Afghan and Pakistani leaders met for critical talks last month as President Hamid Karzai traveled to Islamabad to sit down with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was Karzai’s first visit to Pakistan since Sharif, a former two-time prime minister, took the helm of a new civilian government in June. aimed at patching Kabul’s frayed relations with Islamabad and seeking the release of senior Taliban prisoners to revive the stalled peace talks. But the lead up to the meeting did not augur well.
Despite considerable optimism in the West that Sharif’s return would enable the two countries to turn a new page, Afghans expect very little.
Questions remain, however, about which Nawaz Sharif should Afghanistan be dealing with.
The first is the one that has a history of supporting the Afghan Taliban, cozying up to militants in Punjab province, and trying to repair relations with Pakistan’s powerful army, which may involve making concessions on Afghan policy. The second Sharif is the one who sees his primary mandate as fixing Pakistan’s struggling economy, meaning ensuring regional stability and normalizing ties with Kabul. How can Sharif reconcile these contradictions?
At present, doubts linger among Afghans that Sharif’s policies will be any different from his predecessors, or that he has any ability to reverse Pakistan’s ongoing interference in Afghan affairs and support for militancy. Afghan wariness stems largely from the fact that Sharif backed Afghan factional leaders and mujahideen resistance groups against the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the 1980s. He was influential in forming an alliance of Afghan mujahideen in Peshawar, Pakistan, before sending it over the border to take power in Kabul, and was the only foreign leader to visit Kabul during mujahideen’s rule in 1992. And it was during Sharif’s second term as prime minister that Islamabad recognized the Taliban government in 1997. Afghan leaders also are convinced that Pakistan’s security apparatus hosts and supports the Taliban as a deliberate strategy to undermine Afghan statehood. With his pro-Taliban tendencies, he even attempted to implement a Taliban-style law and order of governing in Pakistan in 1998. However, the ground realities have radically changed since the 1990s, the security dynamics have shifted, and importantly, new players and factors have emerged, including some that are fervently anti-Pakistan.
Sharif has said very little about any change in his government’s approach to Afghanistan, except that he wants a stable Afghanistan. His government is likely to wait and see how events unfold in Afghanistan after 2014, when presidential elections and a drawdown of U.S. and international forces are scheduled to take place. Sharif has repeatedly stressed the significance of pursuing economic diplomacy and cooperation in terms of trade and foreign investment with neighboring countries to advance Pakistan's interests. However, Sharif’s government must realize that any efforts at addressing Pakistan’s economic woes will be meaningless unless the region, especially Afghanistan, is stable.
Pakistan’s political elites recognize that continued insurgency in Afghanistan after 2014 poses a major threat to Pakistan’s internal stability, especially if a settlement with the Afghan Taliban were not reached ahead of the international drawdown next year. During his election campaign, Sharif expressed support for a negotiated peace deal with the Taliban, yet he continues to tolerate armed militant groups operating in Pakistan. Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-(N), has not cracked down on militant groups, especially the powerful Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in his power base, Punjab province. Sharif consequently enjoys an extraordinary amount of goodwill with both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban because of his religious and political views. During the last election, the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups spared Sharif and his campaign and expressed positive sentiments about him while mounting many attacks on rival campaigns, killing dozens of innocent civilians.
Although Islamabad holds some sway in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, it has delivered very little so far, and both Washington and Kabul remains highly skeptical of its motives. Karzai has repeatedly charged Islamabad's complicity in fueling Afghan insurgency and has accused Pakistan of trying to split Afghanistan into fiefdoms. While peace talks have been stalled ever since Karzai objected to the Taliban’s flag-hoisting ceremony during its office opening in Qatar, Kabul appears to be ready to resume negotiations in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Pakistan’s role in making that happen is critical, and Karzai’s visit to Islamabad may prove important in gaining Sharif’s confidence as an honest peace broker. However, it does mean that Islamabad will have to rethink and alter a security framework that has not only failed to deliver results, but also challenged Pakistan’s own internal stability.
Nonetheless, Sharif’s strong political mandate and his decision to assume the foreign and defense cabinet portfolios himself offer hope of greater civilian oversight in Pakistan’s Afghan policy, which has traditionally been shaped by the military. Although it is highly unlikely that Pakistan's military will simply yield Afghan policy to a civilian government, Sharif could push for a policy of noninterference, emphasizing the significance of developing a consensus within the establishment on supporting a stable Afghan government over backing a particular group or party.
Afghans were hoping that Karzai’s visit to Islamabad, perhaps his last one before he steps down next year, will lead to a reset in the relationship. But because Sharif does not appear to have a radically different foreign policy stance towards Afghanistan, his government’s policy towards Kabul is likely to remain status quo. His past track record and pro-Taliban tendencies may continue today. His PML-N government might, in fact, upgrade negotiations with the Afghan Taliban—and then have contingency plans if talks do not go as smoothly as planned. But Sharif must realize that if the insurgency in Afghanistan worsens after 2014, the likelihood of an emboldened Afghan Taliban stepping up their support for Pakistani militants is high and only raises the prospect of more trouble and instability for Pakistan itself.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.