The Afghan government has an unexpectedly ardent advocate in current peace negotiations between the United States and Taliban—Pakistan. This surprising supporter has been providing sanctuary to the Taliban, thereby placing a pricey bet on its alleged proxy’s recapture of Afghanistan following a US withdrawal. The Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the government in Kabul is a major obstacle to the peace process. But Pakistan is now pressuring the Taliban to meet with Afghan officials.
What explains Pakistan’s goodwill toward the Afghan government?
The United States is eager to end its longest war and withdraw troops from Afghanistan. ‘Great nations do not fight endless wars’, US President Donald Trump declared to bipartisan applause in his most recent State of the Union address. But Washington is in a weak bargaining position. The Afghan government’s control of its country in terms of both territory and population is declining and that of the Taliban’s is increasing.
The Taliban are decimating the Afghan security forces with near-daily attacks. Even getting them to guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used to host terrorists who may launch an attack on the United States has been a major ‘sticking point’ during the talks. The Taliban have refused to specify any individuals or groups they would not harbour in the future. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s constructive role in the US–Taliban talks has been about more than just mending Islamabad’s broken relationship with Washington. Successful peace negotiations and subsequent US withdrawal from Afghanistan present Pakistan with an opportunity to shift the regional balance of power away from Washington and Delhi toward Islamabad and Beijing. The catalyst is the over US$60 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure-building plan, the flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Last year Beijing and Islamabad decided to expand the CPEC to Afghanistan, and the Afghan government expressed interest in taking part.
Yet the CPEC, for all of its potential economic benefits (and woes), faces serious security challenges, especially in the Pakistani territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and the province of Balochistan. Its success requires stability not just in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan. It requires the Taliban and the Afghan government coming to a peaceful settlement. The prospect of a stable Afghanistan gives Pakistan a strong incentive to advocate for Kabul’s representation in the peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.
And China appears to be encouraging Pakistan to do just that. At the first trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2017, China called for ‘a broad-based and inclusive peace and reconciliation process’, suggesting that the engagement of both the Afghan government and the Taliban is crucial to its regional interests.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the Taliban are ardently opposed to negotiating with Kabul. They consider the Afghan government illegitimate and not genuinely interested in ending US occupation. In response, over the past several months, Pakistan has applied ‘unprecedented pressure’ on the Taliban to open talks with the Afghan government.
One senior Taliban leader observed ‘[Pakistani officials have] made it clear to us that we have to talk to the US and Afghan governments’. In January, Pakistani authorities arrested a top Taliban commander and according to another senior Taliban leader, ‘started raids on many other houses of the Taliban movement, their friends and commanders in different places in Pakistan’.
Successful negotiations could also mean the withdrawal of US troops within three to five years. With the United States out of the picture and with CPEC binding the two countries’ economies closer together, this would create an opportunity for Pakistan to pull Afghanistan away from India’s economic orbit. With India’s role diminished, Pakistan would have an easier time pursuing its security objectives in Afghanistan, including strategic depth and a pliable Afghan government that would accept the Durand Line.
Such a geopolitical shift would secure the CPEC investment in the region and simultaneously bolster Pakistan’s own economy and ties with Kabul. Pakistan has a real chance to reorient the region’s geopolitics in its favour. It appears intent on seizing the opportunity.
Yelena Biberman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Skidmore College, New York, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center, the Atlantic Council. Her book Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in July 2019.
Jared Schwartz is a research student of political science at Skidmore College, New York.
This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 29th of March 2019.