Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) greets Afghanistan President Hamid Karza
Trust deficit between Islamabad and Kabul is not on account of Ashraf Ghani regime. It is a direct result of GHQ Shura’s single minded pursuit of strategic depth concept even though much water has flown into the Kabul River since the fall of Taliban government sixteen years ago in 2001.
During this period Washington has spent around $110bn on Afghan reconstruction - more than the cost of the Marshall Plan that had helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War only to realise the futility of banking on Pakistan for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Now for the US and its NATO allies, it is no longer a question of the number of boots on the Afghan soil, it is now more a question of a hardline on Pakistan.
The first contours of the recalibrated Afghan strategy under works became visible after the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. (The strike was the first combat use of what is formally named the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast).
And by the fourth recorded US drone attack of this year on June 13 that killed a senior commander of Haqqani network, Abu Bakar Haqqani,in the Hangu district of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The first drone strike under President Trump targeted in the Sara Khwa area of Kurram tribal district on the border with Afghanistan in the month of March.
The new US policy has become pronounced after Prime Minister Narendra Modi -President Donald Trump talks at the White House. Their joint statement was quite explicit on terrorism vis-à-vis Pakistan. It showed that the US agrees with the Indian view (also of Afghanistan) that Pakistan is culpable for allowing a permissive environment for militants.
“There was no ambiguity in this joint statement, it is a sharp and direct document, shorn of much fat and flab”, a diplomatic observer said, pointing out that the paragraph titled “Shoulder-to-Shoulder Against Terrorism”, makes a pointed reference to “cross-border terrorism”.
While on Pakistan, the Modi-Trump statement said: “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.”
Aday after their June 27th joint statement, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford was in Kabul. It was a signal to the world that Washington is committed to coming to grips with the strategy for Afghanistan and the region without much ado.
The Afghan government was pleased by the visit, going by media reports from Kabul. “The visit by the United States chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford is a major gesture to reflect Washington’s effort for assessing its regional strategy”, the office of President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani said.
After he took over as Afghan President from Hamid Karzai in September 2014 Ashraf Ghani decided to mend fences with Pakistan. Under Karzai, relations between the two countries had plummeted to their lowest level. Karzai could not make Pakistan change its policy of exporting terror to his country; Pakistan, looking for ‘strategic depth’, would not relinquish use of terror to keep Afghanistan under pressure.
Ghani thought he could write a new chapter in their agonizing bilateral ties by making friendly overtures to Pakistan. The high point of his efforts was visiting Pakistan and making the Pakistani military HQ his first port of call. Ghani sought closer military ties with Pakistan, disregarding Indian apprehensions. If Pakistan had responded with sincerity it is quite possible that Ghani would have embraced Pakistan tightly unmindful of how India reacted.
But true to its character, Pakistan stabbed Afghanistan in the back. It stepped up attacks by ISI-handled terror groups, the Haqqani Network, and the Taliban, who, as a Pentagon report this June said, “continue to retain freedom of action”from “their bases in the key cities of Pakistan, including Peshawar and Quetta, from where they plan and carry out deadly attacks inside Afghanistan”.
Ghani was slow to come out of his stupor but he did and saw that Pakistan had no intention of being a friendly neighbour. In recent weeks casualties from terror attacks in Afghanistan have increased manifold. The distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan is complete; and the stage is set for a US rejig of its Afghan policy.
So much so, how China will fare in its Af-Pak adventure is difficult to crystal gaze. Its interest is limited to the mineral wealth in Afghanistan and OBOR initiative (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) with Pakistan. Both these focus areas demand stability and maintenance of normal relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no quick fixes for the issue.
Significantly, a commentary in Global Times noted (June 28): “After all, China cannot shape a peaceful, stable and mutually friendly Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship all by itself without efforts from the two countries”.
As President Ghani’s experience, and the US understanding of the scene shows, Pakistan believes in the might of the jihadi gun to further its strategic interests.
No surprise, therefore, there were no visible optics from Foreign Minister Wang Yi visit to Kabul and Islamabad/Rawalpindi. There was only a talk of establishing a trilateral dialogue at the level of foreign office as some sort of crisis management mechanism.
As the US National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said as early as this April after talks with Afghan leaders, the greater problem in Afghanistan today is the strengthening of the Taliban. In an interview to Afghan channel, ToloNews, he said: “As all of us have hoped for many, many years — we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past.”
The Chinese foreign minister doesn’t share McMaster’s assessment. And what is more after a visit to the GHQ and a meeting with Army Chief,General Qamar Javed Bajwa, praised “Pakistan army’s sacrifices towards peace and stability in the region and its prospective role towards regional economic development”.
Well, this is no more than a self-goal for a self-anointed mediator just when the US and its allies have resolved to take a tough line to give “the strength Afghan state and the Afghan security forces need.” To defeat on the battlefield, the Taliban fighters, who have refused the Afghan government’s call for peace, to quote Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Clearly the patient and the doctor are on the same page. This is the message from Modi-Trump talks too to the relief of President Ghani, who is getting ready for an electoral battle next year.