By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran
Afghanistan’s foreign policy has undergone significant changes under President Ashraf Ghani. Foremost among these is the rapprochement he is seeking with Pakistan. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who was often openly hostile towards Pakistan, Ghani has adopted a more conciliatory approach that is aimed primarily at improving relations with Pakistan and securing its backing and co-operation in negotiating peace with the Taliban.
Underscoring the priority his government accords Pakistan, Ghani made Islamabad the destination of his second state visit abroad (the first being Beijing). In addition to meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during this visit, he met up with Army Chief Raheel Sharif too, signalling the key role his government sees the Pakistan military playing in bringing the Taliban to the talks table.
In the six months since he assumed the presidency, Ghani has taken several steps to address Pakistan’s concerns. Besides shelving a defence deal with Delhi to allay Pakistan’s anxieties over India’s significant influence in Afghanistan, he has acted to strengthen co-operation with Islamabad. Afghan military officials have been sent to Pakistan for training and Afghan troops have been dispatched to fight Pakistan Taliban forces operating out of eastern Afghanistan. Terrorism suspects have been arrested on Pakistan’s request and Pakistani intelligence officials have been permitted to interrogate suspects being held in Afghan jails.
Afghan-Pakistan relations have improved in recent months. The two neighbours are carrying out joint monitoring of their long border and have toned down their accusatory rhetoric. However, Pakistan has not reciprocated Ghani’s gestures adequately. It has not acted to prevent the Afghan Taliban from carrying out attacks in Kabul and other cities; attacks have in fact surged in recent months. Suicide vests and explosives that are made in Pakistan continue to be transported with ease into Afghanistan. And importantly, Pakistan has not delivered yet on bringing Taliban leaders to the talks table.
Ghani took an enormous risk in reaching out to Pakistan. Most Afghans are deeply suspicious of Pakistan and blame Islamabad’s nurturing of the Taliban for the violence that has ravaged their country. Few believe that Pakistan’s expressions of support for the Afghan peace process are genuine and are of the view that Ghani has made too many concessions to secure Pakistan’s support. His overtures have gone unreciprocated, they point out. Others have criticized him for putting all the eggs in one (Pakistani) basket.
Ghani has said that he is “cautiously optimistic” (emphasis mine) about his government’s improving relations with Pakistan. Clearly, he is concerned about Pakistan’s failure to fulfil its promise to deliver the Taliban at the talks table. In a bid to hedge his bets he has reached out to the United States and China as well.
During his recent visit to Washington, he convinced the Obama administration to slow the pace of its pullout of troops from Afghanistan. However, the continued presence of US troops will only provide the Taliban with an excuse to continue its fighting. If it is a peace settlement with the Taliban that Ghani is eyeing, this may not be a productive route.
It is in this context that Ghani’s outreach to China to play a role in the peace process may be more rewarding. China’s close relationship with Pakistan puts it in a good position to nudge Islamabad to deliver the Taliban to the negotiation table. Beijing has its own concerns over Uighur militants who have links with Islamist outfits operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Besides, the success of its investment in Afghanistan, the fruition of its Silk Road ambitious and its plans for economic development of the region hinge on a stable Afghanistan. These are expected to prompt Beijing to push Pakistan to take tangible steps supportive of the peace process.
According to Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO of Afghanistan’s National Unity government, Beijing has held “one, two or three” rounds of talks with the Taliban in recent months and that the Chinese “asked the Taliban to have talks directly with the Afghan government.” This will raise hopes in Kabul.
But there is concern as well.
Decades of non-involvement in Afghan affairs has left Beijing with only limited contacts among politicians and militants in Afghanistan. It is likely therefore to rely on Pakistan for introductions and also insights into the conflict. This would mean that China’s understanding of the conflict and of peace will be coloured by Pakistani perceptions.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.