For any future historian it will be very difficult to write about today’s Pak-Afghan relationship without quoting powerful words from the opening lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 witnessed for the first time in so many years a real hope for a breakthrough in the Pak-Afghan relationship. Although most of Pakistani analysts tend to pinpoint a change in the Afghan political leadership as the main factor for the new and conducive atmosphere but for any rational analysis one has to concede that equally if not more important have also been the changes taking place in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in 2013. It is of course a fact that Dr. Ashraf Ghani, with no political baggage of the Cold War era, was in a position to take some bold and fresh political initiatives along with a keen interest for developing the economic dimension of the relations. On the Pakistani side Mohammad Nawaz Sharif’s party in the general elections won the core province of the Punjab and also got majority seats in the National Assembly and formed the federal government. PM Nawaz Sharif and his party clearly stood for normalizing relations with neighboring countries and for developing economic cooperation with them. As the most prominent member of the Punjabi political elite he appeared to have a clear advantage over his predecessor Asif Ali Zardari whose coalition government’s support came mainly from the smaller provinces (a periphery) that stood no chance in the face of the mounting pressure of the Punjabi dominated security establishment. Soon after political changes there were also significant changes in the GHQ where General Raheel Sharif was nominated as the new COAS by PM Nawaz Sharif. Apparently the new army leadership was conscious of the dangers of the country’s involvement in international the “Jihadist” project.
But those of us who were celebrating the completion of the constitutional term by the National Assembly for the first time in history, and the peaceful transfer of political power from one elected government to another elected government were in for a shock to discover that there is not going to be a smooth sailing even now. The prolonged sit in at the heart of Islamabad and vigorous agitation in 2014 ostensibly against the “rigged elections” did not result in a formal coup but it considerably weakened the new elected government forcing it to not only revise its ambitious agenda of reaching out to the neighbors but to also concede a greater space for the security the establishment in shaping the country’s security as well as foreign policy. Relations with India deteriorated with growing tensions at the borders, particularly on the Line of Control. The victory of the Narendra Modi led hawkish BJP in the Indian general elections, and the hard stand taken by the new government toward Pakistan, further dampened the hopes for normalization of relations any time soon.
Interestingly hope for improvement of relations with Afghanistan remained intact despite the setbacks on other fronts. Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s successful visit of Pakistan paved ground for a new partnership between the two countries to fight against the joint enemy of terrorism. The Peshawar tragedy on December 16 last year and the apparent changes in the policy of Pakistani state towards extremism and militancy boosted these hopes as the top political and military leadership of the two countries huddled together time and again to coordinate their fight against terrorism. Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb destroyed important terrorist infrastructure in North Waziristan, which had become notorious the world over. Afghanistan also carried out dozens of operations against TTP bases in the border area. Afghanistan has already sent military officers for training in Pakistan and to top it all the premier intelligence agencies of the two countries Pakistan’s ISI and Afghanistan’s NDS have signed a formal agreement for cooperation.
But Dr. Ashraf Ghani is coming under severe criticism in his own country for what Afghans called the lack of reciprocity from Pakistan’s side. Dr. Ashraf Ghani was assured by Pakistan that Afghan Taliban would start negotiations with Afghan government by the middle of March. That promise did not materialize but there was a loose informal get together in Qatar in late April without any tangible results. For all practical purposes it is quite evident that Taliban have no intention of going for a ceasefire this summer. They have already launched a “summer offensive” which has targeted mainly civilians including women and children. Afghans who had spent a fighting winter have a bloody summer at their hands. The problem with Afghan Taliban is that it is a dangerous fighting machine without much political capital. The only capacity that they have is to launch suicide attacks, IED attacks and spectacular terror attacks in urban centers. They would like to put these capacities to maximum use for translating  them into political leverage. For them it is the only way to overwhelm the new Afghan state. Now if their handlers don’t draw a line for them the situation can get out of hand. For Pakistan it would be increasingly become difficult to publicly own a terrorist organization as its closest ally in Afghanistan which is savagely slaughtering innocent civilians and wantonly destroying urban centers developed by Afghans over the last few years. With such a barbaric record Taliban’s case for becoming a stake holder in the peace process will be considerably weekend. If meaningful steps are not taken soon by the Pakistani side it will become impossible for President Ashraf Ghani to pursue his present political strategy. Different political factions are ganging up against him for putting pressure. It is expected to increasingly become unbearable.
The involvement of international terrorist networks in the current fighting in Afghanistan is yet another challenge for the entire region. Chechens, Uzbeks and terrorists from other countries had penetrated Northern Afghanistan to form sleeper cells during the last winter, which started fighting from April onward. It shows continuous cooperation between Afghan Taliban and international terror networks. This can only lead to deepen concerns in Russia, CARs and China. For Pakistan the choice that remains now is quite stark;  she has to either practically take a clean break from the flawed policies of the past towards militancy of all types or carry on with the half hearted measures for avoiding a flare up in the Punjab, while alienating every one else in the process. We shall soon know about the nature of our times.