These are early days to be conclusive that the Peshawar school attack by Pakistan Taliban on Tuesday would be turned into a game changer by Pakistan’s civil and military leaderships to work together to crush the militant groups.
Be that as it may, what comes under the limelight in immediate terms is the alchemy of the Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which would have crucial bearing on the effectiveness of continued Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan.
The departure of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai from the political arena led to some improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relations. Under President Ashraf Ghani Kabul has made overtures to Islamabad in the recent months – and vice versa.
Simply put, the air in Afghan-Pakistani relations has been clearing , albeit slowly and steadily. Now, the Peshawar attack puts to acid test these nascent positive signs.
The Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on Wednesday, accompanied by the head of the ISI Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, for talks with Ghani on the security situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and specifically to seek Kabul’s cooperation in tracking down the Pakistani Taliban leader Fazlullah who is allegedly located inside Afghanistan.
The crisply worded statement from Rawalpindi on Gen. Sharif’s Kabul visit mentioned that “Vital elements of intelligence were shared… with regard to Peshawar incident” and Ghani assured Gen. Sharif that “Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorist activities against Pakistan and any signature found in this regard will be immediately eliminated.”
It said Gen. Sharif also assured Ghani of “full support… in all spheres including joint efforts against terrorists” as well as “complete support in eliminating terrorist in his area of responsibility.”
The Afghan media reports on the meeting quoted Ghani as saying that the time was ripe for taking decisive action against militancy; both Afghanistan and Pakistan should earnestly decide to eradicate terror; and that Kabul is willing “to act independently and jointly against terrorist groups.”
There is nothing very new in what Ghani reportedly said. However, interestingly, according to one Afghan report, Ghani seemed to have compared the Peshawar attack to the incidents in Yahya Khel district of Paktika province and Estiqlal high school in Kabul where innocent children and youths were targeted.
It is highly improbable that Kabul will accept any ‘hot pursuit’ operations by the Pakistani military on Afghan soil. Equally, it is to be expected that Kabul will watch closely whether there is a genuine paradigm shift in the Pakistani thinking, translating as reciprocal willingness on the part of the Pakistani military to cooperate in curbing the terrorist strikes by the Afghan Taliban groups as well.
The suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions are far too deeply rooted in the Afghan mindset and even Ghani, who is relatively favorably disposed toward Pakistan, cannot be impervious to that. In fact, Ghani himself is currently grappling with a surge in (Afghan) Taliban attacks.
Ghani is yet to complete the revamping (or ‘purge’) of the Afghan intelligence, which under Karzai was packed with operatives who were very hostile toward the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military suspected that these elements within the Afghan intelligence have consorted with the Indian security agencies and secretly promoted the Pakistani Taliban groups.
Therefore, the remarks by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah while speaking in Kabul yesterday (following Gen. Sharif’s rushed visit) assume significance. He seemed to suggest that Kabul’s approach should be riveted on an attitude of ‘all-or-nothing’ – that is to say, Kabul should not accept the Pakistani military’s differentiation between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.
Suffice it to say, the backlog of trust deficit is so very formidable that the incipient signs of improvement in Afghan-Pakistani relations in the recent period risk getting blighted prematurely following the Peshawar school attack.
The Pakistani military will surely view Ghani’s response as the touchstone of his sincerity to cooperate and his ability to ‘deliver’, while the Afghan president would genuinely have his limitations, given the inchoate nature of the national unity government in Kabul.
To be sure, Washington faces a huge politico-military challenge here. In political terms, it no doubt hopes to ensure that the nascent Afghan-Pakistani ‘thaw’ in the recent period stays on course and even gathers momentum.
At the same time, the US also intends to encourage (from behind the scene) the Pakistani military leadership to continue with the operations in North Waziristan and even intensify them in the coming weeks and months (the efficacy of which will, however, largely depend on coordinated actions on the Afghan side of the border.)
On its part, Pakistan will expect Washington to lean on Ghani to cooperate in smashing up the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghans on the other hand do not have the confidence that the US will be able to get the Pakistani military to reciprocate by reining in the Afghan Taliban groups.
In fact, the Afghans have had a dismal experience in this regard, which often accounted for Karzai’s embittered remarks regarding the US policies. Most certainly, Karzai had a point insofar as the US policy to ‘incentivize’ the Pakistani military by providing financial aid and weapons – amounting to an estimated $18 billion through past decade – has not so far had the desired outcome. In reality, the Pakistani generals walked away laughing with a sense of triumphalism.
But having said that, what is the alternative course available for the Obama administration to influence the Pakistani military? The Islamic State introduces ever new compulsions for the US to remain engaged with Pakistan, which is a big Sunni Muslim state in turmoil buffeted by ‘Islamism’ (which also happens to be a nuclear power with a highly strategic geographic location.) This is one thing.
Second, while the US’ inducements to the Pakistani military might not have worked in the past – or, only worked up to a limited extent and episodically – the US threats and coercive methods invariably proved counter-productive and only helped to send the Pakistani generals’ back up.
At the end of the day, it has been a tragicomic tale of the tail wagging the dog – most of time so far, at least.
The unprecedented fortnight-long visit by Gen Sharif to the US recently seemed to give the impression that the American side views him in a far more favorable light in comparison with his distinguished predecessor Gen. Ashfaq Kayani who proved to be a tough interlocutor with an enigmatic mind that the Americans never quite fathomed.
How Gen. Sharif goes about in the downstream of the Peshawar attack will, therefore, be a litmus test of the US’ assessments of him as the general they can do business with in Rawalpindi.
Significantly, Gen. Sharif’s only meeting in Kabul other than with Ghani yesterday was with US General John Campbell, who heads the NATO forces in Afghanistan. It brings the US right on to the forecourt of the delicately poised Afghan-Pakistani ties.