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Pak-Afghan Relations: Problems Will Persist If Distrust Remains

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The talks between Taliban and US diplomats recently took place under Pakistan’s auspices. But once the process of Pakistan trying to convince Afghan Taliban gets started, the problem will persist because the distrust level has not come down, writes Umer Farooq.

Western countries led by Washington have been trying to facilitate working relations between Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment and Afghan government ever since they started planning withdrawal from the war-torn country.

British, Americans, Germans and French – all have been coming to Kabul and Islamabad to convince the power wielders in both countries that once bulk of western military forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, it would be crucial for Afghan government to secure the cooperation of Pakistan military and government to manage the high complex and high unmanageable security situation in Afghanistan.

For this, they have been trying to facilitate diplomatic contact between the countries. But this effort is not without problems: the mutual distrust between Pakistan’s military and intelligence services on the one hand and news established Afghan Army and intelligence services on the other hand, could be described as a major stumbling block in the way of meaningful cooperation between the two countries government and security establishments.

Afghan Intelligence Services primarily came out of the intelligence setup that was attached with Ahmed Shah Masood led Northern Alliance—which was heavily aided by India, Iran and Russia while Taliban were in control of Afghanistan and later American CIA started funding and training this Northern Alliance intelligence setup in the wake of US invasion of Afghanistan and dismantling of Taliban government.

Anti-Pakistan and anti-ISI feelings are part of the professional ethos of Afghanistan intelligence services.

Pakistani military and intelligence services are no less distrustful of nascent Afghan security structures. In 2012, during formal talks with American official, both in Washington and Rawalpindi, Pakistani military officials have dismissed Afghan National Army as a highly destabilizing force in the region. With high level of desertions, drug use and involvement in drug peddling the Afghan National Army was described by General ® Kiyani, in his talks with American military officials, as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

This aversion shown by Pakistan’s military establishment towards the formative structures of Afghan land forces – whose number reached a 200000 by the year 2014 – could be the reflection of the frustration of Pakistan establishment over the failure to acquire the responsibility of training the Afghan forces.

Most of the training of Afghan national army in the more than 10 year of its formative period was carried out by the NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Part of the problem was that Indians got the responsibility to train a small group of Afghan army cadets much before the same responsibility was delegated to Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in early 2015. More than two dozen Afghan cadets were undergoing training in Indian military academy Derhdun in 2013.

Officials say that Pakistan first made the offer to train Afghan cadets back in 2010, but that offer never got beyond bureaucratic proposals. Things, however, started to change in 2013 when first Afghan defense delegation in post-Taliban era visited Islamabad and Rawalpindi in December of that year. And clearly Americans convinced the new Army Chief in Pakistan that closed cooperation between the security forces of two countries is necessary in the wake of withdrawal of NATO troops.

Certainly there was a kind of Pak-India rivalry playing out in the background in the proposals made by two South Asian rivals to train the Afghan national army. But there was an element of truth in General ® Kiyani’s assertions as well, that Afghan National Army would be a highly destabilizing force in the region.

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Drug peddling, drug use and high level of desertions have been identified as a major problem in the functioning of Afghan army even by the American officials themselves. “Even after ten years of rigorous training by western military officials, the Afghan national army’s performance on the ground is not very impressive”, says a recently retired military official, who did not wish to be named.

Many structured attempts have been made to bring Pakistani and Afghan diplomats and military-intelligence officials across the table in the presence of western and Chinese diplomats and military officials. None of these attempts have attained a discernible success.

One such attempt was quadrilateral meetings between Pakistan, Afghan, American and Chinese officials that started in 2016. The quadrilateral meetings were seen as a big step forward in diplomatic terms as in the words of a senior western diplomat for the first time that the talks with Taliban will have an existence outside the murky world of intelligence.

The quadrilateral meeting is a process in which senior most diplomats of four countries sit across the table and discuss “the methods, possibilities and course to the followed” in talks with Taliban. For instance, Pakistan was supposed to present the name of those Taliban groups and commanders who were willing to come to the negotiating table. This, however, didn’t happen.

In the words of a senior Pakistani official, the talks that would result from the quadrilateral meetings would be more structured and would have powerful guarantors like Beijing and Washington.

One of the basic issues on which Pakistani and Afghan diplomats have been confronting each other in these multilateral forums is how to prevent the Taliban from using violence as a tactics, while at the same time enticing the Taliban leadership to talks with Afghan government and American military. Afghan diplomats in the region have been publicly accusing Pakistan of conniving with Taliban in the perpetuation of violence in Afghan society.

Pakistani diplomats, on the other hand, have been advising the Afghan government not to put any pre-conditions for talks with Taliban and to ensure that large scale military operations are not launched against the Taliban.

In January 2016, just days before the quadrilateral meeting the outgoing Afghan Ambassador in Islamabad, Janan Mosazai delivered a spirited upbeat speech at Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). He spoke about the potentials of economic, commercial and political cooperation between his country and Pakistan and the immense regional progress and development that cooperation would entail. The main hall of ISSI was jam packed with diplomats from western, Arab and other Asian countries.

At the conclusion of his speech Ambassador Mosazai said something, which stunned the audience as it contrasted greatly with the upbeat mood of his overall speech. Many of the observers and journalists sitting in the hall took this sentence to be a warning, especially, as it was being delivered only two days after the quadrilateral meeting on Afghanistan-which was primarily aimed at chalking out a roadmap for reconciliation process in Afghanistan, but turned out to be tussle between Pakistani and Afghan side as they took opposite positions on the issue of what would be the suitable method of bringing Taliban to the negotiating table.

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Ambassador Janan Mosazai told the audience the level of violence witnessed in Afghanistan following Pakistan sponsored dialogue in Murree last July “was worse than during any of the preceding thirteen years, with innocent Afghan civilians — women, children, men — being the primary victims”. While listening to Ambassador Mosazai it appeared that he was making public what actually transpired in the quadrilateral meeting two days back on January 11, 2016.

Then Pakistan seemed to have taken the position that increased level of violence witnessed in Afghanistan could disrupt the ability of Pakistani state machinery to once again organize talks with Taliban and the Afghan government.

In 2016, Pakistan informed Afghan government and US forces based in Afghanistan that their policy to militarily crush the Afghan Taliban in the battlefield is incompatible with their oft-stated desire to negotiate with the Taliban for a negotiated settlement of Afghan problem.

Pakistani military and civilian officials made it clear to the Afghan government that the policy of militarily chasing the militants is incompatible with the desire to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

From the position of agreeing to devise a joint strategy to deal with recalcitrant Taliban groups to advising Kabul to forego the option of use of violence or threat of use of violence, there is a discernible anomaly. And Afghans were quick to point out this change as a contradiction in Islamabad’s position both publicly and in the quadrilateral meetings in Islamabad and Kabul. Coupled with this is Afghan government’s persistent perception that Islamabad is continuously engaged in an activity in Afghanistan that Kabul construes as interference in its internal affairs.

No activity makes this interference more evident than Islamabad’s success in bringing Taliban groups to the negotiating table. Interestingly, both officials and analysts in Islamabad take great pride in the fact that country’s premier intelligence agency-ISI-has the capacity to bring Taliban to the negotiating table as it became evidently clear when three Taliban commanders participated in talks with Afghan government representatives in Murree in 2015.

Once again, Washington is relying on Pakistani intelligence services to bring Taliban to the negotiating table with Afghan government. The talks between Taliban and US diplomats have already taken place under Pakistan’s auspices. The above-mentioned problems are expected to bounce back once the process of Pakistan trying to convince Afghan Taliban gets started. As the distrust level has not come down in the meantime, the problems will persist.

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