Weeks before 2014 came to a close, a savage attack by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also called the Pakistan Taliban, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed almost 150 people—over 130 of them children. The cold-bloodedness of the attack sickened the collective consciousness of the world. It demonstrated again how important 2015 is for the Af-Pak region; developments this year will decide whether the region rises above the strife or sinks back into the depths of mayhem.
The drawdown plan outlined in May 2014 by President Obama envisions leaving 5,500 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2015. For this, it is essential that the new Afghan government consolidate its authority. That is not going to be easy, and not only because of the inherent fragility of the ethnically balanced alliance in which a Pashtun president, Ashraf Ghani, shares power with a chief executive representing the powerful Tajik minority, Abdullah Abdullah. The Afghan economy continues to falter as it is weaned away from international aid, the Afghan National Security Force still raises questions about its capability and resolve, and the Ghani-Abdullah coalition will have to survive parliamentary elections later in the year.
To be fair, after reaching an agreement in late September, Ghani and Abdullah have managed to keep the alliance intact. Meanwhile, Ghani visited China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan early in his presidency, suggesting that he will practice a considerably different brand of foreign policy than his predecessor Hamid Karzai. Ghani’s efforts at regional diplomacy are perhaps guided most by the consideration that Pakistan ranks at the very top of the list of exogenous influences on Afghan stability. Unfortunately, violence in Pakistan is on the rise and, unless quelled, could draw in Afghanistan. Pashtun irredentism and unresolved border issues remain serious concerns; a more immediate worry are militant groups operating out of this hostile terrain that can undermine the peace process in Afghanistan and weaken Pakistan from within.
Recent militant attacks in Pakistan can be traced back to Pakistan’s military operations against terrorist safe havens in North Waziristan and are likely to continue. Some members of the TTP have recently left the group to go it alone or to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As past instances suggest, such splintering of militant groups is often followed by violent attacks as each faction attempts to prove its commitment to the cause of jihad and establish supremacy.
The greatest challenge to Pakistan, however, comes from within. Despite the latest tragedy, there are no signs that the country is giving up its strategy of discriminating between “good” and “bad” militants and using them as instruments of state policy. Even as the strategy backfires, Pakistani leaders are in denial, blaming everyone but themselves. There is little possibility that violence—sectarian, internal, and global—emanating from Pakistan will soon subside. The country instead is agonizing about being left out of the decision-making process and losing strategic importance in the region while India’s involvement increases. An alliance of its eastern and western neighbors has always worried Pakistan. It would rather have a fractured Afghanistan fraught with violence than a stable one cooperating with India.
Pakistan has developed an ambivalent relationship with the United States. Despite little domestic support for the partnership, the Pakistani government and army are accustomed to the steady flow of billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Both are concerned that with the period of active U.S. engagement in Afghanistan coming to an end, the United States may turn away and the money dry up.
For Washington, the challenges in the region persist with few immediate solutions. Attempts to nudge Afghanistan toward a path of stability will continue to be hindered by Pakistan’s revisionist agenda. Drone strikes from Pakistani soil remain one of the few effective ways for the United States to take down anti-American forces in the region, and therefore are leverage for Pakistan. The Obama administration, with barely two years left and faced with immediate foreign policy priorities like Ebola and ISIS, is unlikely to have spare energy to rewrite its Pakistan strategy.
As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the ambit of the United States’ objectives will be limited to preventing the country from again becoming a terrorist haven and incubator for anti-U.S. attacks. One way to ensure American influence in Afghanistan would be through political engagement and aid in institution building. Hand-holding of the kind seen in September, when Secretary of State John Kerry brokered the agreement between Ghani and Abdullah, provides a useful template. Canvassing for regional cooperation is also a positive step in this direction. Considering that Afghanistan is one of the few instances where U.S. and Chinese goals align, greater U.S. political and economic cooperation with China, such as through building infrastructure and training security forces, would also help the eventual goal of a stable Afghanistan.
The article appeared on the NBR website on January 15, 2015.