Afghan owned & Afghan led by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

About six years ago, when General Kayani was COAS and PPP ran government in the center, Pakistan adopted the foreign policy position that solution to Afghan crisis should be Afghan owned and Afghan led. Many, including myself, expressed concern about this policy and considered it detrimental to the strategic interests of Pakistan. I wrote an op-ed piece for Pakistan Today to express these concerns as well as sent private emails to parliamentarians that were members of committees on foreign policy and defense.

I opposed the policy of Afghan owned and Afghan led for many reasons. First Afghan government in place could not be considered completely sovereign because it rely heavily on foreign powers to finance almost all of its budget and security needs. Second, there was a large international force present so it would be unrealistic to assume that these countries had no interest in the politics of Afghanistan. Even election of President Ashraf Ghani was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Third, many countries neighboring Afghanistan were as much affected by the war if not less and had a direct interest in the solution. So ignoring interest of these countries would not help attain balance of power that is needed to solve a crisis of this nature. Finally, all stakeholders now accept that Afghan Taliban are not a terrorist organization but a resistance movement enjoying substantial local support against foreign occupation.

Former Afghan President Karzai routinely blamed Pakistan for their own failures while current President Ashraf Ghani resorted to similar tactics after recent terrorist attacks in Kabul. These allegations are in a way discrediting long Afghan history of remaining fiercely independent and defeating foreign occupiers through thousand small wounds starting from Alexander the Great to United States of America. It was this resistance to foreigners that prompted Mongol invaders, led by Ghanghez Khan, to skirt Afghanistan and focus their campaign on central Asia. Even if there was no Pakistan on the map, Afghans would find a way to oppose US occupation of their country. Afghan leaders should recognize and respect this historical perspective and should stop using Pakistan as a punching bag for their own ills.

The question then is why a sudden about turn by President Ghani to maintain good relations with Pakistan? There are two key events that probably prompted this change of heart. First is Iran nuclear deal concluded few weeks ago. Second is the Chinese commitment of investing $46 billion in Pakistan to link it with their one belt, one road initiative. Let us look at these two separately.

After signing of the nuclear deal, Iran will have access to over $60 billion of frozen cash assets that will become available for her to invest in improving infrastructure as well as gain influence in the region. Iran has traditionally supported Northern Alliance that was opposed to Taliban rule. Any agreement with Taliban would be considered detrimental to her strategic interest especially since it is dealing with a hostile situation on her western and northern borders in Iraq as well as Syria. Another strategic challenge for them was that Pakistan was aggressively pursuing Central Asian states for gas deals that would transit through Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach China. This will increase competition for Iranian energy sales to a lucrative customer that is already courted by another large supplier Russia.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also in competition with an alternate route promoted by Iran and India through Chahbahar port. Blockage of central Asian energy sources that has to transit through Afghanistan will make the CPEC economically questionable. The net loser will be Pakistan because China already enjoys good relations with Iran and will assume a neutral position between these two friendly countries.

Now let’s analyze the recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Almost all Afghan officials are blaming it on Pakistan. From public information, it is clear that Afghan government and intelligence knew about Mullah Omar’s death for about a year as well as that Mullah Mansour was running the show. With this knowledge they still pressured Pakistan to initiate peace process with Afghan Taliban which Pakistan did in good faith. After the first round of talks that were hailed world over especially by China and USA, the government of Afghanistan took a sudden u-turn and made a public disclosure of Mullah’s Omar’s death just two days before the second round of talks.

The key question is why would they derail a process demanded by them? The diplomatic mistake committed by Pakistan was not to invite Iran to the Murree talks as a key player in the region and neighbor of Afghanistan. Iranians did not appreciate this strategic error. They may have impinged on Afghan government that after access to a large amount of frozen oil money they can benefit from it as a friend and ally. Secondly death of Mullah Omar would mean that Iran and other players can create their own supported factions that are not necessarily friendly to Pakistan. Taking a hardline against Pakistan could be an effort to send a message to Afghan Taliban factions to look for other friends. Pro-Indian Karzai, who still yield significant influence and pro-Iran Abdullah Abdullah were also not happy with President Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan by signing an intelligence sharing deal.

So what should Pakistan do? Pakistan should drop the foreign policy position of Afghan owned and Afghan lead solution to this regional crisis as it is not just an internal issue. There are many international precedence that can be used to initiate a multilateral platform to the Afghan question. Occupation of France by Germans in WWII, Syrian, Libyan, and Ukraine crisis are many such examples where an issue has an international dimension. Pakistan should work closely with Iran by proposing an Afghanistan+N2+P4 platform which would mean Afghanistan plus two key neighbors Pakistan and Iran and four international powers US, China, EU and Russia. Pakistan should also reinvigorate now dormant Regional Cooperation of Development (RCD) with Iran and link it with CPEC as an alternate route.

Pakistan has genuine strategic interests in Afghanistan and ignoring it would mean continued turmoil in the region as balance of power is a key ingredient for peace. Pakistan’s stature has risen around the world after the launch of operation Zarbe-Azb and destruction of militant sanctuaries. Afghanistan’s protestations and allegations may give them temporary relief but eventually they have to work with Pakistan to sort out the crisis. The visiting Afghan delegation to Pakistan should keep this in mind and that Pakistan is home to 3 million Afghans.

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