The dysfunctional relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has deep roots. In effect, the territories now making up Pakistan were all conquered by Britain, or ceded by pliant Afghan emirs, in the nineteenth century prior to the Durand Line Agreement in 1893. Kabul’s attempts under successive leaders to disavow or reverse these arrangements are well-known. All failed. As a direct consequence, Afghanistan was the only state to oppose Pakistan’s membership in the UN in 1947 when a vote on rejoining Afghanistan was disallowed in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). In 1949, a loya jirga revoked all agreements with Britain, including those relating to the Durand Line. Throughout the 1950s and again in the 1970s under President Daoud Khan, Afghanistan pursued a “Pashtunistan” policy, which led to repeated diplomatic and economic crises with Pakistan. Kabul became a sanctuary for Baluch separatist leaders. As a direct result, starting in the late 1960s, Islamabad began a policy of armed interference in Afghanistan through proxies. It recruited and trained Afghan dissidents, mostly Islamists, including Rabbani, Hekmatyar, Massoud and Sayyaf. This policy accelerated in the mid-1970s. When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in 1979, the US adopted Pakistan’s policy of indirect interference as the best hope for forcing a Soviet withdrawal. When the US discontinued support for the mujahidin in the late 1980s, Pakistan maintained its backing. After all, the Geneva Accords in 1988 had given tacit approval to the principal of “positive symmetry” whereby foreign forces would depart, but support for proxies would continue. When Pakistan’s allies failed to establish a functioning government in Kabul after 1992, the result was civil war — from which the Taliban emerged triumphant. With strong Pakistani military assistance, the Taliban conquered all but two of Afghanistan’s provinces. With its fall from grace in 2001, the Pakistan army’s policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan suffered a major reversal — one Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was determined to recoup.

Initially Pakistan appeared to accept the terms of the Bonn Agreement, which provided for a relaunch of legitimate political institutions to govern Afghanistan, even though the principal Afghan stakeholders had been the Rome Group and the Northern Alliance — both strongly opposed to Pakistan’s policy of interference in Afghanistan. Pakistan acquiesced in this UN-led process, offered meaningful assistance to the new Afghan government, pursued expanded trade and transit, and together with the US hunted down key al-Qaeda figures such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In his first visits, President Pervez Musharraf pledged to support stability in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from reconstituting themselves.

In fact, Pakistan’s army and intelligence service did the exact opposite. Starting in late 2001, they resettled Taliban leaders in friendly areas and safe houses — moves that were given additional political cover by MMA election victories in 2002. Reluctant commanders were compelled to rejoin the Taliban by threats they would otherwise be placed on al-Qaeda target lists. Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis, Taliban commanders and key figures in al-Qaeda were urged to recommit to a joint campaign under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In March 2003, the new Taliban under Mullah Dadullah Lang began to target foreign NGO and humanitarian workers. In 2004, the first truces were negotiated in Waziristan, consolidating its status as an Emirate safe haven. In 2005, a campaign of suicide attacks was launched in Afghanistan, which drew its recruits from training facilities in Waziristan, Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan.

When Pakistan’s allies failed to establish a functioning government in Kabul after 1992, the result was civil war — from which the Taliban emerged triumphant. With strong Pakistani military assistance, the Taliban conquered all but two of Afghanistan’s provinces. With its fall from grace in 2001, the Pakistan army’s policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan suffered a major reversal — one the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was determined to recoup.

In 2006, the Taliban southern command attempted to retake Kandahar — but it was pushed back by Operation Medusa. It continued to recruit and train mullahs and commanders from across Afghanistan, indoctrinating them in madrassas, military camps and other training facilities, mostly in Baluchistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP. Throughout this period, Musharraf and Pakistani officials at all levels continued to deny that any listed terrorists were on their soil. They denied the existence of the Quetta shura — even that suicide attacks against Afghanistan were being prepared inside Pakistan, claiming that the entire leadership of the Islamic Emirate was living inside Afghanistan, with Mullah Omar resident at Kandahar. All of these claims were patently false, and in retrospect seem absurd. But for too long they were taken at face value at the political level and often by senior officials in London, New York and Washington. This confidence in Pakistan began to erode with the spike in Taliban-led violence in 2006. In July 2007, in a desperate attempt to restore his shattered credibility, President Musharraf attacked Lal Masjid in Islamabad, prompting several Islamist groups to declare jihad against the Pakistani state. Since then, Pakistan has itself been a major victim of the same violence the ISI was instrumental in unleashing against Afghanistan. In spite of these costs, Pakistan’s covert military support for the Islamic Emirate has continued unabated — and even expanded.

Taliban leaders were not invited to Bonn. The most prominent among them had been added to the UN consolidated list for Taliban and al-Qaeda, which requires all member states to (i) freeze their funds; (ii) prevent their entry or transit; and (iii) prevent any military assistance. In early contacts in Quetta and elsewhere, exiled Taliban expressed interest in reconciliation. But after its military campaign had resumed in 2003, this was not pursued. Moreover, in the face of Pakistani denials, no official attention — at the UN or elsewhere — was brought to the fact that nearly all of them were resident on the territory of Pakistan, which had comprehensively failed to implement the UN sanctions regime.

In 2004 and 2005, a prominent group of Hezb-i-Islami leaders returned from Peshawar and were publicly reconciled. Under pressure from the Bush administration, Pakistan made some efforts to ensure security for the 2004 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections — in which several dozen Hezb-i-Islami-affiliated candidates were returned. In fall 2006, Musharraf agreed to attend an Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga, which did not take place until August 2007. The Pakistani delegation did not include any representatives of the Islamic Emirate, and no progress was made toward ending the conflict, though Musharraf acknowledged for the first time that some Taliban elements might “at times” be present in areas of Pakistan.

From 2006 to 2008, a significant number of key Taliban commanders were killed inside Afghanistan. Others were arrested in Pakistan — mostly for holding unauthorized contacts with Kabul or failing to support the military campaign in Afghanistan assiduously enough. A number of direct and indirect contacts were made with Taliban leaders by members of the Afghan government and the international community, but none triggered reconciliation on any significant scale, although several dozen former members of the Taliban had joined the Kabul government over the five years since Bonn.

Following Pakistan’s general elections in February 2008, and the formation of a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led government, the Afghanistan-Pakistan jirgagai, or “small jirga,” met in Islamabad in October. It agreed to find a framework for pursuing contacts with the armed opposition led by the Taliban. At the London Conference in January 2009, the Afghan government and all its international partners agreed to pursue structured programs aimed at reconciling and reintegrating Taliban fighters. This commitment resulted in a growing series of exploratory contacts with a variety of Taliban representatives in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, particularly during the Holy Month of Ramzan in 2009 and 2010. In September 2010, President Karzai formed the High Council for Peace, including many prominent jihadi leaders. In mid-October 2010, this council met with a high-level delegation of representatives from the Islamic Emirate from Peshawar, Waziristan and Quetta — some of whom had recently been released from custody in Pakistan.

The process of reconciliation threatened from five sides:

First, the Taliban itself continues publicly and privately to espouse unrealistic objectives. The complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is a key prerequisite to talks, in its eyes. It also insists on power-sharing, including control over provinces its claims to control, as well as a share of the national government. It will also demand full de-listing of all Taliban from existing sanctions regimes, as well as a full amnesty for past crimes. Many Taliban leaders are unaware of how unrealistic these goals have become. They are mired in the propaganda-dominated preaching and media so dominant in Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and above all the tribal agencies and refugee camps, including Waziristan, where conformity to Taliban ideology is still ruthlessly enforced.

Second, a significant group of decision-makers and power-brokers in and around the Pakistani military establishment — with key allies in media, the religious parties and business, including arms and drugs — support the Islamic Emirate in order to inflict a military defeat on the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. A hard core of this group — including retired generals Muhammad Aziz Khan and Hamid Gul, as well as retired brigadiers Sultan and Afridi — are ideologically committed to this victory, which they see as ordained by the Koran and the Hadith. Others such as Musharraf himself, General Ashfaque Parvez Kayani and his associates consider this covert campaign to in Pakistan’s vital strategic interest — both to regain natural influence in Kabul and to counter Indian efforts to encircle Pakistan.

Third, a group of former commanders who were prominent in the Shura-ye Nazar, or Supervisory Council of the North, and who faced the worst of Taliban depredations over five years of resistance from 1996 to 2001, will seek to block any serious prospect of reconciliation because they prefer to retain their prominent position in Afghanistan’s current power structure – together with NATO and US support. This position enjoys support among leftist and secular Afghans, as well as among some tribal leaders and more generally among women.

Fourth, elements of Indian, Iranian, Russian and other nearby societies — including some with political weight — will oppose Afghan reconciliation with the Taliban because they do not wish to see (i) a stable Afghanistan, (ii) peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan; (iii) a US-led success in the region, or (iv) some combination of these three. Other European and North American groups will oppose reconciliation on human rights grounds, citing in particular the Islamic Emirate’s abysmal record on women’s rights and protection of civilians.

Fifth, a small group of Pashtun nationalists (with some support from India) will oppose reconciliation because they believe the widening conflict will result in the dismemberment of Pakistan and the advent of Pashtunistan.

The shape of a potential agreement is far from clear. It will almost certainly continue to have two major dimensions — a track led by

Afghanistan with members of the Islamic Emirate, and one negotiated by Afghanistan with Pakistan. But key elements of a settlement can already be reliably identified:

  • key redlines will have to be respected with regard to disarmament, peaceful reintegration, acceptance of the Afghan constitution and the human rights obligations to which Afghanistan is committed;
  • reliable protection will have to be offered to those who reconcile to ensure they are not targeted by spoilers;
  • reintegration in the sense of programs offering genuine economic opportunities will need to be credible in the eyes of Taliban rank and file;
  • disarmament, demobilization and pledges of nonviolence will have to be credible in the eyes of the Afghan population, particularly women;
  • an appropriate balance will need to be struck between requirements for forgiveness and those of justice;
  • those who decline to take part in the reconciliation process will need to face stiffer accountability under the existing sanctions regime and if necessary security operations directed against them and their supporters;
  • the end of cross-border interference will need to be monitored by an independent body, preferably under the authority of the UN; and
  • a bilateral framework for peace should be established, to include demarcation and recognition of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The continuation of Afghanistan’s conflict since 2001 has postponed Afghan society’s reckoning with the legacy of past crimes. Intimidation and impunity are still widespread — in some areas, almost universal. Scale and scope of the conflict in all its phases, including mass graves and crimes not yet fully brought to light, require a multifaceted effort along the lines of the Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation developed by the Afghan government in 2005. The disbandment of illegal armed groups, including those directly involved with the drug trade, is also far from complete.

Any peace settlement with Pakistan and with members of the Islamic Emirate should leave full scope for future criminal justice against those responsible for atrocities, war crimes and other major criminal offences. Once a peace process is underway, Afghanistan should be offered substantial international assistance for investigations and judicial proceedings to address the crimes of the past — as a further element of the multilateral assistance already committed in support of reform of the justice system. Without such a commitment, the parallel power structure that still perpetuates commander and warlord influence will pose a standing threat to Afghanistan’s stability.

Afghanistan signed its first economic agreements with Iran and Turkey in the 1930s as part of its effort to diversify away from economic dependence on British India — and to a lesser extent Soviet Russia. These arrangements later formed the basis for the Baghdad Pact — the least successful of the postwar regional alliances started under the authority of the UN Charter. Progress toward economic integration under the Regional Cooperation for Development (1964 to 1979) and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO, formed in 1985) was delayed by the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Afghan jihad and the ensuing Afghan civil war. But since 2001, the members of ECO, including Afghanistan, have increased their trade dramatically. They have also embraced the concept of an ECO Free Trade Area. These integration efforts mirror similar developments within the South Asian Association for Economic Cooperation (SAARC, also formed in 1985) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, founded in 2001).

Afghanistan has also pursued its own policy of regional economic cooperation further to conferences on this subject in Kabul (2002 and 2005), Delhi (2006) and Islamabad (2009). Turkey has also played an important role in supporting Afghanistan’s regional economic agenda, most recently through the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, which took place in Istanbul in June 2010. The US, EU countries, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Norway, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Canada have also supported initiatives to reconnect Afghanistan to the global economy. But the most positive recent development has been negotiation of a revised Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which was approved by the Pakistani cabinet in October 2010.

A huge range of multilateral and bilateral players, as well as civil society, business and religious leaders will have a role to play in this settlement. The Organization for Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Saudi King have special roles. The merchants of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar are among those who have suffered most from the absence of peace. ECO, SAARC and SCO all have legitimate interests in Afghanistan as a zone of trade, transit and investment. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank have leading roles to play as investors in infrastructure, energy transfers and expansion of road and rail networks. This diversity is a potential strength, not a weakness. It is an argument against zero sum thinking — as practised by those preoccupied by India-Pakistan rivalry, Iranian influence or other versions of a new Great Game. If properly mobilized on the basis of a regional consensus, this diversity of approaches, rooted in a new economic reality, can come to underpin a durable peace.

The key to peace in Afghanistan lies in a successful reconciliation process, backed by respect for constitutional norms, judicial due process and human rights obligations. This deal should be supplemented by a bilateral settlement with Pakistan that resolves outstanding issues, ending territorial claims and cross-border interference. The economic benefits to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region represent the most powerful tool available for countering spoiler behaviour. But strong US and international political engagement will be required for years to come to advance this agenda, which will also need to be championed by the current leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as a new generation less compromised by their role in the decades-long conflict between these two countries.

As of this writing, senior Taliban officials have paid their first major visit to Kabul since 2001. All are on the current Consolidated List; several are known to have committed some of the gravest atrocities of the war to date.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s civilian government, on the insistence of its army, continues to refuse to carry out security operations in North Waziristan and Baluchistan — precisely the areas from which large-scale attacks inside Afghanistan are being organized.

Such a balance of forces is unlikely either to yield serious negotiations or peace. Ultimately, Pakistan will have to choose between a policy of interference, now more and more nakedly pursued, or one of engagement, involving new forms of genuine cooperation. Afghanistan and Pakistan require a dramatic reset — on the basis of a strong political impulse from both sides. Pakistan’s leverage through the Taliban in Afghanistan is on a sharp downswing, as they face the prospect of either unacceptable compromise in Kabul or airstrikes in Miram Shah. But this reality is as yet poorly understood in both General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, or within the ISI — which continue to pursue forward policies from a bygone era. If Pakistan is unable to bring its Afghan policy under control, it will face internal instability, isolation and the growing enmity of its partners.


Chris Alexander
Chris Alexander was ambassador of Canada to Afghanistan (2003-05) and deputy special representative of the secretary general for Afghanistan (2005-09). His book The Long Way: The Case for Afghanistan was published by HarperCollins in 2010.

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