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How will the Kabul tragedy affect Pak-Afghan relations?

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi

THE Kabul water-tank blast killed 90 people and injured 400 or more. The final death toll may be much higher. This is reportedly the biggest suicide attack since the US invasion in October 2001. The obscenity has happened in the month of Ramazan. No organisation has yet claimed responsibility.

The Afghan Taliban have denied their involvement. Pakistan has condemned the attack and its leadership has condoled with the families and government of Afghanistan. The Afghan NDS (Afghanistan’s ISI) has blamed the Haqqani network and further alleged that its sponsors in Pakistan were responsible. Without evidence this charge is irresponsible. The US, however, has consistently insisted the ISI provides facilities and services to the Haqqani network. Pakistan rejects these allegations

Afghan intelligence is known for its hostility to Pakistan and many in Pakistan believe it is influenced by India. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who are bitter partners/rivals, share the general Afghan belief that Pakistan is responsible for the resilience and successes of the Taliban against the Afghan armed forces. Pakistan insists the Taliban of Afghanistan must participate in any Afghan settlement process for it to be durable. Even though the Taliban are no puppets of Pakistan they are not very well disposed towards India. This is allegedly one reason Pakistan will not take any serious action against them and their associates.

Our diplomats will continue to gallantly shoulder the inevitable blame.

The security apparatus in Afghanistan supports the Pakistani Taliban in retaliation for Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. Despite differences of focus, both Taliban support each other. Tactically, the Afghan Taliban do not target Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban do not target Afghanistan. Strategically and ideologically they are one, except for splinter groups who have joined up with the militant Islamic State group. They are both supported by elements in the security establishments of both countries who enjoy immunity and impunity. This is an indefensible situation which can never benefit Pakistan.

Adding to this explosive mix is the decision of Trump to send 5,000 US soldiers for training, assistance and advisory services as well as black operations in Afghanistan (and possibly Pakistan.) This will inevitably be another doomed US mission. The next few days will indicate whether or not the US associates itself with the latest Afghan accusations against Pakistan. If so, this will have consequences for US-Pakistan cooperation.

While China supports Pakistan vis-а-vis India it will not choose between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whatever the status of formal denials, a policy of denial cannot of itself reduce the risk of regional isolation for Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan’s policy of involvement with the Arab Nato/military alliance against Iran is adding to its regional isolation. Who makes such consistently incompetent policy? Certainly, not the Foreign Office! Nevertheless, our diplomats will continue to gallantly shoulder the inevitable blame! Maybe that is why we don’t need a foreign minister. He would only get in the way of a failing foreign policy.

Pakistan’s relations with India, the US, Iran and Afghanistan are at rock bottom. Do we expect China to burden itself with the task of compensating for Pakistan’s foreign policy deficit? But this is really a national policy deficit. There is nothing China can or should do about that. Meanwhile, a domestically and internationally besieged Trump may be looking for ‘a splendid little war’ — with North Korea, Iran, inside Afghanistan or even another Abbottabad! — to force the support of an increasingly bewildered and embarrassed American public for a ‘war president’. This would also scotch the threat of impeachment. In such a scenario, the US may make exacting strategic demands of Pakistan that could impair its relations with China.

What if the US demanded military access to Gwadar holding out the bait of significantly increased military and financial assistance, much greater access to US markets, more robust pressure on India for productive dialogue on a Kashmir settlement, less pressure on Pakistan on account of nuclear proliferation and alleged terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens, encouraging massive Saudi/Gulf assistance and investment in Pakistan matching that from China, etc? Could Pakistan be persuaded to de-prioritise CPEC, Asian connectivity and strategic cooperation with China? Maybe not.

China offers golden longer-term benefits and opportunities to Pakistan. The US may offer more attractive short-term but undependable longer-term assistance. This may perversely suit corrupt Pakistani elites — many of whose future plans do not include Pakistan. But it can never suit the people of Pakistan who will, in good times and bad, remain forever faithful to their only country.

Moreover, in every conceivable scenario Pakistan will always be a distant second best strategic choice for the US compared to India. This is not the case with China. But can China rely on Pakistan’s longer-term national interests to determine its national and foreign policy choices? Elite interests are always presented in the garb of national interests. Moreover, frank public discussion of current policies is discouraged and strong policy criticism is often criminalised by a criminal elite. Accordingly, the real national interest has seldom prevailed.

In 1971, West Pakistan buried the Quaid’s Pakistan. Rump Pakistan has refused to draw any policy lessons from that tragedy — or from other national humiliations since. The so-called intellectual classes and media savants seem to accept this situation as the standard political norm in Pakistan. Intellectual indifference towards leadership betrayal and corruption defines our politics. Julian Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (the treason of the intellectuals) normalises every betrayal.

Finally, whoever rained down the recent hell on the people of Kabul — and we may never learn their identities — are undoubtedly enemies of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, of all Muslims, of Islam, of the Prophet (PBUH), and of God. Whatever the context, precedents, background, cause and explanations, this was the work of the devil himself, just as similar acts are anywhere in the world. The only silver lining of this dark and bloody cloud is an opportunity for genuine and comprehensive cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given minimally competent and committed leadership this is not a difficult task. Is even this too much to expect?

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2017

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