Common Interests, Common Enemy


Pak Afghan flagsCan both Pakistan and Afghanistan step back from their positions and find a middle ground on which to get back to formal talks on issues that they both face? This proposition may seem like a distant possibility if considered in the context of the current situation; the border has been closed after a wave of attacks in Pakistan, alleged Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) safe havens in the border regions of Nangarhar province have been shelled and the two countries have sent each other lists of wanted terrorists. But the resumption of talks does not seem impossible if viewed from the lens of what the top leadership in the two countries is saying behind the scenes.

Consider this: while speaking to a visiting Track 1.5 delegation, extremely highly placed political and intelligence officials said that Afghanistan had decided to exercise “strategic restraint, refrain from a blame game,” and indicated their readiness to hold “in-depth discussions” on contentious issues. If the Afghan Taliban are providing an umbrella and sanctuaries for the TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, ETIM, IMU, Chechen terrorists and Jundullah, why not confront them jointly, asked one official.

We keep blaming each other but I think the issue is much bigger and requires detailed analysis by both countries, said a security official who is familiar with matters at the National Directorate of Security (NDS). I am ready to talk to anybody to thrash out this issue, they went on to say. It is not in the power of one country any more to deal with terrorist networks that are connected beyond national borders. For us there is no difference between the TTP, Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA), Al-Qaeda, Daesh/IS or Jundullah or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). If there were no TTA, how can foreign militants survive here, he asked. Individually, they are a threat to the interests of Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China but for us they are all a collective threat because they are operating from Afghanistan under the protection of the TTA.

We are very clear as far as the way forward is concerned; the TTA should either step forward for unconditional talks or face a definite crackdown, it was said. Civilian officials in Kabul point out that the Quadrilateral Coordination  Group set out the same goal as one of its primary objectives and there was still time for all stakeholders to help achieve it.

Also, this official pointed out, if Daesh is claiming deadly attacks both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, why can’t we jointly take them on? We are facing them all here. The TTA clearly is an umbrella for all of them. Our biggest vulnerability is in areas where the Taliban hold sway and host foreign militants. We know the problem. We have the opportunity to cooperate and if we do, we can turn things around in one year, insisted the official. Why not start a joint critical analysis of the situation before top leaders can meet? I would say proper official engagement must precede any meeting of leaders because just meeting for the sake of meeting won’t solve our problems, he added. “I must be able to inform my leader before he meets his counterparts for solutions.”

One big issue in Kabul, though, is the reluctance to look at the latest wave of terror Pakistan in the context of India’s “teach and bleed Pakistan” policy. They would like to brush it off as what the former Indian army chief Gen. Bikram Singh told a national TV channel recently. When asked how to deal with Pakistan, he offered this recipe: If we can fuel insurrectionist movements in Pakistan (ref. Balochistan), its army will start looking inwards instead of thinking of Kashmir. We have to refocus them on internal conditions. It will be possible only when we will spill their blood through asymmetric means. No military establishment can overlook such posturing from across the border and neither is it possible to dismiss the possibility of another country’s soil being used for to spill blood.

This complex context should ideally incentivize Afghan and Pakistani officials to resume dialogue for the larger benefit of the millions of their citizens who are suffering.  Meaningful talks on information or intelligence sharing between the security establishments or a resumption of dialogue on modern border management as a means to control and monitor human and cargo traffic via international crossings could serve as a point of departure.

Expressions of acrimony and trading allegations has not taken the two countries anywhere forward and neither will reticence in Kabul or emotional, self-defeating reactions from the Pakistani military establishment lead to any solutions as far as squaring off with terrorists is concerned.

The Afghan security official also underscored this: We know the problem. We have the opportunity to cooperate and if we do so we can turn things around in one year. This can, however, happen only if both sides admit to geo-politically driven ground realities, approach each other on a minimal agenda with trust and the senior leadership refrains from making negative statements.

Imtiaz Gul heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad

This article first appeared at The Friday Times. Click here to go to the original.

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