Apart from the March 15 meeting between Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser, Hanif Atmar and, Adviser to Prime Minister Sharif on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz that took place after the opening of land routes, there have been no noteworthy signs of improvement in the Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relationship so far. The overall picture remains bleak and even seems to be deteriorating. Pakistan’s decision to close borders in June last year and again in February this year, further deepened animosity.
The crossing points with Afghanistan were shut unilaterally by Pakistan on February 16 after a string of attacks in Pakistan targeting civilian and security personnel. Pakistan accused Afghanistan-based groups of orchestrating attacks with the help of the Afghan and the Indian intelligence. This ultimately drove Afghanistan closer to India, Iran and Central Asian countries, among others.
Afghanistan and India have been accusing Pakistani intelligence agencies for providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Kashmir-focused armed groups. The Modi administration’s snugness with Afghanistan vexes Pakistan the most. The growing Indo-Pak rivalry and an emerging India-Afghanistan front has turned Afghanistan into a battleground for India and Pakistan, as both nuclear-armed states seek to extend their respective roles in the Afghan region by putting their regional influence to test.
When Afghanistan’s demands for action against the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network allegedly settled in Pakistan did not bear any substantive result, the Afghan authorities retaliated with the same indifference to Pakistan’s demands for action against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah and militant leaders Mangal Bagh and Omar Khalid Khurasani, believed to be settled in eastern Afghanistan.
The recently released confessional statement by Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former spokesperson of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), has caused a lot of confusion.
Ehsan claims that both India and Afghanistan have been funding and supporting TTP and JuA’s militant activities and are responsible for Pakistan’s current domestic security situation. If this is indeed true, it must be part of a ‘tit for tat’ policy approach on behalf of India and Afghanistan, provoked by similar activities allegedly conducted by Pakistan in the two countries.
For Pakistan, the confession may have been a way to perpetuate the already established narrative in policy circles that rests on blaming Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies for playing an active role in terrorism afoot in Pakistan. Pakistan continues to view India’s presence in Afghanistan with suspicion. As long as this is so, it is unlikely to relinquish its own alleged links with insurgent organizations in Afghanistan. While the confession does help bring to the forefront a successful military operation that may boost Pakistan’s image, the confession itself is unlikely to help the security situation.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, introduced under President Xi Jinping in 2013, also brings China into the mix; in order to function to its full potential the $57 billion project requires a stable and secure environment in Pakistan and its neighboring countries. China has so far managed to refrain from overt involvement in the Afghan conflict. This has also led to the country winning the trust of a majority of the Afghan population, including the Taliban.
The scale of China’s investment in the OBOR has certainly upped the stakes for the country. China is concerned the Afghan conflict may have spillover effects in the bordering province of Xinjiang. Considering Beijing’s interest in regional and economic stability, Beijing may use its links with Islamabad to push it into finding a workable solution with Kabul.
On April 21, the Taliban attack on a military base in the northern province of Balk raised a lot of concerns regarding the security situation. In the past, militants have been unable to take or retain control of urban centers in Afghanistan. Kunduz is an example; the Taliban twice took over the city but failed to retain control for more than a few days. However, with the recent attack on the military base, the Taliban seem to have become even bolder and the Afghan forces have appeared weaker in comparison.
Earlier in April, the US Air Force Special Operations Command carried out a targeted strike and dropped the “mother of all bombs” — the most powerful bomb in the American arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Fighting global terrorism — specifically the Islamic State — has become a banner issue under the Trump administration. Still, without the declaration of strategic intent from Trump or his administration, this episode can hardly be perceived as a sign of a ‘sustained campaign’.
Pakistan’s obsession with the India-Afghanistan relationship and Afghanistan’s own internal weaknesses, due to widespread corruption and ethnic and group divisions are partly to blame for the lack of a stable political or security environment. For the foreseeable future, India’s fate in Pakistan’s national narrative will remain as that of the enemy. The only way to get a grip on the security situation in Afghanistan is for the Afghan leadership to work towards a settlement including all stakeholders. An Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process will not only be in the interest of the country but also the entire region.