The long-time friendship that obstructs peace

Ghani’s re-approach to Pakistan hoping to jointly address the problem of terrorism is deemed to fail until Islamabad is the best friend those terrorists ever had

Even for a country like Afghanistan – whose population has been the victim of continuous violence since 1979 – this year the Taliban’s spring and summer offensive has been a particularly bloody one.

Between the 7th and the 10th of August Kabul was the theatre of four days of terror, death and anger that turned into a game changer for a President who spent the last year trying to cooperate with Pakistan to reach a deal with the Taliban. After the attacks, in fact, Ghani blamed Pakistan for the wave of violence in the capital, portraying the image of a Pakistan that sponsors terrorism – where the training camps for terrorists and the bomb-making facilities that used to operate in the past are still operating today, and where the Taliban are free to hold their meetings – a reference to the meeting held to appoint the new Taliban leader.

It seems, thus, that a turning point has been reached – one that makes Kabul no longer disposed to depend on an ambiguous neighbor, and that reveals how past enmities have always been around the corner during the last year, waiting for the moment to resurface again. Well, that moment might have come.

But why have Ghani’s efforts to get Pakistan cooperate with Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism failed?

This latest turning point in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan reminds us that Pakistan is already involved in a decade-long relationship from which it can’t (read doesn’t want) get out: the one with the Taliban, whom – product of Pakistan’s deobandi madrassas – have always been used by Islamabad as a means through which to intervene in Afghanistan.

The friendship between Islamabad and the Taliban finds its roots in the Soviet-Afghan war, when Pakistan was supporting through weapons and finances (coming from Islamabad but also from Riyadh and Washington) the most radical mujahideens – above whom Hekmatyar – to get to indirectly control Kabul. After 1989, though, Pakistan’s support shifted from the mujahideens to the Taliban, because it had become evident how Hekmatyar would never enter Kabul, and because the fall of Najibullah and the discredit of all mujhaideen leaders were creating a vacuum the Taliban could exploit to gain support and take the capital.

If the Taliban had more chance than any other to take Kabul, then support to the Taliban was for Islamabad the key to reaching its long-time strategic and political objectives: gain strategic projection in Afghanistan in an anti-India perspective; have in Kabul a Pashtun pro-Pakistan government that would abandon Afghanistan’s territorial claims; turn Afghanistan into a place where to train Kashmiri militants; intervene from Afghanistan in the dynamics of Central Asia – a region whose natural resources had yet to be exploited.

Part of the calculus at the core of Pakistan’s friendship towards the Taliban were also economic interests, as – by supporting the Taliban – Islamabad could use the Quetta-Kandahar road to transfer goods westwards to Central Asia and southwards to the Middle East and the Gulf. Moreover, under the Taliban Emirate, Afghanistan’s poppy production increased dramatically, thus giving a major boost to Pakistani dealers and transport mafia and turning Pakistan into a key transport route for drug exports from Afghanistan.

These the main political, strategic and economic reasons behind the support given to the Taliban by the Pakistani government, the Pakistani army, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the transport mafia and drug dealers.

And though, in the early ‘90s, the friendship between Islamabad and Mullah Omar’s group was leaning in favor of the Taliban, as they were at the time more important for Pakistan than Pakistan was for them: they were in fact Pakistan’s door of access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and the ones who provided hosting and training to Kashmiri militants. Such imbalance became essential in influencing the bilateral dynamics between the two neighboring friends, as it led the Taliban to take advantage of it and refuse to recognize the Durand line, advance claims in parts of the NWFP, give havens to radical Sunni Pakistani groups, and advocate an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. The result was an inevitable social and political unrest in Pakistan – with the security and stability of the country threatened by Sunni-Shia sectarian clashes and Sunni extremism, and the government losing any sparkle of legitimacy and credibility it might have.

To these counter-effects that were beginning to result from Islamabad’s support to terrorists, it is to be added that the smuggling trade in which Pakistan was involved with the Taliban was making corruption spread, was obstructing Pakistani industries, undermining law and order, widening the rich-poor gap (and therefore social contradictions) through a vicious spiral that was making the rich even richer and the poor even poorer.

Moreover, backing a terrorist group condemned by the international community for its abuses, Pakistan found itself isolated – something that had tough consequences on the country’s already suffering economy.

But the political and military elite, as well as the intelligence, had no interests in changing a policy that was increasing their personal wealth and power.

Then, 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan came. Far from being a turning point that led Islamabad closer to the international community, it actually led it closer to the Taliban. After being defeated, in fact, Omar and his loyalists fled to Pakistan, where they could re-organize the group through the establishment of their Shura in Quetta and plan their resurgence thanks to the help coming from those among the elite who hoped to use the Taliban as a proxy force after the US withdrawal. From 2001, thus, Pakistan has been the safe haven from where the Taliban could freely plan attacks to be carried out beyond the Durand line.

But the friendship with the Taliban has always been extremely costly for Pakistan (for the country’s population, if not for its leaders) and new counter effects emerged in 2007 with the birth of the Pakistani Taliban, whose aim was to turn Pakistan into a Taliban state, and who began conducting attacks within Pakistan that are still hitting the country today (as happened in Peshawar last year).

Their emergence clearly showed how Pakistani leaders, by supporting terrorism, were condemning their own country to it. And though, this didn’t lead to any shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. It merely led to a hideous distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists that largely survives today, and that is proving itself the main obstacle to have a sincere cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad on the issue of the Afghan Taliban.

Until Islamabad puts an end to its long-time friendship with the Quetta Shura’s Taliban, no counter-terrorism cooperation with Kabul will be possible.

The only, faint hope left to Ghani, the Afghan people and the peace process, is to convince Islamabad that a cooperation with Kabul would bring about benefits – in terms of regional and internal security, legitimacy, and inclusion in the international political and economic system – that the friendship with the Taliban cannot give.

Only time will tell us how many Afghans and Pakistanis still have to die for this to be understood in Islamabad.

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