Kabul reaches out for Imran Khan’s Olive Branch
During his victory speech following on from the historic Pakistani elections which saw the PTI party defeat the legacy parties PML-N and PPP, Prime Minister designate Imran Khan said the following about what he seeks for Afghanistan:
“We want to work in every possible way to ensure peace in Afghanistan. I would love an open border system like the EU with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is that neighbour of ours that has seen the most human misery and damage in the name of wars. The people of Afghanistan need peace, and Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan”.
These words of peace and reconciliation were picked up by Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani who has now invited Imran Khan for a meeting in Kabul while offering him a wider official tour of Afghanistan. This represents what is hopefully an understanding on Kabul’s part that without the positive contributions from Pakistan, no internal Afghan peace will be complete. As Pakistan’s long politically fraught neighbour has accepted Imran Khan’s olive branch, it is hoped that the current Afghan government will accept the fact that an atmosphere of provocation and suspicion where Pakistan is concerned is symptomatic of a past that most of the major worldpowers have long moved on from. To understand the possibility of Imran Khan realising his goal of bringing long-term peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan, one must understand how the shifts in geopolitical thought on Afghanistan have actually vindicated Imran Khan’s long held views on the current conflict.
The biggest shifts in policy among the concerned powers since the 1990s is as follows:
–While still outlawed in Russia, Moscow now accepts that in a clearly articulated peace process, certain elements of the Afghan Taliban will have to be involved in a negotiated political settlement within Afghanistan as there is no other realistic way to hold Afghanistan together as a peaceful state.
–While still clearly ideologically opposed to the Taliban, Iran has decided to back a general peace process rather than fund specific anti-Taliban factions as was the case in the 1990s when after 1996 the Taliban formed a theocratic government in Kabul.
–Going back to the 1980s, China’s Afghan policy was framed within the context of the Sino-Soviet split which saw neighbours on historically good terms act as rivals. This also helped to maintain good Sino-Pakistan relations even during the era of the widely pro-US General Zia. Now however, the Afghan policy of Beijing and Moscow is virtually identical as both states work closely in calls for a peace process as well as coordinating efforts to preempt a fragile situation on Afghanistan’s borders from becoming worse.
–In many ways, Pakistan’s position has remained the most consistent, certainly since the 1990s. Pakistan has historically feared Pashtun ethno-nationalism being used by Kabul or Kabul’s de-facto overlords as a means of stirring provocations inside Pakistan’s borders. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is aware that those who seek to threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan have and could continue to use Afghanistan as a base for terror operations in the south-western province of Balochistan.
The goals today
Pakistan has long sought a stable/united government in Kabul that neither has territorial ambitions which could threaten regional stability and likewise, Pakistan has sought internal security in Afghanistan in order for the country not to become a base of anti-Pakistan operations. Therefore, just as Pakistan has long asserted that Afghanistan requires stability combined with a good neighbourly policy of non-interference in the affairs of others, now Iran, China and Russia have come to embrace this pragmatic and security based position as the best possible way to end decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
As Iran’s southern province of Sistan and Baluchestan is now threatened by many of the same extremist forces that have long threatened Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, Islamabad and Tehran are now working ever more closely on coordinated strategies. This highly positive rapprochement between neighbours who prior to the 1980s were on extremely good terms is a crucial development in creating a united front of responsible nations in Asia.
In so far as Iran-Pakistan cooperation is required regarding neighbouring provinces, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri recently went to Pakistan for a three day visit to discuss these matters in a clear sign that if anything, the recent meeting between Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Pakistani officials helped to strengthen ties between Tehran and Islamabad.
Russia’s 21st century pivots
The Russian President’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov defined Russia’s contemporary policies and goals for Afghanistan in the following way:
“History, including Afghan history, teaches us that problems must be resolved before they grow into a serious threat. In order to facilitate the process of launching negotiations we, already last year, we initiated dialogue of the so-called Moscow format. By the end of this summer, we will organise another meeting in this format, but it needs thorough preparations to yield, if not a breakthrough, but a visible result. We want it to be the beginning of real progress, which is possible only when Taliban begins to speak with the Afghan government or with a more or less broad spectrum of the Afghan establishment”.
Kabulov reiterated that the continued US presence in Afghanistan makes such a format less easy to achieve because rather than viewing the Kabul government as a diverse coalition of ethno-political forces, the Taliban continues to view the government as a US puppet in spite of some recent signs of an partial independent streak. Kabulov continued, “They [Taliban] don’t’ want to hold talks with it [Kabul government] but want to negotiate separately with the Americans”.
A united front
The views expressed by Kabulov encouraging a multi-party dialogue process which is inclusive of the Taliban combined with a multinational format for hosting these discussions is now the favoured format not only in Russia but also in China, Pakistan, Iran and the concerned central Asian republics. By contrast, the US and India remain reticent to embrace such a format.
For the US, it is a matter of seeking to prolong the Afghan conflict so as to create a permanent roadblock to further trade inter-connectivity between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran while it also serves the US strategic interest to have troops and military resources on the borders of Pakistan and Iran in particular. Finally, as part of the overtly cynical US strategy in Afghanistan, while much of the violence in the country prevents the US from exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral resources to the fullest extent, the matter is now one of keeping others away from Afghanistan’s natural mineral wealth as part of a wider stalling tactic designed to retard the progress of regional cooperation between sovereign nations.
For India, the Afghan issue remains a simple matter of not wanting to lose the country as a current and future base from which to covertly launch anti-Pakistan provocations. Afghan territory has been useful to India in this way in the past and for elements in India’s RAW (intelligence agency) Afghanistan is still coveted for this purpose. Thus, for both Washington and New Delhi a policy of “the worst the better” can be contrasted with a Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani and pan-central Asian policy of “the last best hope for peace and stability is a genuine and meaningful all parties format”.
Imran’s hope is now collective hope
Imran Khan’s PTI party has been in government in the previously “ungovernable” Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2013 and during this year’s election solidified a strong political power-base in the region. In bringing good governance to this primarily ethnic Pashtun region of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s party has helped to develop a positive understanding of the Pashtun people that has implications on both sides of the Durand Line (the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan). Because of this and because of his apparently sincere wish to one day have EU style open borders across the Durand Line where an ethnically Pashtun plurality reside in Afghanistan, Imran Khan has clearly set the stage for a new era in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations where questions of cross-border Pashtun nationalism and equally vexing issues of cross-border religious extremism might give way to an era where two modern states live side by side without blood-soaked frontiers and mutual hostility.
There is a great deal of work yet to be done on this issue, not least because the US continues to provoke conflict by pursuing a policy of attrition in Afghanistan. Yet in spite of the challenges which clearly lie ahead, Imran Khan has set the stage for a much needed reconciliation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The outcome of such a dialogue process can only help push the conflict in a more positive direction.