To resolve "historical misunderstandings" and end the longstanding "undeclared state of war" with Pakistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made what was seen as a contentious, groundbreaking attempt to reconcile with a country many Afghans see as their enemy.
In a high-risk, high-reward gamble, Ghani signed a controversial intelligence-sharing deal with Pakistan, sent Afghan military cadets for training in Pakistan, and then, at the request of Islamabad, ordered Afghan forces to uproot Pakistani Taliban militants hiding in Afghanistan. In return, Ghani expected Pakistan to end its support for the Afghan Taliban or at least to bring the militant group to the negotiating table.
But Kabul’s “extended hand was not shaken,” admitted an angry Ghani. The old blame game resurfaced between the sides and mutual mistrust spiraled. That was in 2015 and little has changed or is expected to under new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pakistan’s all-powerful army and its notorious intelligence agency, ISI, is widely believed to have a tight grip on foreign policy.
The ISI trained, armed, and funded Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It was credited with forming the Taliban in the 1990s. Since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan has accused the ISI of providing haven on Pakistani soil to the Taliban which is bent on overthrowing the government in Kabul.
Rahmatullah Nabil, who resigned as Afghanistan’s intelligence chief in the wake of the intelligence deal that was later ditched, says Ghani’s outreach failed because, for Pakistan, the president’s concessions did not go far enough. Nabil says Pakistan has told Afghanistan it will only end its support for the Taliban and back Kabul’s peace process with the militant group if its “strategic” goal of a friendly government in Kabul is achieved. Nabil says Pakistan wants Kabul to limit the role of India, Pakistan’s archrival, in Afghanistan; to recognize the countries’ contested border; and remove “anti-Pakistan” elements in the Afghan security apparatus. That would amount to Afghanistan, government officials have said, relinquishing its sovereignty and becoming a Pakistani client state.
Analysts say Pakistan’s most valuable insurance policy for reaching its goals in Afghanistan is the Taliban, which enjoys sanctuaries in Pakistan. Afghan and U.S. officials claim the Taliban leadership resides in the Pakistani southwestern city of Quetta. A Pakistani official admitted as much in 2016, adding that Islamabad had “influence” over the militants.
“Pakistan wants Afghanistan and the United States to make a big offer to the Taliban that will provide them with incentives to return to Afghanistan. That would entail giving the Taliban much more power than the Afghan government or U.S. can accept,” says Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official that participated in talks with Taliban representatives in Europe and the Middle East.
The militant group – and by extension its chief backer, Pakistan – has no interest in “meaningful negotiations” because “they believe they are winning and they know that time is on their side,” says Thomas Johnson, the author of Taliban Narratives.
Afghanistan is locked in a deadly war of attrition that favors the Taliban. The Taliban controls more territory than any time since 2001, it is inflicting record casualties on Afghan forces, and appears to have significantly increased the number of its fighters.
President Ghani has offered the Taliban unconditional talks and made unprecedented concessions to the militants, including a role in politics and reviewing the constitution. But the Taliban has not budged, demanding a big chunk of power, an Islamic form of government, and the withdrawal of foreign forces.
“A review of insurgencies since World War II suggests that groups like the Taliban, which retain a sanctuary in neighboring states, either win insurgencies or successfully drag them out,” Seth Jones, the author of Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, wrote recently.
In other words, Kabul needs to reach to a grand bargain with Pakistan or, as Jones says, the United States needs to “coerce or cajole Pakistan to curb its support to proxies and support a peace process.”
Complicating Kabul’s potential reconciliation with Pakistan and the Taliban is the Afghan public's widely-held view that the militants are Islamabad's ‘proxy force.’
“Many of the biggest political parties in the country are built on the foundations of mujahideen groups that battled the Taliban in the 1990s,” says Graeme Smith, the author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan. “We have also seen unease among some well-educated urban elites that often accuse the Taliban of being a ‘Pakistani puppet.’” Afghan opposition to the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, is particularly strong among members of the country's sizeable minorities that were persecuted under their draconian rule.
“Many Afghans think that peace has to be approached from a position of relative strength and consensus with objectives that do not jeopardize the gains of the last 17 years,” says Omar Samad, an analyst and former Afghan ambassador.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)