BACKGROUND: Pakistan’s 15th army chief is known to be a professional soldier, with little exposure to regional or domestic politics. General Sharif hails from a family where military service has been the most favored profession. His father and two brothers served in Pakistan's Army with distinction and one of his siblings received the highest award, Nishan-e-Haider, for gallantry in the 1971 war against India.
Prime Minister Sharif went against the advice of the outgoing army chief General Kiani in picking his successor. Kiani himself not only headed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence but was also actively engaged in reaching a deal with the self-exiled popular leader and twice premier, the late Benazir Bhutto. Since Musharraf stepped down under public pressure in 2008, Kiani was actively in charge of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Bhutto’s successors carefully avoided confronting the military’s interests and policies. To appease the military, President Asif Ali Zardari advised his Prime Minister to grant the military chief a three-year extension.
With the assassination of Osama bin Laden in a high security Abbotabad cantonment, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership suffered a humiliation unprecedented since the 1971 dismemberment of East Pakistan. The elected government and military leadership clashed over a memo allegedly sent by Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington to the U.S. administration, requesting support against a simmering military coup. Meanwhile, Pakistan-U.S. relations, already strained after the Lahore killings at the hands of CIA-contractor Raymond Allen Davis, deteriorated sharply after Bin Laden’s killing and ensuing developments. Pakistan boycotted the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan held in December 2011. The relations were further strained in May 2012 when U.S. President Barack Obama snubbed President Zardari on the sidelines of the Chicago NATO summit.
Afghanistan had its own share of complaints against Pakistan, many of which were shared by the U.S.. Washington pressed Pakistan to launch an operation against the Taliban’s Haqqani faction, while Islamabad remained non-committal. For the most part, Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan originated in the Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, where General Kiani was fully in charge.
The new military command in Pakistan is especially significant in light of the crucial developments in Afghanistan slated for 2014, the presidential election on April 5, and the withdrawal of NATO troops after handing over security to Afghanistan’s armed forces. Over the past six weeks, one of the key NATO supply routes through Pakistan remains blocked by Imran Khan's opposition party, seeking a complete end to drone strikes in tribal areas. But Islamabad does not back his demands and Washington has so far shown little flexibility.
IMPLICATIONS: Pakistan-U.S. relations cannot be categorized as stable in the current circumstances. Islamabad condemns the CIA’s drone strikes but refuses to act against the violation of its sovereignty and international law. Yet, Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to restore NATO supply routes is increasing, while Pakistan is losing millions of dollars in transit revenue. The bulk of NATO containers has so far been moved along the Northern Distribution Network, a set of logistical arrangements from Afghanistan via Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Baltic and Caspian ports.
Owing to a spate of bitter rows with the U.S., Pakistan has failed to exploit the Afghanistan situation to its favor. Banking on the notion of strategic depth, Islamabad has been relying more on its proxies than on emerging opportunities. Pakistan’s strategic thinking under Musharraf and his successor Kiani had been aimed at exploiting core Taliban groups if the U.S. and its key allies install a hostile or pro-India regime in Afghanistan. In return, while Islamabad was termed a strategic ally in the war on terror, CIA-controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have operated in Pakistan’s tribal areas and often firing missiles to kill alleged terrorists.
India has established consulates in eastern and Afghanistan, sparking Pakistani allegations that it backs insurgents in Baluchistan province. For its lack of capacity and political will, Kabul has so far failed to ensure its neutrality in the region. Throughout the Cold War, India exploited the land-locked Central Asian state against Pakistan. Since the Soviet invasion, Pakistan has been struggling to use the volatile western neighbor for strategic depth through a friendly regime in Kabul. A recent report by The New York Times backs Islamabad's claims that Kabul was involved in some of the terror attacks in the country.
For a Pakistan, sandwiched between Afghanistan and India, peaceful co-existence is an obvious way forward. Optimists believe that the country’s new strategic command will step back and focus on military professional development, particularly its capability to fight insurgencies and terrorism. None in the military is more abreast with its professional needs than its commander-in-chief himself, for his last appointment was inspector general for training and evaluation.
In such a scenario, Prime Minister Sharif will effectively become in charge of foreign and defense policies. However, the U.S. will have to help Islamabad’s elected government by ending drone strikes in tribal areas not only to reduce domestic political strain on Sharif but also to restore NATO supply routes. The Pentagon claims that infiltration of militants from Pakistan’s tribal areas provokes drone strikes, which Islamabad must curb before seeking an end to the practice. However, the reality on the ground is to the contrary: against the 800 Pakistani posts on its side of the Afghan border, NATO and ISAF have merely 80 posts on their side to check unauthorized movement.
Besides increased Afghan troop deployment on the border, the Pakistani leadership needs the Obama administration’s support in holding talks with the Taliban militia, which has claimed over 60,000 lives through acts of terror. However, Washington has so far relied on a policy of reward and punishment. After his meeting with the newly appointed General Sharif on December 9, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sought a resumption of NATO supply transit through Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, otherwise the U.S. would freeze millions of dollars of assistance from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). Yet Hagel’s visit to Islamabad failed to impress the Pakistani military.
While Pakistan has released key Taliban leaders on Afghanistan's request, the peace talks have been slow and disappointing. Realistically, Washington and Kabul cannot ignore the Haqqani network which has strong influence in four adjoining Afghan provinces on the rugged border. Peace with the Taliban will be more credible with this faction becoming a stakeholder instead of an irritant.
Uncertainty over the bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan adds further pessimism to the post-2014 scenario, especially when President Karazi’s final term in office expires in April.
CONCLUSIONS: Pakistan’s new strategic leadership cannot abandon its role in the country’s Afghanistan policy without any visibly favorable signs of stability. General Sharif knows that the country’s economy is dependent on IMF funding and misadventures, covert or overt ones, are far from affordable. The military’s enhanced capacity to fight extremism in tribal areas and foreign-backed insurgents in Baluchistan can help ensure peace and thus, foreign investment. An unstable Afghanistan will damage Pakistan more than any other nation in the region or elsewhere. The Islamic republic is still home to over 1.8 million Afghan refugees with little foreign assistance for their well-being.
The U.S. must press the reset button in its relations with Pakistan by reassuring Islamabad of a neutral regime in Kabul and an immediate end to the controversial and illegal drone strikes. As a quid pro quo, Pakistan can not only help NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan at a lower cost but also facilitate talks with the Taliban militia. Pakistan’s political leaders desperately need a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as well as international support for maintaining civilian control over foreign and defense policies.