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Why Ghani’s Pakistan Outreach Failed

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif offering prayers at a Pakistani war memorial (file photo)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif offering prayers at a Pakistani war memorial (file photo)

After more than a year and a half of courting Pakistan with the hope that it could deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has finally changed his course.

“We do not expect Pakistan to bring the Taliban to talks,” he proclaimed to a joint session of both houses of Afghan Parliament on April 25. This shift in tone comes on the heels of the April 19 attack in Kabul that killed dozens and left hundreds of others wounded. The attack seemed to underscore Ghani’s failure to convince Pakistan to abandon its support and shelter of terrorists on its soil.

For the vast majority of his presidency, Ghani has determinedly pursued a policy of being the neighbor many thought Pakistan desired. It was hardly a secret he was the candidate Pakistan favored during the run-off election, with General Pervez Musharraf even declaring so publicly in an interview.

Ghani’s endeavors toward a rapprochement with Pakistan manifested in a reversal of many of his predecessor’s policies. Whereas former President Hamid Karzai refused to send Afghan troops to any neighboring countries for training, Ghani allowed for six Afghan cadets to receive training in Pakistan. He has gone as far as to permit the Pakistani military to operate on Afghan soil and even authorized cooperation with them in their operations against the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Ghani also rescinded Karzai’s request for arms from India, with his first visit to Kabul’s historic ally coming seven months into his presidency. His distant approach relative to that of Karzai culminated in India’s being too busy to discuss the Strategic Partnership Agreement they signed with Afghanistan in 2011.

Yet despite the notable changes made by Ghani, the Taliban’s newly announced spring offensive and the deteriorating security situation gives him little to show for his efforts. Although some may posit that the newfound life of the insurgency comes in spite of Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb operation, it would be naive to discount the negative impact the spillover of militants across the porous Durand Line has had on the security situation in Afghanistan.

At the same time, despite promises of non-discrimination in its targeting of militants, it appears as though the sweeping operations along Pakistan’s western frontier have done little to disrupt the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura’s ability to plan and carry out major attacks in Afghanistan.

This begs the question: Why has Ghani’s olive branch to Pakistan’s security establishment failed? The answer lies in an understanding of prevailing strategic thought in the Pakistani security establishment.

Like most security or military entities, Pakistan’s army and ISI operate on realpolitik considerations when devising strategy. From this perspective, despite all Ghani has done, Pakistan still feels it can be in a better position vis-à-vis Afghanistan by continuing to support proxies that keep its neighbor weak.

As things stand, Kabul lacks the leverage necessary to adequately pressure Pakistan to change course. It also lacks the leverage to negotiate from a position of strength with the Taliban. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban are ready to “quit while ahead,” and instead both are choosing to stay in the game.

If Ghani and the U.S. hope to finally change Pakistan’s double-dealing, they cannot pin hopes on attempts at appeasement. The only thing that can prompt Pakistan to reconsider its sheltering and support of the Taliban and other proxies is a tangible shift that will alter its strategic calculus.

Anything short of this -- from arguments that supporting terrorism will only have a blowback effect in Pakistan to pleas for good relations between “brotherly nations” -- will do little to cause the military establishment to change course.

As Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, recently stated, Pakistan will only discontinue its current policy in Afghanistan when its continuity begins to cost them. In other words, Afghanistan must grow strong enough so that Pakistan’s meddling will become too costly for the latter to sustain.

The focus of the U.S., Afghanistan, and its international partners must now be on how to bolster Afghanistan, improve its bargaining position, and give it more leverage vis-à-vis the destabilizing forces in the region.

To accomplish this, Afghanistan and its allies must launch a multi-pronged strategy. Militarily, the Afghan Air Force must be built up, the ANSF must develop their medevac capabilities, and a more aggressive posture must be taken to carry the fight to the fundamentalists. Some of these steps are already taking place, albeit at a very nascent stage. The key is to see them through.

The U.S. and its NATO allies can help by removing the arbitrary deadlines for decreasing troop levels and withdrawing from Afghanistan. Instead, U.S. and NATO policymakers should heed the advice of their military leaders on the ground regarding their needs to accomplish their mission.

Announcing that a withdrawal is just beyond the horizon only serves to boost the morale of the Taliban and further discourages negotiations by giving the insurgents hope that they will be in a better position if they continue to bide their time.

Although the expectation that Pakistan would be genuine in its commitments to change its ways was overly optimistic, the underlying assumption that stability cannot be achieved without its cooperation is accurate. If this type of cooperation cannot be achieved through Ghani’s outreach, the international community must do more to change Pakistan’s strategic calculus for continuing its covert support for violent extremism.

The continuance of such a policy must become more costly before Pakistan’s military -- the institution with de facto control over the country’s foreign policy -- will consider a change as more beneficial.

There are a variety of mechanisms at the international community’s disposal, from economic sanctions, to conditional aid, to the elimination of subsidized military equipment.

If the U.S. and its allies want peace in the region, they will have to muster the courage to confront Pakistan’s duplicitous ways. After 15 years of trial and failure, perhaps it is time to try Occam’s razor.

Amin Nojan is a South and Central Asia analyst with a Master of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.