There is of late growing interest in how Pakistan is making itself a key player in the Afghan game. China is the new sheriff in town, hosting and talking to the Taliban. Pakistan is obviously the interlocutor. Army chief Raheel Sharif has been going to and fro between Kabul and Beijing. The US is game too—it means less involvement and responsibility. The new government in Kabul is happy to go along since it has no choice. The new President, Ashraf Ghani is Washington man and cannot step outside the brief he has. Ghani, as is well known, won the presidential race only because Washington, and Rawalpindi, were not sure of Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik-Pashtun with marked inclination towards India. So by all accounts, everything is going as planned. Or is it?
This is where the questions tumble out. If Pakistan is really keen on helping Afghanistan to find a peaceful coexistence, then why is it still protecting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network? Given that these two entities are vital `strategic assets` for the state, these are also therefore amenable to control and management. It means Pakistan can manage both the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network which leads us to another tempting premise. These groups can be brought to the table and persuaded to give up fighting, stack away their weapons and become part of the political mainstream. This is perhaps high on the minds of the Generals from Pakistan Army as they deal with the treacherous landscape of Pashtun militancy. They know, perhaps more than others, that it is not so simple. The Afghan Taliban, despite the fact that its top leaders, their kith and kin, have found shelter in Pakistan since 2001 and continues to enjoy the patronage, there is so much they would do for their patrons.
The Taliban has a mind of its own, its leaders have clear political goals and all of them are Afghans and Pashtuns. The Pakistani Generals are, at least most of them, Punjabi Pakistanis. These two have no love lost for each other for decades. Their suspicion and animosity is historical. The Pashtuns don’t see eye to eye with Pakistanis on the issue of Durand Line; they consider it a divisive line and have in past fought over it. The Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan had refused to recognise Pakistan as a sovereign state and opposed its membership at the United Nations. Pashtuns by and large believe that the Pakistanis, in connivance with the British, had deceived them in 1947. The bitterness and hatred is so deep that it is difficult to know whether an ordinary Pashtun hates Pakistanis more or the Americans. Even during their short tenure in Kabul, between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban were not really quite amenable to Pakistani orders and had clearly stated that they can’t give up their claim on the Pashtun land on the Pakistani side of Durand Line. The Taliban refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders to Pakistan when the then ISI chief was dispatched days after the 9/11 attacks by General Pervez Musharraf under tremendous pressure from the US. There is no guarantee that the Taliban would be willing to heed the advice of the Generals in future.
More tricky is the nature of the Taliban itself. Back in 1996, there was one Taliban, and it was the Afghan Taliban headed by Mullah Omar. Today, Omar is nowhere to be seen and there are several Talibans around, notably among them being Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Punjabi Taliban and several other smaller affiliates which call themselves some kind of Taliban or the other. As far as Mullah Omar is concerned, no one is sure whether he is alive or not. Even if one were to give the benefit of doubt to Omar, the Afghan Taliban leadership is not the same either. Nor are the pressures and temptations which the leadership have been facing since 2001. There are some who want to talk, others who want to fight. Some want to fight the Pakistanis as well while other believe their enemies are the US and its proxy rulers in Kabul, namely Ghani and Abdullah. On top of it, Pakistan wants to help train the Afghan security forces to fight the enemy which, by all known logic, should mean the Taliban. So where does this leave Pakistan—an enemy or a friend?
Then there is the question of the Haqqani Network. These are hardened Afghan Jihad veterans who have, with the help of the Pakistan Army, established a vast criminal empire which is both extraordinarily resourceful and brutal. They are also Pashtuns and Afghans and do not have any cultural or other affinity to Pakistan except mercenary interests. Not that that Pakistanis have any filial relationship—it is essentially “strategic“. This could be, and is, the undoing of Pakistan. The Haqqanis patronise TTP which considers Pakistan Army as its avowed enemy. The Haqqanis shelter al Qaeda which considers Pakistan as its next destination after the dust has settled down in the Middle East. The Haqqanis also patronises Uzbek militants who have been on the wrong side of the Pakistan Army for decades now. The Pakistanis know all these and much more but they can’t give up on the Haqqanis. There is neither the will nor the capacity to deal with the Haqqanis as enemies. It would surely lead to Pashtunistan, a prospect which the Generals in Rawalpindi dread the most.
Pakistanis are dealing with some vicious `frienemies`, more dangerous than the “so called” known enemy, India. To the big question whether the Generals will pull off a coup against all these odds, the answer is not really difficult to figure out. This will leave Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region into a turmoil of a magnitude which is not even being imagined today.