The imminent US/Nato drawdown in Afghanistan poses major challenges for Pakistan and the region: how best to work towards the peace and stability desired by all?

Clearly, America acknowledges its failure to fulfil neither Bush’s transformative ambitions, nor Obama’s lowered expectations, though the US/Nato occupation has attained some objectives. President Hamid Karzai’s government remains, urban areas are largely controlled, and some development has resulted; the Afghan National Army and Police have been established for post-Nato national security.

Even these achievements are incomplete however. The government is beset by corruption and weakness; the Taliban dominate much rural territory, especially in the south and south-east; development is uneven; the security forces are insufficiently trained and riddled with desertions. The army or police forces’ cost too appears prohibitive in the current climate of unenthusiastic external funding.

Despite the avowed US/Nato/Karzai objectives of peace and reconciliation, there has been no progress due to the continued American reliance on the military option and the Karzai government and its different interest groups’ priority of remaining in power. Rather than offering anything concrete to the Taliban and other groups resisting occupation, their basic demand for all foreign forces to quit their country has been countered by the US-Afghanistan strategic agreement. The impending American elections may enhance serious negotiations; plus factoring in Pakistan’s pivotal position therein, recognised both by the US and (albeit reluctantly) by Afghanistan.

Assumed scenarios vary between the Taliban takeover; the country’s division between north-west and south-east; and the continuous internal conflict, as after the Soviet exit. Presently, given Karzai’s considerable external support (US/Nato, Iran, India, and Russia) and internal anti-Taliban backing, an immediate Taliban takeover appears improbable, though not impossible. Unrest - of whatever depth, dimension or duration - is almost certain!

The Taliban’s previous stint in power may prevent their repeating previous mistakes. Globally, their denying space to al-Qaeda or any terrorist elements shall be the touchstone by which they are judged. The hallmark of Afghanistan’s historical stability, an acknowledged mosaic of ethnic groups or regions co-existing in a decentralised structure - with mechanisms such as the loya jirga, may yet be achieved by the Afghan groups given:

Total external troop withdrawal.

Combat and other fatigue factors.

While a peaceful, stable Afghanistan is important regionally and internationally, no country other than the long-suffering Afghan nation itself is affected as directly as is Pakistan. The Pak-Afghan relations have been difficult since 1947, but the blowback from the US/Nato occupation has impacted Pakistan seriously and multi-sectorally re: border insecurity, nationwide outrage, enhanced extremism/terrorism, attempted destabilisation of Fata/Balochistan via Afghanistan, and a burdened economy. The return of three million Afghan refugees, though unrecognised by US/Nato, is a Pakistani prerequisite for any viable peace settlement.

How then should Pakistan respond? One school of thought advocates an absolutely “hands off” policy; that no favourites be cultivated in Afghanistan, and any assistance towards peace or reconciliation be accorded only if asked. The school of realists agrees that there should be no favourites, but recognises that, given myriad historical, geographic and ethnic linkages straddling a 2,600 km border, association is unavoidable. It is in fact Pakistan, which provides “strategic depth” to Afghanistan.

The Indian involvement in Afghanistan - beginning with its support to irredentist border claims - has been to pressure Pakistan. India is unlikely to replace the US/Nato superstructure, or enable a two-front threat to Pakistan. The clear and present danger is the fact that India has been using Afghanistan to mount destabilisation attempts against Pakistan in Balochistan and Fata. Even with the best of Pakistan’s “hands off” intentions towards Afghanistan, India remains a spoiler unless it stays within the role of legitimate economic assistance.

Pakistan should maintain and wherever possible expand existing linkages with all peoples/parts of Afghanistan. Up to 70,000 Afghans legally enter Pakistan daily for different reasons. Pakistan is implementing major ($330 million) medical, roads and educational projects for Afghanistan. Ninety percent of Afghans seeking treatment abroad obtain it free of cost in Pakistani government hospitals. Trade is encouraging. Formal figures for exports from Pakistan to Afghanistan amount to $2 billion annually, and informal flows may be closer to $5 billion. Pakistan has also sustained a systematic programme of communication and contact with all political parties and leaders in Afghanistan.

Pakistan should simultaneously prepare to mitigate the fallout of a likely, long civil war in Afghanistan, including by preventing another influx of refugees. The 2007 proposal to fence or selectively mine the border must be pursued; the primary aim to deter illegal immigration, terrorists or armed groups, narcotics smuggling, and the secondary objective to demonstrate Pakistan’s determination to interdict terrorists or disruptive forces. Both India and Iran have built barriers on their borders with Pakistan.

Nato’s exit from Afghanistan and the ensuing military vacuum shall inevitably encourage the Taliban in Afghanistan and the anti-state Taliban in Pakistan likewise. We have thus to prepare lines of defence on the border and further inland. The evidence from the recent PTI Waziristan march, that the limited routes used by terrorists or criminals can be secured for legitimate traffic, needs to be utilised - consistently and comprehensively - countrywide.

Bilaterally, the TAPI gas pipeline project begun in the mid 90s must be restarted. It is vital for Pakistan’s energy security, and starting work would demonstrate the benefits of a peace dividend to the Afghans. As a project, which would assist stability in Afghanistan, it should be supported by the major powers.

In addition, the US with its declared objectives of assisting in Pakistan’s energy situation can do much in this regard, particularly as it opposes the natural gas pipeline from Iran and also Pakistan’s civil nuclear programme.

In regard to the US, Pakistan has supplied for over a decade the oxygen for the US/Nato occupation. However, it has not been able to sufficiently leverage its critical role and, perhaps, this possibility was limited. For the Nato withdrawal phase, it has been estimated that there are some 200,000 containers and 50,000 wheeled vehicles that need to be taken out of Afghanistan and for which the route through Pakistan remains logistically shorter and more economical. How to make proper use of this dependence in the bilateral relationship should begin to occupy the minds of Pakistani policy planners.

Pakistan’s ability to influence US policy on Afghanistan and, indeed, in South Asia is limited. But when it disagrees, it should so state clearly without any ambiguity. For Pakistan, in the face of the USA’s growing multidimensional strategic partnership with India, finding ways to maintain engagement and relevance with the US, while also focusing on putting its house in order, growing the economy and deepening links with China, Russia, the Gulf and other countries, is essential. Thinking through what needs to be done and then actual implementation or “delivery” in multilateral parlance, remains an institutional and capacity weakness that needs to be addressed in all fields.

In conclusion, it can be said that Pakistan has to prudently plan to assist the Afghan peace and reconciliation effort when asked to do so by the Afghans, deepen people-to-people links, focus on mutually beneficial projects such as the gas pipeline; and simultaneously plan to meet all eventualities, if progress towards stability in Afghanistan is slow or non-existent to begin with as appears increasingly likely.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email: ambassador.tariqosmanhyder@gmail.com