Pakistan’s Afghan Policy: Reactionary Measures or Strategic Vision?

Pakistan’s Afghan policy

By Aminah Gilani

On March 18th, 2024 Pakistan launched airstrikes targeting Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s suspected hideouts in Khost & Paktika regions of Afghanistan. It has sent waves of surprise around the world considering that this confrontation rejects the prevalent narrative about Pakistan’s trajectory of interest with Taliban regime since the Soviet-Afghan war 1979.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy in post-Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been a mix of passive-aggressive and confrontational line of strategy, or whether there is a policy at all is rather a more relevant question. Considering the last one year of reactionary measures to cross border militancy, be it repatriation of Afghan refugees or a military offensive such as the one conducted recently in shape of airstrikes, it showcases a sense of frustration rather than a strategic policy measure. Certainly, frustration on the part of Pakistan’s security establishment is understandable since there is a noticeable rise in cross border insurgency inside Pakistan looking at the statistics of the last one year, and a frequent exchange of fires at the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan Institute for Conflict & Security Studies has drawn out a pertinent comparison between the 2022 and 2023 frequency of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and obvious rise in cross border insurgency from Afghanistan:

No. Year Attacks Killed Injured
I 2022 380 539 836
II 2023 645 976 1354
III Change 70% 81% 62%

Source: Pakistan Institute for Conflict & Security Studies (PICSS)

Pakistan like any other country cannot quit its geography however at the same time inaction is not an option and action requires more than reacting to attacks. So what’s the way out? First and the foremost, it is important to acknowledge that there is a problem, and it must be recognized, considering that Afghan Taliban continue to provide logistical support to the TTP is no more a mere speculation. Secondly, that this problem would stay for a long while, as Pakistan’s special representative in Afghanistan Mr. Asif Durrani has stated that approximately 6,000 TTP recruiters are based in Afghanistan, it simply means, if we kill few, more would be available for replacement. Therefore, not just the military but the entire nation has to brace itself for the long haul. Thirdly, a detailed and comprehensive policy to tackle the nexus between Afghan Taliban and TTP has to be chalked out.

Fundamentally, these airstrikes have made it clearer that negotiations less like earlier failed attempt for peace talks with TTP are not a priority anymore. However, it is equally crucial to realize that this problem is not going to solve with one dimensional policy approach, therefore it is important to view it from an approach which exploit carrots (soft power), utilizes sticks (military prowess) and employ sermons (government level negotiations).

Carrots in this case represent continuation of neighborly ties beyond unavoidable conflicts, it ensures people-to-people relationship, cultural ties and collaborations on the level of civil society and common social themes. More meaningful and situational partnerships in time of confrontation could bring deeper impact than any of the other two approaches mentioned above. While military offensive is always a least desired strategic approach to any bilateral conflict between countries, in case of Pakistan’s frustrating security encounter with the Taliban factions requires tactical use of military prowess that builds negotiable grounds for Pakistan, it is an approach that may provide a reasonable way ahead and leverage to push for resolution. Military offensive is not a priority but it is indisputably effective in establishing a deterrence where other approaches are less likely to be useful. Sermons on the other hand are final deciding factors, however, they do rely on the fact that whether the previous two approaches are able to build a momentum leading the way for the negotiable grounds to be established. In this case Taliban would find negotiating peace a more beneficial solution rather continuity of war and conflict with Pakistan.

Theoretical overview of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Decision

Pakistan’s foreign policy decision making model can be reviewed by looking at the theory brief visualized below. The current Pakistani posture towards Afghanistan falls under the realist approach and utilizes rational model of foreign policy making, which is based upon the aim to achieve most strategically beneficial outcome in a given situation therefore, decision is made with careful consideration following step-by-step analysis of alternative options and a clear objective. Pakistan’s foreign policy decision making towards Afghanistan in a non-confrontational situation is largely associated with the strategic significance of its western neighborhood where its eastern neighbor is growing its influence with substantial economic investments. Liberalist approach seems to steps-in with less coercive and more strategic decisions utilizing bureaucratic and pluralist models of foreign policy decision-making.

Table 1. Source: Essential of  International Relations

The border clashes that followed the air strikes on the TTP hideouts and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group may appear to be a response by Afghanistan, but border clashes between the two countries have become a regular occurrence. Large-scale border clashes that could spiral into a full-scale war between the two countries are unlikely in the near future. Neither side has the political will or capability to fight a long-term war. Therefore, the constructive approach shapes the air around such restraint, the idea that perpetual state of war hampers communal ties rooted in historical ties across the sides of border regions.

Regardless of all the tactical measures, it is understood that long-term ramifications of a tumultuous relationship with Afghanistan will only be exhausting for Pakistan on several levels. Pakistan’s domestic, governance and economic concerns does not give it any more space to be internationally branded as a “warring state” as it directly influences Pakistan’s desire to attract international investments and economic growth.

How does the world see it?

Date Newspaper Headlines Messaging
March 18th  The Washington Post Pakistan Airstrikes Send Taliban a Message on Militant Attacks Display of Pakistan’s concern over cross-border militancy
March 18th  BBC Pakistan accused of killing eight women and children in Afghanistan air strikes Accusatory messaging
March 18th  Reuters Taliban says it hit back at Pakistan after air strikes in Afghanistan kill 8 confrontational messaging
March 22nd  The Hindu Why did Pakistan carry out airstrikes in Afghanistan? | Explained investigative messaging

These airstrikes conducted by Pakistan’s military propose a messaging of its own, clearly stating Pakistan’s seriousness and no-compromise stance for terrorism within its territorial boundaries. It is important because Pakistan was viewed at the global sphere from perspective of an instigator rather than an eradicator of terrorism in the US-led war in Afghanistan. These airstrikes give Pakistan a narrative to build a case in its favor vis-à-vis Pakistan’s long standing claims of TTP hideouts in Afghanistan which did not meet contemplative response during US administered Afghanistan. Considering Pakistan’s unending economic crisis and its impending struggles to navigate International Monterey Funds’ conditions which has put a strain on its citizens’ life and has worsened the economic condition, it is equally concerned with its place in international relations. There were largely mixed reactions observed in the international media over Pakistan-Afghanistan debacle, airstrikes and the scenario after that.  We can narrow the overall reactions down to the following four headlines in world media which depict:
i) Pakistan’s concerns with insurgency as central messaging
ii) Accusatory messaging on killing of women and children in the airstrike
iii) confrontational messaging with show of power from Afghan Taliban
iv) investigative messaging, weighing down on reasons and causes.

Nonetheless, India’s interests in Afghanistan are a disturbing factor that adds another layer of complexity to this persisting situation. Pakistan’s representative to Afghanistan, Mr. Asif Durrani has reiterated Pakistan’s claims which signal India’s support to the TTP, largely based on financial incentives to the TTP recruits and their families. Pakistan’s own economic difficulties and Afghanistan’s path to redevelopment undoubtedly provide the Indian interests an ideal playground to play the game of its liking. Nonetheless, it leaves far less chances for long desired regional peace and stability to be reached in South Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Global Politico.

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