US Foreign Policy

Pakistan and Afghanistan: Turbulence and Transitions

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – The
anticipated drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan
is adding to the turmoil in the domestic and foreign policies of Afghanistan and its key neighbor, Pakistan.  Few expect the “reconciliation” of the
various combatants in the war in time for the planned withdrawal of ISAF
(International Security Assistance Force) by 2014.  Despite the uncertainties of the security
environment, efforts to improve government effectiveness, in part by
strengthening subnational institutions, are producing results.

A recent
trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan
demonstrated the complexity of the current moment: not all trends are moving in
the same direction or at the same pace. 
From afar, security conditions trump all other factors, and each violent
incident dampens optimism about a stable transition in Afghanistan and
further strains US-Pakistan relations. 
Close up, there are other interesting and important developments in the
national lives of these two critical countries.

Pakistan is much more than the neighbor of Afghanistan.  It has some of the attributes of the middle
powers that are the dynamic new players in international politics.  It is a country of 180 million, with an
impressive, educated elite, a sophisticated civil society and an expanding
middle class.  That elite has embraced
new technologies and is using the natural resources of the country to generate
economic growth.  Ambitious moves to
devolve more power to the five provinces suggest a state with some capacity to
address its national challenges with vigor and boldness.

At the same
time, the maldistribution of income, opportunity, and access has created many
social deficits, and Pakistan
does not live up to its potential.  Deep
identity issues dating from its partition from India
more than 60 years ago and a stalled democratization process that has
enabled the privileged armed forces to remain the dominant power center keep Pakistan from
joining the ranks of the rising middle powers, and from satisfying the demands
of its citizenry.

Pakistan’s view
of its threat environment compels its leaders to place its security concerns
above other public policy priorities.  India’s rise is deeply worrying to Islamabad, and profoundly shapes Pakistan’s sense of urgency about its role in Afghanistan.  Pakistan
invokes its vital interests in Afghanistan,
and insists that India
does not have comparable stakes and should limit itself to development
activities.  So Pakistan believes it has a higher claim to
influence in Kabul; the recent strategic
partnership agreement between Kabul and New Delhi is a severe blow to Pakistan’s interests.  It suggests that Islamabad only will be more, not less,
attached to its non-state client/partners, such as the Haqqani group and
various Taliban elements.  Opinions
varied among Pakistanis as to whether a post-ISAF government in Kabul should or would be
entirely under Taliban control or in a power sharing arrangement with other
political forces.

On the
Afghan side, the reconciliation plans of the international community do not
seem to be gaining traction.  The
assassination of former President Rabbani was a severe blow, and there was much
cui bono talk in Kabul – did the
attack represent a split in Taliban ranks, or his own Tajik adversaries, or was
it unnamed powers in government that did not want him to succeed in
reconciliation talks?  While Secretary Clinton
presses for renewed efforts at reconciliation during her visit this week, some
key constituencies – including women – are not sure it’s a desirable goal.  Others say is may be desirable but not
achievable, so best to focus on government effectiveness and the basic security
requirements of the population.

The Afghan
government is making headway in improving the delivery of basic services to its
people.  Access to public education has
expanded, for girls and boys, and the Ministry of Education aims to move from 8
million kids in school to 14 million over the next few years (from a 2001 base
of one million).  Public health services
have improved.  Strengthening the
capacity of the provincial and district level governance structures is a key
way donors and international non-governmental organizations are helping.  Planning for economic growth and weaning the
country of foreign aid dependency is underway, but is a decades-long process
and will require technical support from the international community even when
the foreign forces have left.

There is
brave talk of protecting Afghanistan
from the predatory behavior of its neighbors, through non-aggression or
non-interference clauses in various agreements, but the reality is that Afghanistan
will remain the weaker party in several of its bilateral relationships.  Outside powers, such as the ISAF contributing
countries, will not likely be able to insulate Afghanistan
from outside manipulation, but strategies to engage the neighbors – who at some
level all have a stake in a stable Afghanistan – are critical during
the period of withdrawal.

It may well
be that Pakistan is the most important neighbor now, with its nominal control
of the territory from which many insurgents operate, but other trade and
investment partners including India, Turkmenistan, and Iran have roles to play
in helping Afghanistan develop a post-war economy.  In this regard, the Obama Administration’s Silk Road initiative offers an ambitious vision of
regional trade and interaction.  It will
require Afghanistan
to have robust enough transport routes, and trade regulatory rules.  It may also require the US and other international players to address
the likely conflict between ongoing sanctions to isolate Iran, and the equally compelling requirement to
build a more stable future for Afghanistan.  

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