The post-2014 Afghan scenario is the project of two interrelated trends: reduced attention to Afghanistan by world powers, and as a consequence, its transition into a regional channel. The vacuum formed after the withdrawal of the main US/NATO coalition forces is being rapidly filled by regional states: China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Japan. This, in turn, increases competition between them for spheres of influence in Kabul, with each side seeking to advance its own national interests.
Pakistan in the last thirty years of war in Afghanistan has considered this border country as one of its most important strategic assets and, accordingly, spheres of influence. Islamabad connected to the arrival of each regime that came into power in the late 1970s and the 2000s and the internal security situation in Afghanistan with further influence on the ongoing internal political situation in Pakistan. This primarily concerned the agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) adjacent to the Durand Line, the so-called zone of Pashtun tribes.
The revival of Pakistani-Afghan relations in autumn 2014 is the result of several interrelated events, both regional and within Afghanistan:
- The changing geo-strategical and political situation in the region,
- The change of leadership in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,
- The strengthening of the Afghan Taliban, many foreign militants in the country, etc.
Background to the sequence of events:
- Presidential elections in Afghanistan,
- The inauguration of the new president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in late September 2014, and the parallel appointment of “CEO” Abdullah Abdullah,
- The formation of a national unity government,
- The signing at the end of September 2014 of a bilateral pact on security with the United States, and in November of this year the special order of US President Barack Obama to extend the military mission of US troops in Afghanistan with extended powers (military operations against the Taliban in the case of a direct threat to US military personnel, provision by militants of support to al-Qaeda and/or a direct strategic threat to Afghan National Security Forces, ANSF);
- As a result: strengthening of the Afghan Taliban that condemned extension of the stay of foreign troops, objective components: the weakness of the ANSF, the low level of economic development, unemployment, an urgent need for foreign aid and investment, etc.
Stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan is very important for Pakistan, not only from the standpoint of combating “destructive elements” that cross the border into Pakistan from neighbouring countries, but also due to the growing influence of India in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. But, in general, Islamabad considers Kabul to be an outpost for further trade, economic, and energy exports to Central Asia.
Pakistan was among the first in September 2014 to welcome the conclusion of the electoral process and the agreement between the two candidates for the presidency of Afghanistan in the “hope and expectation that this peaceful political transition will guide Afghanistan towards greater stability”. And all this despite the recent (September 2014) mutual accusations that both sides did not take effective measures to destroy the militants’ hiding places in its territories, violated border control, and destabilized the region.
Islamabad, in turn, has officially protested due to the increasing threat posed by the newly created militant hideouts in the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, as well as the charges brought by the Council of National Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan in connection with “…Afghan attempts to involve the Pakistan intelligence agency in terrorist activities…” Pakistan has denied these claims, stating that they are “groundless and counter productive”.
Despite the legacy of previous years, Pakistan and Afghanistan in October 2014 stated that they would turn a new page in their relations. The capitals only had time to provide information on official events.
At the end of September 2014, the Pakistani President flew to Kabul for the inauguration ceremony of the elected Ashraf Ghani. On the eve of a brief visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Kabul, as a gesture of goodwill Islamabad transferred 29 Afghan civilians to the authorities of the neighbouring country. They were arrested by the federal army during a military operation in the North Waziristan agency. These persons, as was officially declared, had no connection with terrorists.
The two leaders confirmed in October 2014 that Pakistan and Afghanistan should have a “special relationship”. For its part, Islamabad articulated its position in relation to Kabul:
– Pakistan is pursuing a policy of non-interference and strict neutrality towards Afghanistan;
- The territory of Afghanistan should not be used against Pakistan;
- All countries should contribute to the economic recovery and help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.
The Adviser to the Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs and National Security S. Aziz urged India and other countries “… to stop interfering in Afghanistan and compete only in the reconstruction of the country.”
Both Kabul and Islamabad have shown interest in the opportunities provided by the period of political transition in Afghanistan to transform the bilateral relations into partnership relations. Work is planned in several areas: political, security and defence, trade and economic, and extension of cultural exchanges.
In recent years, the military component in Pakistani-Afghan relations has dominated, and still prevails today. This is confirmed by the fact that only as a result of negotiations at the beginning of November 2014 by the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan General R. Sharif and political and military leaders of Afghanistan did a trade and economic dialogue start between the two countries.
The new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has examined for a long time the regional players, or rather, has spent a long time in choosing a strategic military partner. Beijing refused immediately, saying that its main goal in Afghanistan is investment, economic and trade cooperation. President Ashraf Ghani slowed the expansion of military-political cooperation with India. One reason is the internal armed opposition in Afghanistan, negotiations with which are essential in order to achieve stability in the country, but the keys to negotiations are held by the generals of Pakistan. It seems that this was one of the reasons that President A. Ghani undertook rapprochement with Islamabad.
During the visit of the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan General R. Sharif to Afghanistan, the contours of the future of security in Afghanistan were discussed at the same time as framework commitments by the security forces of the two countries. He proposed a “full range” of educational courses and training for Afghan soldiers in Pakistani military educational institutions. The proposal also included the training of infantry brigades and the provision of necessary equipment.
Mutual complaints made by the two countries against each other during the anti-terrorism campaign from 2001 to the present have focused on two issues: transborder crossings of Afghan/Pakistani/foreign militants into Afghanistan/Pakistan and back and silence on harbouring militants in both countries, from where they make transborder attacks. Both capitals recognize that these mutual claims threaten regional stability. Thus, in November 2014, the parties stated that the starting point for improving Pakistani-Afghan relations is the obligation of both parties not to allow use of their territory against each other. In this way, the parties have once again confirmed the need to improve border management mechanisms and the further development of preventive measures to prevent transborder crossings by militants.
The military operation conducted by the federal army of Pakistan (Spring 2014 to present) in Northern Waziristan and Khyber, the elimination of hiding places for foreign fighters and local “anti-federal elements” partially address Afghanistan’s arguments regarding their accusation of Pakistan harbouring militants.
The exit of the majority of US/NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the extended powers of the US/NATO military contingent in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal (read – failure!) of the USA from dialogue with the Afghan armed opposition suggest that Washington and Kabul have high hopes for Islamabad in the settlement/negotiation process with the Afghan Taliban, strengthening the control of transborder crossings on the Pakistani-Afghan border, and further elimination of militant hideouts on Pakistani territory. The totality of these circumstances speaks about the strengthening role of Islamabad in resolving the crisis between the official presidential-parliamentary power and the armed opposition in Afghanistan as a whole, and particularly the military establishment.
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow in the Pakistan Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.