One Step Forward

Written by Raza Khan  •  Region  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The recent Strategic Partnership Agreement between Islamabad and Kabul could go a long way in enhancing cooperation and political participation in the region.

As the withdrawal date of all U.S combat troops from Afghanistan draws closer, peace in the war-torn country is far from fully restored. In the meanwhile, the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Afghanistan and Pakistan, signed in February, shows some signs of optimism.

The agreement marks a new era of engagement and cooperation in the field of security and economy. It was debated at the tripartite summit meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Karzai. At the London meeting, both Afghanistan and Pakistan discussed a regional strategy for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. While addressing a joint news conference with the other two leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari said, “We feel that we can only survive together in a peaceful atmosphere. We cannot change our neighborhood or our neighbors. We will support our Afghan brothers to come out of this war.” Critics argue that these words suggest a strong guarantee from Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. However, it is quite debatable how much influence Pakistan still wields over the Taliban. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has influence over the Taliban but it is not as pervasive as is perceived by the Afghan government or the international community.

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, while divulging the details of the summit meeting, disclosed that Pakistani and Afghan leaders had agreed to “an unprecedented level of cooperation.” The importance of the talks can be gauged not only from the fact that the UK officially hosted and moderated them but that senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials, including foreign ministers, chiefs of defence staff, chiefs of intelligence, the Afghan national security adviser and the chair of the Afghan High Peace Council also took part.

The summit talks in London were held after Pakistan released 25 leading Afghan Taliban to facilitate peace talks in Afghanistan. In addition, a high-level Afghan military delegation, led by Chief of Army Staff, General Bismillah Muhammadi had also recently visited the country. Afghanistan has been complaining for long that Pakistan was using arrested Afghan Taliban leaders to dictate peace terms in Afghanistan. The gradual release of 25 key Taliban figures left Afghan detractors spellbound. The release of Taliban detainees by Pakistan has resulted in correcting Islamabad’s image in the international community, which has also criticized Pakistan-bashing by Afghan authorities.

As Prime Minister Cameron pointed out, the release of Taliban detainees by Pakistan and the opening of an office in Doha (Qatar) by the Afghan government should send a clear message of negotiation to the Taliban. It still remains uncertain though, how the Taliban will operate their political office in Qatar, which they agreed to open back in 2010. In this regard, there is hope that the Taliban will finally show some flexibility and participate in a peaceful, political process in Afghanistan. Taliban since long have taken the position that they do not recognize the existing Afghan constitution and political institutions as they were established by the United States led Western World

Pakistan indicated the gradual but constant shift in ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, the roots of which go back to the decade of 1980s and the rule of General Zia ul Haq (1979-88). The credit of initiating a shift in Islamabad’s Afghan policy, which has proved destructive and in the words of President Zardari “very damaging” for Pakistan, goes to Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. It was General Kiyani, who a couple of years back started asserting and reiterating that Pakistan did not want strategic depth in Afghanistan as was generally perceived in purely military-strategic terms. Rather General Kiyani counter-argued that Pakistan’s conception of strategic depth meant a ‘peaceful’ and ‘friendly’ Afghanistan. Independent analysts defined this new conception as a condition where Pakistan’s rival India must not have any political, and more importantly military influence in Afghanistan. Afghan officials and politicians, while demanding too much from Islamabad have shied away from giving a candid guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used against Pakistan at any cost.

The SPA also paved the way for Afghan security personnel be trained by the Pakistan armed forces. This was first offered by General Kiyani but was disdainfully rejected by the Afghan government. Kiyani also offered NATO and the Afghans 150,000 troops in four years, if Pakistan was entrusted with the training task. While recently visiting Pakistan and seeing its defence and training facilities, Afghan Army Chief Bismillah stated that the Afghans were not aware of the high quality training facilities available nearby, which can also be taken advantage of by Afghan forces.

While US and NATO forces want to pull out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, Kabul’s SPA with Islamabad could go a long way in triggering processes of Afghan political participation in the country’s political system.

Raza Khan is a political analyst and researcher on the political economy and the AF-PAK region. He has served in several senior positions in the Pakistan government and is currently writing his doctoral thesis on religious extremism-terrorism in Pakistan.

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