between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is especially important given the widespread perception in Pakistan and the United States that India comes in the way of reconciliation between Kabul and Islamabad.

But facts speak otherwise. Ever since the Partition of the Subcontinent, Pakistan and Afghanistan have had difficult relations. Whether it is the dispute over the British drawn Durand Line as the boundary between the two countries or Afghanistan’s trade rights in Pakistan as a land-locked state or the Pakistani military’s support for the Taliban, the two nations have found it difficult to structure a framework for peaceful co-existence. These disputes had little to do with India.

Over the decades, the Afghans have deeply resented Pakistan army’s unending intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Yet, the geographic reality — 2600 km of open border between the two countries — demanded that Kabul seek a cooperative relationship with Islamabad.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai knows that so long as the Pakistani army shelters the Taliban there was no way his government can secure peace at home. But Pakistan set its own terms for reconciliation that no self-respecting Afghan leader could accept.

What has changed now is that the Pakistan army is a bit chastened since the US forces raided and executed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Pakistan's attempt to blackmail Washington by cutting off overland access to Afghanistan came a cropper amidst the deepening economic crisis in Pakistan, the relentless US bombing of Islamabad’s western borderlands, and the reluctance of Beijing to replace Washington as Pakistan’s principal benefactor.

Under American pressure, the Pakistan has now signaled some flexibility. It has disclaimed the long-standing Pakistani army doctrine of seeking "strategic depth" in Afghanistan and released some of the captive Taliban leaders to facilitate talks between Kabul and its main political opposition.

In return for being nice to Kabul, Pakistan wants its interests in Afghanistan codified by a bilateral strategic partnership agreement. The prospects for such an agreement, however, depend upon two factors — Pakistan’s political sincerity and Kabul’s readiness to trust the Pakistani military.

As Afghanistan and Pakistan begin a new engagement, India should keep its eyes and ears open and mouth shut.


This post was originally published at The Indian Express

4 December 2012