Pakistanís new tune on Afghanistan

Indian Express
By C. Raja Mohan
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Having lost much diplomatic ground in Kabul since last year, Rawalpindi is trying to reclaim its primacy in the Afghan endgame. Pakistanís new prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf traveled Kabul this week to mend fences with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The British Prime Minister David Cameron was at hand to facilitate the resumption of a political dialogue between the estranged neighbours.

Few, however, are willing to bet that the real and sharp contradictions between Kabul and Rawalpindi can be mitigated, let alone resolved, in the coming years. But there is no denying that the Pakistan PM is talking a new language of peace with Kabul. But can the Pakistan army walk the peace walk in Afghanistan?

In mid April 2011, the Pak army chief Ashraf Pervez Kayani arrived in Kabul, with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in tow, and sought to dictate terms to Karzai on reconciliation with the Taliban and reordering Kabulís political structures amidst the U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.

Less than a fortnight later, the U.S. Special Forces swooped down the cantonment town of Abbottabad, entered the safehouse for Osama bin Ladin and executed him. Caught red-handed hiding bin Ladin, Pakistan army's credibility as Americaís leading partner in the war on terror sunk to a new low.

Through 2011, the relations between the U.S. and Pakistan steadily deteriorated. Pakistanís decision to shut down U.S. overland access to Afghanistan in November 2011 underlined the deepening crisis of bilateral relations. The international community could no longer ignore Pakistan armyís role in harbouring the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the two principal forces destabilsing the government in Kabul. That the Pakistan army is part of the problem in Afghanistan rather than the solution is now widely acknowledged.

In a revamp of its strategy, the U.S. chose to sign a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Kabul, leave a small residual force in Afghanistan after 2014, rally international economic and military support to the Karzai regime, develop alternate supply routes, directly engage the Taliban, cut military assistance to Rawalpindi, and step up the drone attacks on the terror sanctuaries in Pakistanís western borderlands.

Finding itself isolated, Pakistan has struggled to put itself back on the centre-stage in Afghanistan in the last few months. A few weeks ago, Pakistan agreed to reopen the supply routes into Afghanistan and it has now decided to reach out to Kabul.

In his talks with Raja Ashraf, Karzai emphasised the importance of Pakistan closing down the sanctuaries to the Haqqani network and putting pressure on the Taliban to negotiate a political reconciliation with Kabul.

The Pak PM, in turn, has promised to facilitate talks between the Taliban and Kabul. The big question now is whether Pak Army can deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table.

On the face of it, Pakistan armyís options in Afghanistan have narrowed. If Rawalpindi persists with its negative role in Afghanistan, the consequences for Pakistanís economy, national security and international standing could be severe.

But changing course will not be easy for the Pakistan army and the ISI, for they have invested too much in acquiring decisive influence in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

In Rawalpindi the temptation will be strong to wait for the withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan and put its proxies on Kabulís throne. The kind of choice that the Pakistan army makes will define the near term political future of the north-western Subcontinent.