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Preparing for Ghani’s visit

The recent visit of COAS Qamar Bajwa to Kabul seems to have produced newfound energy and enthusiasm between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was inevitable. Afghanistan has no choice but to engage with Pakistan. But how this engagement is managed will determine how successful this new impetus will be. The recurring theme in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations has been not learning from prior mistakes. Détente between the two countries is not unprecedented. It was President Ashraf Ghani’s first priority when he took office in 2014. Before we come back, we must learn from prior mistakes.

Ghani is among the most brilliant, thoughtful leaders in the world. When he first became president, he employed that brilliance to engage Pakistan in a discussion predicated on three things.

First, since 2001 Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai had tried to force Pakistan into certain behaviour by using the West. By 2014, those efforts had yielded nothing for Afghanistan. Ghani concluded that Pakistan needed to engage with a sovereign Afghan government, rather than a proxy for the Americans.

Second, given that Afghanistan offers more than simply the toxicity of insecurity (namely a pathway to energy-rich Central Asia), Ghani sought to establish a channel of economic and trade route engagement with Pakistan.

Third, there is no pathway to progress in Afghanistan, without addressing the threat posed by the Taliban. Ghani sought to fast-track efforts to engage with and talk to them, whilst holding onto his own mandate.

After a tense summer of elections in 2014, Ghani became president. By November 2014, the gains from Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and new unprecedented clarity from Kabul had set the stage for Ghani’s first visit to Pakistan as president. His visit helped establish a two-track conversation. In one, Pakistan would press the Taliban (including the Haqqani Network), to less violence and more negotiation. In the other, Pakistan would strengthen Afghanistan by facilitating trade and economic growth.

Most of the conversation about Ghani’s time as president has been taken up by the first track. We all know what happened there. In December 2014, Afghanistan-based TTP terrorists attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. Somehow, Pakistan’s resolve to trust President Ghani and forge ahead with Afghanistan survived that attack. That resolve helped initiate the Murree Process, as the first formal meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban took place in the summer of 2015.

The momentum of the Murree talks was too much to bear for the enemies of peace in the region, and the leak of Mullah Omar’s expiration essentially paralysed the process. Ghani valiantly sought to live another day, and came to Pakistan in December of 2015, a year after APS, to attend the Heart of Asia conference. Pakistani leaders, including both then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and then-COAS Raheel Sharif, received Ghani at the airport, but the damage to the security track of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship was already done.

Then the wheels really fell off. In May 2016 the Americans zapped Mullah Mansoor Akhtar in a drone strike, essentially ending the second iteration of the Murree process, a la the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. President Ghani, having lost the trust of both PM Sharif and COAS Sharif, essentially gave up on Pakistan, and adopted the tone of a frustrated and defeated man. By December 2016, at the Heart of Asia summit in Amritsar, he had joined Indian leaders in openly attacking Pakistan.

Three things have rendered the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship as dysfunctional under Ghani as it was under Karzai. The first is Pakistani distrust of a community of Afghan mercenaries that serve only as spoilers to regional peace. These mercenaries occupy official space in the new Afghan state’s intelligence apparatus, but operate largely to undermine it at every stage. The leak of the Mullah Omar news is seen as exhibit one in that regard.

The second is a fog of miscommunication and distrust between Pakistan and the US, and a near collapse in this important relationship. The deep frustration of the Obama Administration with Pakistan’s failure to follow up on conversations between senior US officials and Pakistani leaders in late 2014 through mid-2015 may have precipitated the US assassination of Mullah Mansoor. The decapitation of the Taliban, however, shifted the centre of gravity of Afghan insurgents squarely in favour of the Haqqani Network. Perhaps nothing fuelled Pakistani distrust of American intentions in the region as much as that drone strike did.

Both of these two factors are outside Pakistan’s control. The third and final poison in Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan however is very much Pakistani domain. What is it? Pakistani incompetence.

On his first trip to Pakistan as president in November 2014, President Ghani agreed to a range of economy and trade-related measures with Pakistan. The purpose was to enhance Afghan economic activity, pilot some of the regional connectivity agenda within the wider CPEC and CAREC frameworks, and provide Ghani and pro-Pakistan voices within Afghanistan with the proof that a friendly posture toward Pakistan yields tangible benefits to the Afghan people. To really give teeth to the economy and trade track with Pakistan, Ghani even posted the man who was negotiating this agenda with Pakistan, his finance minister Omer Zakhilwal, as his ambassador to Pakistan.

A to-do list of 42 items was prepared by Finance Minister Zakhilwal and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in early 2015. The list included a range of easy wins, ranging from speedier clearances for Afghanistan-bound trucks to faster execution of trade facilitation projects. To date, there has been virtually no progress on any of the 42 items.

To boot, Pakistan has leaned into an anti-Pakistan narrative in Kabul at every opportunity, essentially lubricating the pathway of anti-Pakistan mercenaries in Afghanistan. Decisions like sealing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border after terrorist attacks, or repatriating a small percentage of the Afghan refugees that live in Pakistan as retribution for anti-Pakistan speeches by Afghan leaders, or prosecuting telegenic Afghans that violate Pakistani laws like Sharbat Gula have all served to strengthen the false narrative of Pakistan enjoying the continued humiliation or insecurity in Afghanistan.

As Ashraf Ghani’s fourth winter as president of Afghanistan approaches, Pakistanis need to heed five lessons from previous winters.

First, enabling Afghan trade and economic growth is easier than shutting down the Haqqani Network. Pakistan must immediately take measures to process as much of the Zakhilwal-Dar agreement on economy and trade as it can.

Second, Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan has cost Ghani more than it has cost Pakistan – he must be treated with great empathy and respect. Pakistan’s enemies will spare no effort in running down Ghani when he returns to Kabul. They should not be aided by Pakistanis, wittingly or unwittingly.

Third, the enemies of peace in the region use many actors to further their agendas, including remnants of the TTP based in Afghanistan. But not every critic of Pakistan is a RAW agent, and not every mistake the Americans make is borne of ill will. Whilst not letting our guard down, Pakistan needs to engage the US government in a robust conversation about the region’s future, concurrent to its détente with President Ghani. Pakistan has done more to fight terror than any country. Those unconvinced of this need convincing. Name-calling will not achieve this.

Fourth, there is no escape from the Haqqani Network. It adorns Pakistan’s throat like a noose made of barbed wire. Any plans for Afghanistan’s future that do not include a plan to neutralise the threat of this group will fail the smell test that the international community, including China and Russia, apply to this region. Pakistani strategists need to come correct.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the enemies of peace in the region have exploited Pakistani incompetence before. They will not stop. It is incompetence that fails to address disagreements between military and civilian authorities robustly (and privately). It is incompetence that fails to make progress on the trade and growth agenda with Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani’s next trip to Pakistan can be worthy of the hype being generated – but only if it differs from past trips. Pakistani competence is a much more potent determinant of the future of our region than the poisonous agendas of the enemies of peace in the region. We are better than the enemies of peace. Ghani’s trip to Pakistan is our chance to prove it.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Preparing for Ghani’s visit," The News. 2017-10-10.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Operation Zarb-e-Azb , Haqqani network , Economic growth , Taliban , Leadership , Security , President Ghani , Nawaz Sharif , Afghanistan , Pakistan , COAS , APS