Pakistan’s Afghan Quagmire

Mullah Akhtar Mansour is dead, killed (in Balochistan) by a U.S. drone strike, just days after a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) meeting (in Islamabad). The parentheses serve to underscore that this development that has transformed the Afghan reconciliation process predominantly affects its neighboring country: Pakistan.

The QCG, comprised of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States, met last week in Islamabad amidst a backdrop of growing differences. The main issue under discussion, which has remained unchanged for months, was how to compel the Afghan Taliban to come to the table. Taliban representatives showed up only once, at the hill resort town of Murree in Pakistan, for talks with the Afghan government in July 2015. In the days after, a Pakistani government official, speaking under condition of anonymity, warned against being over ambitious: “Let’s not raise the expectations bar too high. This is just the beginning of a long process. Both sides will have to understand each other’s positions and make a determined effort to meet half way.”

A second meeting was immediately derailed following reports that then Taliban leader Mullah Omar was dead in Karachi (in Pakistan), and had been so for years.  In the wake of this news, less optimistic analysts believed that the new Taliban leadership would oppose the reconciliation process. The worry was that his successors would be hardliners, possibly from the Haqqani camp. They were correct. The Taliban has since refused to meet with the Afghan government, releasing a statement just weeks ago, saying:

“We want to repeat our stance once again that until the occupation of foreign troops ends, until Taliban names are removed from international blacklists, and until our detainees are released, talks will yield no results…We unequivocally state that the esteemed leader of Islamic Emirate [Taliban] has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting and neither has the Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate decided to partake in it.”

Though the death of Mullah Omar proved disastrous for reconciliation, the leadership vacuum caused by the death of Mullah Mansour and the fluidity of the situation could potentially lead to a revival of the process. However, the pressure, even if unfairly, lies on Pakistan. The international community is unconvinced that Pakistan has put real pressure on the Taliban to stop violence, and negotiate. A collapse of the peace talks means a collapse of international trust Pakistan cannot afford to lose.

It is a dire situation for Islamabad.

Pakistani officials have acknowledged that they have “some influence” but no real control over the Afghan Taliban. There is speculation that Pakistan had nudged Mansour to the top leadership spot, hoping to engage him in talks. If this is true, it was a strategy that failed miserably—just one month ago, the Taliban’s spring offensive began with a suicide attack killing at least 30 people at a military unit headquarters in Kabul, one of the deadliest attacks in the Afghan capital.

Pakistan, though keenly aware of the credibility question hanging over its crescent and star, must craft better methods of dealing with the Taliban on its soil, over whom it has any “influence.” It must also learn to much more effectively communicate its calculations to its global partners. Islamabad rightly maintains that it is illogical to take military action against the same Taliban it is working to get to the negotiating table. Yet, it also seems illogical that freedom of movement remains totally accessible to the leading elements of the Afghan Taliban, who vehemently oppose the very peace process that is a priority for the Pakistani state. Pointing to this, Sherry Rehman, a senator from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, called for a recalibration of Pakistan’s security policy, specifically citing a Pakistani passport ascribed to Mullah Mansour with a valid visa for travel to Iran.

Undeniably, an end to the Afghan civil war is a shared goal of all four QCG countries. However, after Afghanistan, it is Pakistan that benefits the most from a political settlement that will end the bloody, 15-year insurgency. At the very least, peace has the real potential to bring positive change in the most challenging theater: the porous border granting both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, as well as a host of militant outfits and narcotic traffickers the ability to move men, money, and weapons to inflict incalculable harm to the international community.

The United States has made it clear that Mansour was targeted because he rejected efforts to “seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.” It is too early to speculate whether a new Taliban leadership would be willing to explore talks, but the QCG remains united in its belief that a settlement is the only acceptable option. Thus, Pakistan is in the hot seat again, and needs to act to avoid worsening of relations. Islamabad must be clear about what it is capable of delivering, and communicate that to its global partners, along with recalibrating its strategy as the talks progress.

Afghanistan suffers from a myriad of internal crises, with vast corruption and a global drug trade not least among them. The international community may not have answers to these confounding crises. But if Pakistan is unable or unwilling to deliver at this critical juncture, it risks being solely blamed for the failure of the October 2001 dream of a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.


Image: Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , Afghanistan, Militancy, Pakistan, Security

Sana Ali

Ms. Sana Ali holds a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Relations (concentrating in Strategic Studies) and International Economics. Ms. Ali has previously served as an aide to Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Ambassador Sherry Rehman at the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, DC, maintaining a strong focus on internal and regional security issues. She serves on the Board of Directors of Marshall Direct Fund, a non-profit dedicated to education efforts and the empowerment of women in the Pakistani economy. Ms. Ali currently is the Editor of leading Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times.

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2 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Afghan Quagmire

  1. Sana:
    Fine post, as usual.
    In my view, the talking point that Pakistan plays a vital role in an Afghan political settlement because it can influence the Afghan Taliban has lost a great deal of credibility.
    And the talking point that the killing of Mansour messes up a political settlement has lost even more credibility.
    Prospects for an Afghan political settlement were dim before Mansour’s death. And they will be dim after Mansour’s death.
    In all likelihood, the Afghan Taliban leadership will continue to do what it has done in the past: enjoy Pakistan’s hospitality while making decisions without regard for Pakistan’s wishes.
    And in all likelihood, Pakistan will be as displeased in the future about the actions taken by leaders of those parts of Afghanistan under Taliban control as it has been in the past.
    So where does this leave Pakistan?
    And where does this leave the United States?

  2. Sana, very well summarized.

    For me, I agree much with what Michael has said above. I would go as far as to say that Pakistan is no longer a good will partner in peace talks. The evidence simply isn’t there that there is a genuine desire for Afghan peace from Pakistan’s decision makers. They may want peace in the abstract, but they are clearly unwilling to make the strategic compromises necessary to make peace a reality. Pakistan’s current strategic goals are incompatible with Afghan peace.

    The problem is further exacerbated by US inability to put the proper pressure necessary on Pakistan. As Moeed Yusuf recently opined (, the US has to deal with two separate Pakistans. One that is a destabilizing agent in the ongoing Afghan War, and the other that is a nuclear weapons states in an unstable region.

    Overall, what’s next is probably what has already been: a stalemate between US/Pak interests in Afghanistan.

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