The Afghan war is not ending, and neither is the Taliban’s clout in Afghanistan. Recent developments indicate that the tussle is only entering a new phase, reaching new heights of geopolitics in which Afghans themselves might have little to do or gain.

In May 2015, the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Afghanistan entered into a mutual intelligence co-operation agreement according to which both agencies would “cooperate” to rid their countries of the menace of “terrorism.” It is interesting to note that while the U.S. no longer categorizes the Afghan Taliban as “terrorists,” both Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to categorize the Afghan Taliban as “terrorists” and their activities as “terrorism.”

The first-of-its-kind deal between the two intelligence agencies was preceded by a visit by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and ISI Chief Lt. Gen Rizwan Akhtar to Kabul during which the Pakistan government denounced the Taliban and said that future violence by the “militant group” would be treated as terrorism and responded to as such. While officials on both countries expressed hope for a “better future,” there are many existing challenges that would continue to defy any such possibility.

To start with, this agreement would fail to do much to remove deep-seated mistrust between the two states/security agencies. Secondly, within Pakistan, ground realities are markedly contrary to the provisions of the agreement itself.  For instance, the agreement postulates intelligence data sharing and joint development and coordination of anti-terrorist operations on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. However, there is very little evidence to prove that the Pakistani security agencies, or the Pakistani state by default, have completely stopped supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Ground realities, however, do tell us that many fighters from Afghanistan continue to cross over to Pakistan. Hospitals in Quetta are still flooded with them and doctors who treat the injured Taliban are paid special wages. A number of sources from Quetta — the capital city of Balochistan and the erstwhile center of the Afghan Taliban’s “Quetta Shura” (a proto organization consisting of Taliban top leadership) established in the wake of their ouster from Kabul in 2001-2002 — have confirmed that Quetta city, which is under strict surveillance of the Army’s paramilitary forces and security agencies, continues to be used as a cross-over point between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although one can certainly question or even doubt the number of the injured Taliban fighters crossing over, there is hardly any reason to doubt that this is not happening and that Pakistani agencies aren’t aware of it.  And, as a matter of fact, the Taliban in Afghanistan continue to attack Afghan forces. Not only is the current “spring offensive” the deadliest since 2001, it is also the most effective, extensive and successful of all.

So, what explains Pakistan’s dual approach? As far as the question of intelligence cooperation is concerned, it has much to do with ‘intimate relationship’ between Pakistan and the newly elected Afghan president. Many in Pakistan believe that Ashraf Ghani would not have been able to secure the presidency without Pakistan’s help. Many officials in Pakistan tend to believe that real cooperation at the institutional level is hardly possible. This is due to extremely divergent and conflicting interests. On the other hand, with the US/NATO forces withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s current offensive in progress, they also believe that Pakistan can hardly afford to side against the Taliban. By signing an intelligence cooperation agreement with Afghan security agencies (which clearly places Pakistan on a superior footing in a number of aspects) Pakistan is trying to facilitate and achieve the obvious: the Taliban’s re-entry into the country’s political structure and its ability to attain “due share” in power.

The agreement — which seems to be a device to facilitate a Pakistani stranglehold inside the Afghan security agencies — undercuts the credibility of Pakistan’s so-called “new” approach towards Afghanistan.

The ‘new’ approach, popularized during the tenure of previous Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Kayani, limited Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan to helping to resolve the conflict according to the “wishes” of the people of Afghanistan. This “changed policy” was clearly reflected in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s last visit to Turkey in 2014 to “discuss the future” of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s PM reportedly focused on ways and means of establishing more a “constructive engagement” with Afghanistan rather than attempting to dominate the country in the way it had done in the past.

It would, therefore, be a gross misrepresentation of Pakistani policy if we say, as some international media have tended to report and argue, that this “new approach” has now taken the shape of an agreement, and that the agreement is a clear documented manifestation of what was previously confined to speeches and meetings i.e., “constructive engagement” with Afghanistan.

On the other hand, another line of argument tends to portray this agreement as a manifestation of Pakistan’s new approach towards “terrorism.” According to this projection, Pakistan has, as a result of this agreement, started to consider the Af-Pak region as a single bridgehead of anti-terrorist actions, and accordingly, holds a similar strategy and tactics against the “rebels,” who are based both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

These variant approaches and their deliberate propagation notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that this agreement is Pakistan’s response to the fast-changing regional situation. With number of regional countries (China, India, Russia, Iran) getting increasingly involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan could hardly be expected to stay aloof.

This agreement between ISI and NDS was a long time in the making. It was finalized in May 2015. But Pakistan’s Afghan policy cannot be understood merely through the prism of one agreement. There is much more going on.

In 2014, the military authorities of Pakistan promoted ambitious plans for military-technical cooperation with Afghanistan. The first phase of this plan stipulated implementating measures to prevent cross-border raids of militants.  The military authorities of Pakistan also confirmed their readiness to develop a joint Pakistani-Afghan coordination mechanism on border security in exchange for intelligence data and transparency of operations on both sides. Again in November 2014, in the second phase of negotiations, Chief of Pakistan Army Sharif made a new proposal to the Afghan side, offering “a full range” training course for soldiers of the Afghan Security Forces in Pakistan’s educational institutions (training infantry brigades, supplying equipment and conducting joint military exercises). These proposals were accepted as the next step in strengthening military cooperation, and it was confirmed by the arrival of the first group of Afghan students to study at the Military Academy in Pakistan in early 2015.

Pakistan’s multi-faceted approach towards Afghanistan (intelligence co-operation, training of military personnel, and political contacts) is, given the changing regional situation, deeply rooted in securing its vital interest in Afghanistan. Pakistan does realize that it’s simply not possible to single handedly dominate Afghanistan the way it did in the 1990s. There are many reasons forcing this approach on Pakistan. First and foremost, Pakistan does realize that the US and its allies aren’t going to abandon Afghanistan because of the vital importance Afghanistan has in the U.S.’ 21st century grand strategy. Secondly, as indicated earlier, the U.S. (or Pakistan) is not the only actor in Afghanistan. Many other regional and extra-regional states are involved too. Thirdly, and most importantly, the nature of the relationship between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban has changed considerably over the years. Although Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, this support is limited to certain (yet very important) factions, such as the Haqqani group.

The ISI-NDS agreement is a small, yet a very significant indication of the growing political distance between the Taliban and Pakistan. This was quite obvious when the Taliban chose to visit China in 2014 instead of Pakistan, asking Beijing to play a role in facilitating political transition in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the Taliban got China to press Pakistan for a “changed” role.

However, this doesn’t mean that Pakistan does not want or doesn’t  favor the Afghan Taliban’s entry into politics. In fact, it is only through the Taliban in Afghanistan that Pakistan can hope to secure its interests.  In fact, the Taliban are the only force that Pakistan has a historical connection with in the Afghan conflict.

When everything’s factored in, Pakistan’s dual approach towards Afghanistan in cooperating with the Afghan state and the Taliban simultaneously is a well thought-out strategy. It’s giving Pakistan traction in pursuing the politics of space currently going on in Afghanistan.

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