Get over it: The limits of Afghan-Pakistan rapprochement

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has, since he came to power last fall, engaged in an extraordinary outreach to Pakistan. This effort could hardly be more important both to the stability of the region and the ability of the United States to responsibly disengage from Afghanistan. It has been clear for some time that peace in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan, which is why the United States has tried—mostly fruitlessly—to persuade, cajole, and pressure Pakistan to crack down on the safe havens of the Afghan militant groups in Pakistan. It is also clear that an unstable Afghanistan threatens Pakistan, complicating the latter’s ability to refurbish its weak state and economy, and suppress dangerous internal militancy.

President Ghani’s efforts have succeeded in warming relations between the two countries somewhat. But Pakistan’s geostrategic outlook and the nature of its counterterrorism policies puts firm limits on the relationship. In the absence of dramatically improved relations with India, Pakistan will continue to prefer an Afghanistan that is unstable to an Afghanistan that is closely aligned with India. Pakistan thus retains an interest in maintaining its long-term relationship with its traditional proxy groups in the Afghan War—the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network—a policy that exacerbates Afghan instability.

Last’s week events demonstrate both the promise and the peril. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Kabul seemed to promise Islamabad’s full support against the Afghan Taliban. Accompanied on the visit by Pakistan’s Army Chief Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister declared that “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be the friends of Pakistan.” This followed various declarations by Pakistani officials, in response to the many recent and brutal terrorist attacks in Pakistan, that they will now target all militants equally and robustly.

But just hours later, there was a terrorist attack on the Park Hotel in Kabul where Indian, Turkish, American, and other foreign guests were gathered for a concert. Many Afghans and Indians still blame Pakistan for all kinds of instability and terrorism in their countries and point to last week’s attack as revealing, once again, Pakistan’s duplicity. And at best, the attack shows the limitations of Pakistan’s ability to control and restrain the various militant groups to whom it has frequently provided assistance and support.

Indeed, there are strong reasons to doubt that a fundamental reprioritization and redefinition of Pakistan’s basic security and strategic interests has taken place. Such a shift will continue to face large obstacles from within Pakistan. The countervailing pressures are as much a function of Pakistan’s fears, incompetence, and incapacity as they are of its scheming duplicity, regional power plays, and geopolitical ambitions. Crucially, the Pakistani government fears that if it strongly targets Afghanistan-oriented militant groups, it will provoke them to escalate violence in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland, thus threatening the core of the Pakistani state. This paralyzing fear persists despite Pakistan’s desire to defeat the Pakistani Taliban, which also enjoys some sanctuary in Afghanistan

Given the internal uncertainties in Afghanistan, the hedging of external actors, and Pakistan’s own internal limitations, Pakistan is unlikely to start acting decisively against Afghanistan-oriented militants anytime soon. Nor is it likely to have the capacity to coerce the Afghan Taliban into serious negotiations with the Afghan government anytime soon. The Afghan Taliban is perfectly capable of talking about talking for years, without any substantive agreement being reached. In fact, it is in the Taliban’s strategic interest to drag out the negotiations well beyond the American departure in 2016, beyond whatever pressure Pakistan might eventually muster against the Afghan Taliban. 

None of this bodes well for President Ghani. Ghani has sunk a large amount of political capital into the negotiations with the Taliban and has little else to show in his first months in office. Despite Ghani’s promises of much improved governance and his technocratic skills, governance in Afghanistan remains paralyzed and frustrating for the Afghan population. 

Pakistan too is facing many difficulties and constraints in its Afghanistan’s policies. The existing policies in Afghanistan will become increasingly costly with respect to needed external support, not just from the United States and its NATO allies, but also from China. China’s increasing activity in Afghanistan might motivate Beijing to put some pressure on Pakistan in a way that it has previously been unwilling to do. Beijing will want to see policy returns for its promised $46 billion investment in Pakistan. Pakistan may thus face more unified international pressure regarding its policies in Afghanistan and accommodation of militants than ever before. 

But with or without increased international pressure, expectations of radical change in Pakistan’s strategic outlook and behavior toward militant groups are misplaced. Unless Pakistan’s limitations and constraints are understood and built into policy design and expectations, the crash in mood and bitterness will be greater and greater every time. Policymakers in Kabul, in Washington, and in Delhi would be wise not to sacrifice whatever limited collaboration with Pakistan is at times possible for the still-elusive hope of cajoling Pakistan into a full-scale and lasting counterterrorism partnership. In the end, Pakistan just can’t get over it.