Recently, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi categorically stated that Islamabad would not take responsibility should the peace process in Afghanistan crumble. Pakistan has been honest and sincere in consolidating the peace process in the war-torn country, he said, and Afghan leaders blaming Pakistan would not help advance the cause of peace. Pakistan’s official enunciations point to how the country has delivered what it could, and, therefore, scapegoating it is not only unreasonable but also unacceptable.
That said, both Washington and Kabul expect a lot of Islamabad. While U.S. officials are banking on Pakistan to pressure the Taliban to commit to denouncing the use of force and entering negotiations, Afghan leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, have passed the buck on it by linking the prospect of stability in their country to Pakistani behavior. The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has accelerated the Taliban’s march toward Kabul, something that will likely push Washington and Kabul to whip up their criticisms of Islamabad, demanding it to do more. The concerns in both capitals emanate from a belief that Islamabad wants to retain its highly questionable policy of strategic depth. However, Pakistan has positioned itself as a neutral player in the Afghan theatre, one that wants to see its western neighbor stable and peaceful. Pakistan’s Afghan policy, which is aimed at bolstering the chances of harmony in that country, is dictated by a set of three factors, comprising both tactical and strategic exigencies.
The first reason why peace and stability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s strategic interests is its avowed focus on geo-economics. With a view to reaping the advantages that economic connectivity and integration bring to the table, Pakistan wants to become a geo-economic power that provides what its National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf terms “economic bases.” As articulated in the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan wants to expand its framework of security while centering its comprehensive security on the concept of economic security. Addressing the participants of the dialogue, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan stressed that economic growth was contingent upon regional peace, adding that peace in Afghanistan will change the region outlook given that trade and connectivity will improve.
A semblance of stability in Afghanistan is critical to Pakistan’s geo-economic gambit. The continued absence of peace and rising levels of violence will disturb Pakistan’s bid to fully capitalize on the opportunities that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) provides Islamabad and the region. Both Pakistan and China have urged Afghanistan to join the project, for it will go on to streamline and solidify connectivity to Central Asia. However, if Afghanistan is embroiled in a civil war, with various groups jockeying for control of Kabul, extending the CPEC would only remain aspirational. The ramifications of a likely brutal civil war will be deleterious for the project, especially given that its hotspots are located in the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan. This is something that will add yet another dimension to security threats the CPEC faces.
Furthermore, Pakistan stands to gain from peace in Afghanistan because it will open up new avenues and markets for it. Most importantly, a violence-free Afghanistan will help operationalize energy projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) Power Interconnection Project and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) TAPI gas pipeline, which will greatly reduce Pakistan’s energy woes and give impetus to industrial output. This becomes all the more important for Pakistan’s drive for industrialization and export-led growth model. Thus, it is reasonable to argue that Islamabad’s quest for lasting peace in Afghanistan is vital for its economic security and desire to become a geo-economic fulcrum going forward.
The second factor that makes peace in Afghanistan an absolute necessity for Pakistan is the presence of anti-Pakistan terrorists in Afghanistan. After reuniting various disparate splinter groups in 2020, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), operating out of Afghanistan, is staging a comeback. The group has lately claimed attacks on police personnel in the heart of Pakistan’s capital. More menacingly, the TTP took responsibility for a bomb blast in the Pakistani city of Quetta. It is worth mentioning that the targeted hotel was hosting the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, something that points to the strategic effects that the group might have wanted to create in Pakistan. In such a scenario, mayhem and turmoil in Afghanistan will give more space to groups like the TTP to further consolidate and launch terror attacks inside Pakistan. With the erstwhile tribal areas, which were once the fiefdom of the TTP, undergoing development and reconstruction, the TTP could achieve greater success in targeting them. Pakistan can ill-afford the operational rejuvenation of the TTP, a group that wreaked havoc in the country for a good part of a decade before it was militarily flushed out of the country.
Only a peaceful Afghanistan under a united, acceptable political dispensation can rein in actors that could subvert Pakistan. Safe havens for the TTP and its affiliates in Afghanistan are a strong reason why Pakistan playing favorites across the Durand Line is unfeasible. If Pakistan were to support one group against the other in the Afghan political landscape, it is very likely that the aggrieved groups could lend succor to the TTP to impose costs back on Pakistan. Hence, it is noteworthy that subverting the peace process in Afghanistan is against Pakistan’s own security interests. Pakistan cannot be expected to squander all efforts that have, slowly but surely, made its economic recovery possible. Trouble in Afghanistan is not good news for Pakistan. This inexorable connection is critical to understanding why Pakistan cannot act as a spoiler in Afghanistan.
The third dynamic in this equation relates to Islamabad’s ties with Washington. As aforementioned, Washington is pinning its hopes on Islamabad to stabilize Afghanistan and ensure that it does not become a breeding ground for terrorism directed at the U.S. homeland. It is for this purpose that the United States wants to retain its counterterrorism infrastructure and strike options in the region. Pakistan, for its part, has refused to provide military bases to the U.S. military. That said, Pakistan continues to espouse U.S.-backed initiatives and to prod Afghan stakeholders to pounce on the historic opportunity to shape and define their own political setup. Against this backdrop, Pakistan strengthening its alleged favorites in Afghanistan is untenable. Islamabad will rightly look to continue steering clear of becoming a veritable party to the intra-Afghan showdown. Though the United States wants Pakistan to do the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, the former, as stated above, believes it has done enough.
However, contrary to fears, Pakistan will not become an impediment in the peace process, simply because it cannot, among other things, afford to be squeezed by the United States. Just when its economy is moving toward growth, Pakistan would not want the United States to use turn its clout within the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against Islamabad. In its parleys with the IMF, Pakistan has pushed the global-lender to ease conditions and give more space to raise revenues. Pakistan does not want the United States to influence the IMF to do otherwise. As for FATF, Pakistan wants to extricate itself from the group’s grey-list, a goal that the United States can make harder to achieve. Thus, it is only logical to argue that Pakistan will not undermine its own economic interests by deliberately impeding U.S. plans for Afghanistan, especially when it has repeatedly warned that it won’t approve of being scapegoated should Afghanistan wade into chaos.
Nothing other than peace in Afghanistan suits Pakistan. Absent enduring peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s geo-economic efforts will take a hit, not to mention that the demon of terrorism will return with a vengeance. Pakistan should be expected to remain committed to playing the role of a peacemaker, simply because bearing the brunt of U.S. economic coercion will be disastrous for its feeble economy.
Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst. He tweets at @syedalizia1992.