The good, the bad, and the ugly

How will Pakistan's passive facilitation maximize the odds of a positive outcome in Afghanistan?

The good, the bad, and the ugly
During his visit to Washington last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke publicly at the US Institute of Peace, and raised suspicion with what was, perhaps, an inadvertent misuse of words or an infelicitous slip of the tongue. What he said was that Pakistan would be ready to restart the peace talks among the contesting Afghan parties, but that it could not push the Taliban to agree to come to the table and “be asked to kill them at the same time.”

Since there remain many observers who doubt Pakistan’s intentions in the inevitably coming Afghanistan denouement (inter alia, increasingly in the US government it seems), this started a lot of nervous chatter on the usual social media channels. It seemed anomalous to me also, for three reasons:

1)    Pakistani political and military leaders have now said for some time almost in unison that a stable Afghanistan is important to Pakistan’s national security interests, and have recognized – though this is articulated a little more soto voce – that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not really in Pakistan’s interests;

2)   the entire Afghanistan peace process, from Pakistan’s point of view, entailed working with the “good Taliban” – ie the Quetta Shura and other Afghan insurgent groups allied with the Afghan Taliban – is necessary condition for a viable and inclusive peace process; and

3)   killing or defeating the “bad Taliban” –  the TTP which is at war with the Pakistani state, and other extremists who remain outside the government writ – is a necessary condition for survival of the Pakistani state and is the foundational principle of the NAP, the long-run military strategy to extirpate extremism from the bloodstream of the body politic of Pakistan.
With the US withdrawal delayed, isn't a Taliban military victory now out of question?

These three things may seem contradictory to those who believe that there is no such thing as “good Taliban” (or I suppose to those who believe there is no such thing as “bad Taliban”, though these would be very few indeed as even most of the Taliban groups seem to have Taliban enemies). But these points have been inherent parts of the Pakistani policy regarding Afghanistan for the past year or so, since the advent of the Ghani regime in Kabul and the seeming breakthrough realization in Pakistan under the Army Chief General Sharif that points 1 and 2 would serve Pakistan’s security interests best. The adoption of the NAP clearly implies that there are “bad Taliban”, they are bad for Pakistan, and must be dealt with.

Sartaj Aziz, now Foreign Affairs advisor to PM Sharif, rushed to clarify and “de-conflict” the ambiguity that had suddenly appeared in Pakistan’s public pronouncements on the Afghan situation. In an interview in Dawn, Aziz implied a more passive role in the multilateral search for an Afghan peace deal. It is up to Afghanistan, he said, to get the talks with the Taliban started again, and that Pakistan’s role would be to “facilitate” such talks when asked by the Afghans. This clearly means that Pakistan would, on request, approach the Taliban and try to arrange another meeting, and perhaps host it, as it did for the first meeting.  There has been no such request from Afghanistan yet, he said. However, the nuances of this correction still imply to me a subtle change in Pakistani policies – a more passive, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may approach in a political situation that may reflect the rising tension between Kabul and Islamabad, and between Islamabad and Washington, as to the Pakistani posture on the Haqqani group.

Sharif and Obama in the Oval Office of the White House
Sharif and Obama in the Oval Office of the White House

The statements of both Sharif and Aziz raise legitimate questions about whether and why Pakistani policy in the seemingly intractable Afghan peace process has evolved behind those curtains that keep it in deep shadows. I think it is clear that the stalled peace process would have played a large role in President Obama’s decision to extend the tenure of US forces in Afghanistan and open the door for a ramp up of the NATO coalition effort there by his successor. Several factors must have brought Obama to this decision: the continued success of the Afghan Taliban in taking and holding territory in Afghanistan (viz Kunduz) at least for a while, the as-yet inability of the Afghan National Army to hold it or take it back without coalition help, and the failure of the coalition not only in its training efforts but in providing the ANF with adequate firepower, especially air support (and/or the equipment and training to provide its own air support). Finally – and this factor seems important to me, although I cannot say if it influenced policy discussions in the US government –  the Afghan Taliban are on a roll, holding or contesting about 20% of the Afghanistan territory, and the voices in their various factions against negotiation must resonate much more clearly than a year ago.

And this success, as well as possible phantoms such as the “Pakistani operative” that was reported to be in the Kunduz Doctors Without Borders Hospital, still lead those who suspect Pakistan of a double game of being, to some extent at least, behind the Afghan Taliban’s success. Let me hasten to add that I suspect the “Pakistani operative” was a figment of someone’s imagination, and I certainly don’t believe the report that any such person was in that hospital.

Doubts grow about Pakistan’s mindset regarding the Afghan peace process. One has to wonder whether the calculus that seemed to frame the policy for the past year — that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan with the Taliban in the tent but not dominant serves Pakistan’s national security interests best – has evolved, and to what. Had Pakistan concluded that the Afghan Taliban would be unstoppable if the US/NATO coalition had maintained its walk down the slippery slope of the 2016 withdrawal? With the withdrawal schedule at least extended, isn’t a Taliban military victory – unlikely in almost any case anyway – now out of the question? What happens if the US Presidential race goes to the Republicans next year, a party which has a much more bellicose faction, and is likely to want to slow down even further the withdrawal and possibly ramp it up (but don’t count on Hilary Clinton not to do the same if she is elected).

In other words, Pakistan’s interests in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan in which the Taliban are inside the tent but not running the show, seem as clear to me as ever. And the odds of a Taliban victory have faded to very low. What am I missing? How is the present limp policy of passive facilitation going to maximize the odds of an outcome in Afghanistan that everybody knows is the necessary condition for stability, especially if it masks a double game of continuing to protect and nurture the proxies that seem to have sparked the Afghan anger? And just as importantly, how does this support the NAP domestically? Is this about the “good Taliban”, or the “bad Taliban”, or the ugly proxies?

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.