On the eve of the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan beginning tomorrow, the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey are meeting today for a trilateral summit in which Turkey is expected to play the role of a mediator to bridge the gaps and frictions between Islamabad and Kabul. How far such mediation, and the multilateral conference to follow, will succeed in overcoming not just the trust deficit between the major players but also reconcile what have increasingly emerged as fundamental strategic and policy divergences amongst the ostensible allies remains to be seen.
Having said that, it is necessary to recognise the shifts in position detectable even as the war on the ground (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) grinds on. To illustrate, a targeted US drone strike on Monday killed three people in North Waziristan, reflecting once again the intensified reliance by the Obama administration on a ‘decapitation’ through such remote means strategy. Inside Afghanistan, a suicide attack in Kandahar killed three Afghan UNHCR staff, raising new speculations whether the relative calm on the southern front in recent months may now give way to Mulla Omar’s forces joining hands with the Haqqani network’s intensifying attacks on American, Nato and Afghan forces in Kabul.
While the US seems to be relying, in Hillary Clinton’s words, on “Fight, Talk, Build” to ensure a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, it appears the Taliban, and their Pakistani military backers, are countering with a “Ceasefire, Talk, Wait for the Americans to Leave” posture. This makes eminent sense from their point of view. Why expend lives and resources on major military activity against an enemy that has declared its intention to retreat? This of course does not preclude pinprick attacks and bombings, which of late seem to be concentrated for maximum effect on the cities, rather than a classic guerrilla campaign in the traditional Taliban strongholds of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The US’s ‘bomb-them-to-the-bargaining-table’ strategy, therefore, is unlikely to yield the results hoped for. There is little incentive at present for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table when the battlefield is yielding tactical, strategic, and political success. To add to this tendency, suspicions and the trust deficit between ostensible allies Pakistan and the US, especially because of the recent strategic partnership agreement signed between Kabul and New Delhi, are hardening in the Pakistani military establishment’s minds. The spectre of being squeezed in a ‘nutcracker’ by India on the east and Indian influence in Kabul on the west has always been GHQ’s worst nightmare. Suspicion that Washington is not averse, and may even be relying on, an expanded Indian role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, has brought the traditional rivalry between Pakistan and India to the proxy war battlefields of Afghanistan. In such an emerging scenario, the Pakistani military feels it holds a few cards of its own. And certainly Washington’s about-face in asking the ISI to help bring the Haqqani network to the negotiating table would bring great satisfaction to the Pakistani strategic planners. They have effectively played the ‘spoiler’s role’ to sabotage any attempts by the US at bypassing the ISI and independently negotiating with the Taliban (occasional reports of such US-Taliban contacts having faded away of late) and won a psychological and political victory by forcing Washington to abandon any such notions and return to asking for the services and good offices of the ISI for any hoped for settlement.
With such divergent considerations informing the Pakistani and US sides, these main players in the Afghan theatre are unlikely to resolve their differing strategic and political goals, and even make the idea of a regional solution through some architecture of a new regional Afghanistan resolution group a non-starter. What then are the prospects in Istanbul or for that matter in the Bonn conference to follow on December 5? It looks increasingly like ‘fight-fight’ while keeping up the pretence of ‘talk-talk’ on the Pakistani side, and just ‘fight-fight’ on the Afghan Taliban side. The ground therefore is being prepared for a new civil war in Afghanistan once the foreign forces leave. The Pakistani military may be convinced it has no choice but to see this endgame through, and plenty of ‘strategic’ advantage in persisting with this course, but there is grave concern about the cost to be paid, now and in future, by Pakistan and its people.