From a Pakistani perspective, 2016 has been a tumultuous year for its relationship with its western neighbour. First, the Pakistan-led Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), meant to draw in the US and China along with Afghanistan while excluding India, drew a blank. Then, Pakistan was left fulminating as a new arrangement began to take shape between Afghanistan, India and the US in the form of a trilateral dialogue. While new equations were being formulated at the diplomatic level, the situation on the Durand Line worsened – the Pak-Afghan border transit points at Torkham and Chaman faced multiple bouts of closure, infuriating the Afghan government and also adversely impacting the livelihood of people on both sides.
Essentially, Pakistan has had to contend with a string of inconvenient issues on its western front. With this as the backdrop, this is an appropriate moment to analyse what Pakistan might attempt in order to regain lost ground. This analysis is important not just for Afghanistan, but also for India and the US, both powerful regional actors, who are, perhaps for the first time, on the same page on Afghanistan.
The first option for Pakistan would be the “do nothing” approach – adopt a wait-and-watch policy and allow the trilateral dialogue to run into problems before launching its own offensive. Whatever the merits of this option, the perceived costs of Afghanistan, India and the US coming together are likely to force the Pakistani establishment to consider a more forceful response rather than “do nothing”. Given that “do nothing” will be unpopular for a state that has always tried to insert itself into the politics of Afghanistan, how is Pakistan going to react?
The most obvious option would be to deliberately run down the trilateral. In fact, the elements of such an effort are already beginning to be heard. Pakistan’s special envoy Mushahid Hussain, speaking at the Stimson Center on October 6, warned that peace in Afghanistan remained hostage to a resolution of the Kashmir issue. Mushahid stressed that “the road to peace in Kabul lies in Kashmir in the sense that when you talk of peace, you cannot compartmentalise peace, you can’t segregate a section… ok you can have peace in Kabul and let Kashmir burn. That is not going to happen.” The not-so-subtle point being made here is that Pakistan will seek to make India a part of the problem, by linking resolution of the Kashmir issue with peace in Afghanistan and, till that happens, actively support those that are opposed to peace negotiations in Afghanistan.
The other component of this attempt to place hurdles in the path of the trilateral dialogue is to back their bluster with the use of force. This is particularly evident in the second Taliban offensive in Kunduz in a space of 12 months. Kunduz, a Pashtun-dominated province (and city), is surrounded by Tajik majority areas and as such it is well understood that it will be difficult for the Taliban to hold this area for long even if they are successful in capturing it. The point of these repeated incursions is to demonstrate that Taliban still retains the power to best the Afghan armed forces, almost at will, despite US presence in Kunduz.
Even beyond Kunduz, there seems to be renewed activity along the Durand Line where the Pakistan-backed Taliban has the capacity to hold onto its gains. In 2016, Kabul lost control of 16 more of its over 400 districts – mostly to the south and east along the Durand Line. Much of the fighting has been concentrated in Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east, Ghazni in the south-east (all along the Durand Line) and Kunduz in the north.
Another approach by Pakistan has been to step-up pressure on Afghanistan using its control over trade routes. In Nangarhar province, the Torkham border crossing, where thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day, remained closed for over a week following clashes between Afghan and Pakistani border guards. The violence saw four dead and several wounded and was triggered by the construction of a border post by Pakistan, on its side, which Pakistan claims is within its right and meant to check the unregulated movement of people across the border. Another reason has been that Pakistan is concerned about the movement of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is operating from Afghan sanctuaries. A new Pakistan visa policy, which requires regular users to get a visa, has left the Afghans unhappy. While Pakistan is seeking to harden the border, Afghanistan contests the sanctity of the “Durand Line”.
The third part of Pakistan’s gambit is a strategy that has never failed the rent-seeking state: demonstrate that there are areas where Pakistan could still be of considerable utility to the US. Pakistan appears to be playing up the threat of the Daesh (ISIS) in the Afghan-Pak region as if to suggest that the Pakistan army can collaborate with the US to contain this threat. What is conveniently buried is that the Wilayat Khorasan – the structured affiliate of ISIS – is constituted mostly of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, with the allegiance of some disgruntled Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who were driven out of FATA as a consequence of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. This new franchise is essentially anti-Pakistan army, anti-ISI and also anti-Taliban. It does not represent much of a threat to the Afghan state, definitely not as much as the Pakistan-backed Taliban does. However, Pakistan has started attributing disturbances in and around Nangarhar to the ISIS to project that the threat is larger than it actually is.
Yet another option for Pakistan, hardly being discussed in policy circles, is that it will try to win back US support by sacrificing the Haqqani network at a time and moment of its choosing and for the right price. However, there are reports that the alternative would be more worrisome as Pakistan is said to have already put in place a new variant of the Haqqani network which is active in Kabul. This variant, which is evolving into a LeT type of organisation, is entirely dependent on the ISI.
Of considerable significance is the fact that the Pakistani deep state is now able to assert greater control over the new Taliban. The aim seems to be to maintain the Taliban as a force that can hold territories close to the Durand Border, be of nuisance value to the Afghans and the US and not have pretensions of being anything that could pose problems for the Pakistani state.
With the death of Mullah Mansour Akhtar, the Taliban is no longer the Taliban of the past. Mullah Mansour was likely sacrificed as he was becoming more independent, was against suicide bombings, was pro-talks and differences between him and the Haqqani network had begun to emerge. The new man, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is a leader of lesser stature who does not have much of a tribal base and does not have the financial resources of Mansour to consolidate his hold over the rank and file. He is also said to be totally reliant on the ISI. Meanwhile, it is important to note that it is still unclear why the US went along with the targeted strike that eliminated Mullah Mansour. That it was in Balochistan, on a car which was many miles away from the Pak-Iran border and closer to Quetta, and one in which his passport was miraculously found intact, all point to Pakistani acquiescence.
All these instances suggest that Pakistan has already set in motion a plan to regain its influence. Even though India and the US have, for once, landed on the same page in Afghanistan, there is a real danger that they can get blindsided by Pakistan. Pakistan still has enough arrows in its metaphorical quiver to break this fledgling partnership and get the US on its side again. As history has shown us time and again, this is an art the Pakistani state has perfected.
Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane are with the geostrategy programme at The Takshashila Institution, a centre for research and education in public policy.