Pakistan shifts its Afghanistan strategy: To what end?

The advisor to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, while on a visit to the United States earlier in the week, publicly acknowledged the symbiotic relationship between his country and the Taliban. It seemed a preposterous performance.

Adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz addresses members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC

Adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz addresses members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC

Innuendos, yes; subtle hints, yes; sly mannerisms, yes; the odd media leak, yes  – but this is the first time ever that at an authoritative level Pakistan has admitted that the Pied Piper is actually leading the fearsome Taliban leaders.

The maximum that Pakistan had come so far was when former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf said in a Pakistani TV interview last October, “We trained Taliban, gave them weapon and sent them for war and they (militants) were our heroes… In President Karzai’s times, yes, indeed, he was damaging Pakistan and therefore we were working against his interest. Obviously, we had to protect our own interest. . . . Pakistan had its own proxies…”

The Pakistani generals never quite retire, but Musharraf was not holding any public office when he spoke. At any rate, Aziz has zipped past Musharraf.

In a few sentences, Aziz unceremoniously demolished the myth that has been assiduously cultivated and tenaciously sustained for two decades and more to the effect that Pakistan has no control over the Taliban.

Aziz said during an event at the well-known American think tank Council of Foreign Relations in Washington DC on Tuesday when he was asked pointedly about the extent of influence Pakistan would be wielding over the Taliban to get them to come to the negotiating table:

  • It is a good question, because this is a question which surrounds a lot of misgivings and suspicions that float around right now. I think … people who have dealt with this issue recognize that Taliban in the best of times did not listen to Pakistan always, whether it was the Bamiyan statues, whether it was the Christians actions, many other things. They would listen to us when it suited them, otherwise they did not.
  • And now, we have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say: Come to the table. But we can’t negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we can’t offer them what Afghan government can offer them. So actually, Pakistan, U.S., and China are committed on the road map to persuade them to come together. But then it is for the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate whatever they want to [achieve] the outcome they aim at.
  • Now, Pakistan lever, as you said, what kind of hands we hold, one is freedom of movement. We already, before the 7thJuly meeting last year, we had to use some of these levers and restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospital and other facilities, and threatened them that if you do not come forward and talk, then obviously we will at least expel you, because — or give you the chance to go wherever you want to, because we have hosted you enough for 35 years. We can’t do any more. It’s now—the whole world is blaming us just by your presence here.
  • So that is the kind of leverage we have to bring them to the table. But to pressurize them, to negotiate, will depend on the parties which are actually negotiating.

Aziz is a highly experienced statesman and an accomplished diplomat, and always speaks with great deliberation and circumspection – even in the heat of a quarrel involving India. It is inconceivable that he would commit a faux pas on such a hugely sensitive topic.

Aziz actually took it upon himself to flesh out the Pakistani modus operandi to arm twist the Taliban leaders. Himself an ethnic Pashtun, Aziz would know that Taliban leaders wouldn’t like being discussed publicly in a way that exposes their high vulnerability to Pakistani pressure.

Indeed, at its most obvious level, this has been an eager attempt on Aziz’s part to impress the American audience with Pakistan’s sincerity, candor and good faith. Aziz would be acutely conscious that Pakistan faces a formidable credibility problem in the US perceptions.

In the outside perception, Pakistan’s sincerity of purpose even within the Quadrilateral Consultative Group (comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, US and China), which promotes the reconciliation with the Taliban, is not yet beyond; such is the backlog of the history of Pakistani doublespeak.

Therefore, the question that comes readily to mind is: Can it be that Pakistan is distancing itself, finally, from the Taliban and preparing to dump them?

However, that seems an improbable scenario, since the Taliban are on victory march at present, exercising control over one-third of Afghanistan and evicting the Afghan government forces from more and more areas in southern Afghanistan across the Durand Line.

At a time when the international community has come to accept the Taliban as a mainstream player, why should Pakistan change tack? Indeed, the time is nearing for Pakistan to encash its ‘strategic assets’ and secure its own interests in any Afghan settlement.

The most striking thing here is that Aziz went on record before an elite American audience. The CFR is a premier think tank of the US foreign and security policy establishment.

Pakistan seems to be embarking on a shift in its Afghan strategy. Suffice it to say, what used to be a covert alliance with the Taliban is being openly acknowledged, even publicized in a high-profile manner.

This would help Pakistan to recalibrate its overall stance, now that the defining moment is arriving shortly to formally launch the reconciliation process involving the Taliban. From now onward, as Americans would say, it is going to be a new ball game.

It is something like the day arriving when mama bird watches the baby birds flying out of the nest into the blue firmament.

Quite obviously, Pakistan has little to gain by continuing to remain in a denial mode regarding its two-decade old covert alliance with Taliban. On the contrary, it is better to put the trump card on the table and negotiate for optimal terms of victory. This is one thing.

More important, Pakistan has lost interest in the Afghan pantomime. The new priority is to speed up the endgame. China has made the $46 billion Silk Road investments in Pakistan conditional on a sea change in the regional security scenario.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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