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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 506, 11 January 2023

Pakistan’s search for a new Afghan strategy



There is a general consensus within Pakistan, that it needs to rework its Afghan strategy

D. Suba Chandran

Muhammad Amir Rana, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Maleeha Lodhi, Riaz Mohammad Khan, Kamran Yousaf, and Shahzad Chaudhry, have written in the recent weeks about reworking Pakistan’s Afghan strategy. Besides leading newspapers in Pakistan have also carried editorials on the subject.

Amir Rana has called for a “radical transformation” to Pakistan’s Afghan policy that has been “strategic-centric” and has suggested “a broader engagement with the Afghan people and the regime in power.” (“A new Afghan policy,” Dawn, 8 January 2023) Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry has suggested a “low-profile foreign policy” that would “build bridges” “using (Pakistan’s) economic incentives and leverage.” (“War of words,” Dawn, 8 January 2023). Criticizing the “strategic depth” as an “an ideational chimera” leading to “unrealistic promise and zero return,” Shahzad Chaudhry suggests, “any policy on Afghanistan must first and foremost ensure the safety and security of the Pakistani people.” (“Pakistan’s Afghan sore,” The Express Tribune, 16 December 2022) 

Maleeha Lodhi presents three options for Pakistan: “Do more of the same” (by expanding trade relations), “tough love approach” (“using Pakistan’s considerable, unused leverage in a carefully calibrated way from a policy toolkit of incentives and disincentives to secure the necessary response”), and “a coordinated regional strategy” to pressurize Kabul. (“Untenable Afghan policy,” Dawn, 19 December 2022) For Riaz Mohammad Khan, “the Afghans expect courtesy but respect firmness”, hence Pakistan “should avoid retaliatory steps that may hurt the Afghan people and continue with the facilitation we have been providing, and even accommodate reasonable new requests.”

The search for a new Afghan approach
The above suggestions come from people who were/are part of the diplomatic/military/thinktank communities. The call for a “new Afghan strategy” is common, though there are stark differences in what could be a new Afghan strategy for Pakistan.

But the call for a new Afghan strategy is not a recent phenomenon. In the last three decades, there have been multiple occasions, during which Pakistan has searched for a new strategy, and explored available options. A common feature of this search for a “new strategy” is the organic nature of this pursuit or the lack of it. Since the 1990s, there were repeated emphasis to have a new Afghan approach. In most cases, this search was not organic and emanated out of an earnest review to pursue a coherent strategy towards the second big neighbour. Rather, it was a response to a development either in Kabul or across the Durand Line, that Pakistan considered not in its interests.

Second, the search for a new Afghan strategy in the last three decades, was also in response when Kabul did something that Pakistan did not expect. Worse, when Afghanistan did something that Pakistan deliberately told Kabul not to do so. For example, the case of asking the Taliban not to support the TTP, or respect the Durand Line. The point, then in Pakistan is how ungrateful the Taliban is, or how thankless the Afghans are, despite whatever the former has done to the latter. This perception comes from a basic premise that Afghanistan and the Afghans owe something to Pakistan, for what the latter has done. 

Third, the search for a new Afghan approach is more about changing the strategy but not reorienting Pakistan’s primary objectives in Afghanistan. What Pakistan wants in Kabul, and how it wants to get it done is about two different issues – objectives and strategies. While there is a larger push within Pakistan to rework its strategy, not much thought has gone into what Islamabad wants in Afghanistan. It appears that the objectives remain the same, while there is an attempt to rework the strategy to achieve it. Can Pakistan afford to look into reshape its larger objectives in Afghanistan and Kabul? As Shahzad Chaudhry, has commented, on Pakistan’s Afghan pursit: “in search of an ideational chimera termed ‘strategic depth’ it has been a policy of unrealistic promise and zero return.” Has this policy of strategic depth stand revised, if not repudiated?

Fourth, who wants what within Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan. A section, referred above, including those who worked with Pakistan’s foreign ministry demand a change in Afghanistan strategy. But do those who make the Afghan policy, and those who pursue it agree with it? In this case, the following three questions are pertinent: who design Pakistan’s Afghan strategy? Who implements it? And how much of popular expectations are included in it? Afghanistan portfolio is neither with the foreign ministry nor with the Parliament. It is with the Establishment. 

The crucial question for Pakistan on Afghanistan should be: Is the Establishment willing to rework Pakistan’s objectives, and the strategies to be pursued to achieve it? All the above suggestions – whether more love or tough love, will automatically follow them.

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