Kabul’s Muscle-Flexing amidst recent Tensions
Prateek Joshi, Research Associate, VIF

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent assertion that Pakistan would play a key role in the Afghan peace settlement has contributed to the latest downswing of ties between these two nations.1 In his address to journalists, Imran Khan not only blamed the Ghani regime for playing a spoiler in the peace process, but also emphasized on setting up a provisional government that would pave the way for free and fair elections in the war torn nation.2 Further, to show that it was the Afghan government that played spoiler in the peace process, Khan said that his scheduled meeting with the Taliban leadership had been cancelled due to Kabul’s objection.3 The blame seems outlandish as Rawalpindi’s Afghan policy is not dependent on Kabul’s concerns, unless the international community wants to think on these lines in its quest to accommodate the Taliban. Khan’s address comes few days after his speech at Bajaur where he harped on the need for Ghani regime to be replaced and stated that a good government in Kabul would be installed soon.

It is yet to be ascertained whether Khan’s statements had the backing of Pakistani agencies, whose importance has risen ever since Washington decided to engage with the Taliban. If true, this could mean that the army - confident of Washington’s dependence on the ISI – deliberately wants its views publicized - after all, Washington has been working on its expected lines. Yet at the same time, Washington’s interest in retaining a residual troop strength (which was opposed by the Taliban) and the presence of a largely anti-Taliban non-Pashtun population may not provide Pakistan with an easy maneuvering space in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s control over the Taliban and Washington’s urgency to broker a power sharing deal are no longer secrets, and America’s aim to negotiate a graceful exit as does not want to be seen as surrendering to the Taliban diktats. However, protests from the Ghani regime have only signaled that the US seems to be following the Taliban line of keeping elected government out of any dealings with the Taliban.

Khan’s statements are not novel confessions on how Pakistan sees Afghanistan, they nevertheless have given Ashraf Ghani a much needed opportunity to assert himself, given how the Afghan government has been sidelined from the ongoing talks. Ever since Khalilzad’s appointment as the special representative, he has not made a serious effort to take the Ghani administration into confidence regarding the Washington-Taliban talks. Further, a rumored draft agreement between the Taliban and the US was leaked in the aftermath of the Doha talks in January further left the Afghan government fuming as it reportedly contained steps towards an interim government, a new constitution and absorbing the Taliban in the proposed future dispensation.

The simmering discontent became evident when Afghan National Security Advisor, during his American visit in mid-March, accused Zalmay Khalilzad of acting out of personal interests by attempting to “create a caretaker government, of which he would become the viceroy.”4 In retaliation, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale told Mr Ghani by phone that Mr Mohib would no longer be received in Washington. 5 It is interesting to note that such a vehement resistance is being mounted by Kabul even when Afghanistan’s stability is solely dependent on the American support, that too with no alternative in sight.

President Ghani, who expects a re-election, is also using this controversy to consolidate his domestic constituency, provided the elections take place. He has been against the interim government set up, something which the opposition has championed for sometime. That Imran Khan spoke in favour of an interim set up gave Ghani a valid reason to accuse his opposition of doing Pakistan’s bidding, especially when candidates like the Presidential candidate Hanif Atmar are trying to forge a strong opposition against Ghani. Pakistan is set to dominate Afghanistan's electoral politics and Ghani is trying his best to use it to discredit his opposition. Kabul also made its displeasure felt by recalling its ambassador from Pakistan. Ghani’s hostile ties with other leaders and allies prevented him from developing a strong national consensus even on existential issues like power sharing with the Taliban. His recent outreach to the opposition by creating a consultation team composed of those leaders have come too late.

Meanwhile, domestic political wrangling continues, as seen in the recent violence between police and Atta Noor's militiamen in Balkh after Noor objected to Ghani’s choice of new provincial police chief. Noor accused Ghani of violating the agreement he negotiated with him on his ouster from the governorship last year, according to which Balkh’s key political appointments would be of Noor’s choice. Another instability brewed up in Kandahar where Gen. Raziq’s successor Gen. Tadin prevented Kandahar’s ousted governor from returning back to the province after he had been out for his medical treatment. Furthermore, Hayaatullah Hayat, Ghani’s choice as the new governor (appointed this February) was also not allowed to take charge by Tadin and his supporting lobby.

Washington too was not pleased with these developments. The American ambassador to Kabul likened Imran Khan’s statements to “ball tampering”, which generated another set of counter comments from senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leaders like Shireen Mazari and Asad Umar. These criticisms have however been limited to twitter-wars and absence of any further pressure from the American side only confirms their urgency to carry forward with the talks.

The crisis only confirms that all is not well between the stakeholders but there are limits to the extent Ghani could go to destabilize the situation. What remains to be seen is how Ghani’s punching beyond his political weight is to impact the Washington-Taliban talks.

References:
  1. Hikmat Nori, “Pakistan PM's remarks on Afghan peace process stir diplomatic row”, Al Jazeera, Doha, March 29, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Shahbaz Rana, “Meeting with Taliban cancelled due to objections by Afghan govt, says PM Imran”, Karachi, March 26, 2019.
  4. Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal, “Afghan National Security Chief Is Sidelined in His Own War”, New York Times, New York, March 30, 2019.
  5. Hasib Danish Alikozai and Mohammad Habibzada, “Afghan Officials Downplay Feud with Washington”, Voice of America, Washington DC, March 19, 2019.

Image Source: https://www.aljazeera.com/mritems/imagecache/mbdxxlarge/mritems/Images/2018/11/28/589b0f30d33a4acfa76926f0e615b2d0_18.jpg

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