Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
On February 29, 2020, after nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan, the US and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha. The US agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban uphold their part of the peace agreement. Although the deal signing has generated some hope for peace, it is only the beginning of a long and fraught process. The intra-Afghan dialogue that began on September 12, 2020 in Doha, Qatar, holds the key to determining the future of the war-torn country.
In the wake of Washington’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban, Pakistan emerged as a key player in the peace talks. Islamabad’s major achievement in the talks until now was bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, which resulted in the peace deal. As part of that effort, Pakistan released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from prison so he could lead the negotiations with the US. Pakistan’s role in the peace process has been lauded by the US so far. It is often argued that Pakistan can reap dividends by helping bring the ongoing peace process to a final conclusion. It is true that the success of the peace process is in the interests of Islamabad too, but at the same time it could place Pakistan in a precarious situation.
The beginning of the US’s war in Afghanistan gave birth to and nurtured the superpower’s dependence on Pakistan (for logistical and political reasons, foremost among the latter being Islamabad’s creation and unleashing of the Taliban as the solution to the Mujahideen civil war after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and its long standing, continuing support to and influence with the group), which in turn allowed Islamabad to wield significant leverage over US strategy. A successful conclusion of the peace process could greatly reduce Washington’s dependency on Islamabad. This is why Pakistan prefers an intra-Afghan power sharing arrangement that leaves all the stakeholders, especially the US, reliant on Pakistan for its implementation.
A successful peace deal could bridge the trust deficit between Pakistan and the US, but what exactly lies ahead for the bilateral ties and what kind of role Pakistan will be playing in future for the US’s interests in the region, remains largely unclear. It is worth noting that in August 2017, in his first policy statement on South Asia since becoming president, Donald Trump denounced Pakistan, saying the country has given the US nothing but lies and deceit. The relations between the two countries plummeted further when a war of words erupted between Trump and Pakistani Premier Imran Khan on Twitter over US aid to Pakistan and the country’s role in the war on terror. However, by December 2017, bilateral relations improved in the wake of Zalmay Khalilzad’s tour of the region as the US special envoy. Trump wrote a letter to the Pakistani premier asking for help and cooperation in advancing peace talks with the Taliban. In a bid to mend fences with the Trump administration, Pakistan was quick to take responsibility for persuading the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. It was because of Pakistan’s help in speeding up the peace process that tensions between the two countries were defused.
Furthermore, a strong government in Kabul could limit Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan and reduce its ability to derive strategic benefits from the instability and state weakness of its neighbour. A volatile Afghanistan emboldens Pakistan and helps curtail Indian influence. A peace agreement would therefore give the Taliban some degree of power that may restrict Islamabad’s ability to exercise its leverage over its ‘proxy’.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s failure to help strike a final peace deal could spell deep trouble for the country. The collapse of the peace process has the potential to lead to an escalation in violence in Afghanistan or even plunge the country into another all-out civil war, with nasty spillover effects for Islamabad. The deterioration of the security situation on its western frontier could lead to a new onslaught of refugees across the Pak-Afghan border with destabilising consequences and a further burden on Pakistan’s struggling economy.
For years, Pakistan has been blamed for violence and instability in Afghanistan. Failure of the negotiations will put all the blame on Islamabad for not having done enough and to make matters worse, would likely lead to Washington’s loss of confidence and interest in the South Asian country, which in turn could undermine Islamabad’s domestic and regional interests in many ways.
Firstly, Pakistan could lose much-needed US support at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The US has helped Pakistan to avoid being black-listed at FATF owing to Islamabad’s support for the Afghan peace process. In a recent meeting, the FATF decided to keep Pakistan on its grey list until a February 2021 review. Islamabad’s progress on accelerating the peace process will have a direct impact on its status at the FATF.
Secondly, it could impact the Kashmir issue. It seems highly unlikely that the Kashmir issue would receive any attention from the US if ongoing peace talks fall apart. Tensions between Pakistan and India already flared up in the aftermath of the Indian government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, previously granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The Taliban’s increased control of Afghan territory would further worsen the situation between the two nuclear armed neighbours. In such a scenario, the US may put its weight behind India. Furthermore, an imminent Taliban victory can lead to Indian deployment of troops on its western border, long considered a redline by Islamabad.
Finally, the US, other major donors, and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could withdraw current and future aid pledges to Pakistan. The US remains one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Pakistan and is the country’s largest export market.
It is important to note that Pakistan has already antagonised Saudi Arabia, a long-standing and generous patron of the Pakistani state, by criticising the Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for its silence over the Kashmir issue. The kingdom immediately retaliated and coerced Islamabad into returning a $ one billion loan. Another important ally of Islamabad – China – also appears to be unhappy over the slow progress of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Hence, with the US and other long-time allies standing alienated, it remains unclear who would bail out Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy.
Pakistan’s dilemma in Afghanistan grows by the day. However, for the greater good of all, Islamabad should keep playing a constructive role in the peace process. A peaceful Afghanistan is in the greater interest of the region, as well as the international community.
The writer is an independent geo-strategic analyst, with a keen eye on South Asia and other zones of conflict. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org