Addressing the geopolitics of the Afghan-Pakistan region in 2015, we should take into account several fundamentally new scenarios: Kabul’s turn in favor of Islamabad, the prevalence of geoeconomic plans over geopolitics and the search of place for the Afghan Taliban as a military and political force in the region.
After coming to power in September 2014, the new president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani started (very carefully) reconstructing relations with the nearby regional players – Pakistan, China, India and Iran. He had one motive: to end the combat mission and withdraw the main group of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
The process of forming the Cabinet of the National Unity Government of Afghanistan alone was extremely difficult, full of compromises and took a long time (nine months). One of the fundamental goals was to combine what seemed to be incompatible: giving power to representatives of all major ethnic groups: the Pashtuns (who traditionally live in the southern provinces of the country) on the one hand, and the Tajiks or Uzbeks, or other groups, on the other hand. As a result, the second ‘top-ranking’ office of the Chief Executive Officer was given to Abdullah Abdullah (a native of the northern regions of the country). Today, the position of Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, is extremely unstable. As such, one question remained relevant for Kabul: what regional power (or powers) would be capable of providing support to the National Unity Government in Afghanistan and to the head of state, and on what terms was Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai going to reach out to Pakistan.
In the autumn and winter of 2014, Islamabad was keeping an eye on the new head of Afghanistan, who had strengthened his domestic position by inviting a significant number of Pashtuns to the Cabinet of Ministers (unlike the ex-president Hamid Karzai in 2002). Pashtuns retained significant influence on Afghani affairs, which received a favorable welcome from Pakistan. Taking into account the large (according to various estimates, 15-20 million people) Pashtun ethnic group in the north-east and north along the Pakistan-Afghan border, Islamabad has always considered ‘the Pashtun question’ as a possible destabilizing factor in the political situation in Pakistan. Various actors in Islamabad have for the past thirty-five years supported the Afghan Pashtuns, regardless of whether they were joining the groups of the Mujahideens (in the 1980s), the governing administration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (in the 1990s) or the Movement of the Taliban (in 2001 – 2014), etc.
Ashraf Gani’s second step, which was also welcomed by Islamabad, was rethinking relations with India. We should avoid exaggerating the possible refusal of Kabul to implement the provisions of the Agreement on Strategic Partnership with India (2012). However, as of the current date, not only has Ashraf Gani suspended the planned deal to buy weapons from India, but has sent government troops to eastern Afghanistan to fight Pakistani militants who crossed the border (in 2014 – 2015) of the neighboring country fleeing from the attack of the federal army of Pakistan.
The third step made by Ashraf Gani towards Pakistan was the decision made in May 2015 to send six Afghan military personnel for training at military academies in Pakistan. Even during Hamid Karzai, Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf (1998 – 2007) and his successor, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani (2007 – 2013) invited Afghan officers to study at Pakistan military academies aiming at establishing relations based on trust with the Afghan National Army and reducing India’s influence. Former President Karzai refused each time and was sending officers to study in New Delhi.
In May 2015, the participation of Army Chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi in a parade at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul as the chief guest was yet another sign of the improvement of the military and technical cooperation between the two countries.
Strengthening of the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan (above all, the military relations) is vital, given the recent official statements of the Inter-Services Public Relations directorate of General Headquarters of Pakistan Army about evidence of the subversive activities of Indian intelligence agencies in the province of Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border
But let us get back to Afghanistan. It is not just the political opposition who undermines the position of President Ashraf Gani. In the thirteen years (2001-2014) of the ISAF anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, the Movement of the Taliban not only organized independently, but is today a powerful military and political force. The spring offensive, usual for southern provinces, in 2015 was, for a number of reasons, supplemented by attacks against the government forces in the eastern and north-eastern provinces. The Taliban claims that Afghanistan cannot have an independent government while foreign occupation troops remain in the country. The appeals made by the government to them to cease hostilities and comply with the constitution of the country remain unanswered, which worries both Islamabad and Kabul.
In a recent interview for The Guardian, former Pakistan President and retired General Pervez Musharraf confirmed that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had contacts with the groups of Afghan Talibs in early 2000s. But at that time, militants were also used against India.
According to the Afghan Taliban, one of the reasons for the stall in the intra-Afghan dialogue at this stage is the growing Islamabad influence, which is manifested in its intermediary efforts in ongoing negotiations.
Many analysts agree that the events in Afghanistan may unfold in more than one way. A further split within the armed opposition (local and foreign militant groups) and the recognition by part of the Taliban Movement of the ruling administration in Kabul (transfer of several provinces under their control). The ‘remaining’ militants will be treated the same way as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was by General Musharraf in 2001. They will be betrayed. His call to stop supporting insurgents in their ‘proxy’ war in Afghanistan explained a lot. As such, the path of the ‘dissenting’ militants is either to join the ranks of the Islamic State, to advance to the north-east and north to the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan or to continue armed resistance on home soil.
A further strengthening of Islamabad’s influence on inner Afghanistan developments is also explained by them commencing a powerful infrastructure project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The agreement was signed in April 2015 and the first phase of the project is estimated at USD 46 billion. The construction of the strategically important giant facility, part of which will run in close proximity to the Afghani borders, forces Islamabad to use all defence and security systems. The military establishment that represents one of the largest economic corporations in Pakistan will create all necessary conditions for its implementation.
Geopolitics is gradually replaced by geoeconomics in the region. This requires the search for new approaches to neighboring states and new priorities for the protection of national interests
Natalya Zamaraeva, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Pakistan Institute for Near-East Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”