Daily Times recently sat down with veteran Pakistani diplomat Najmuddin Shaikh to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, the prolonged US presence there as well as the role played by other regional players, such as China and India. Talking to Marvi Sirmed, he discussed what he thinks the year ahead will hold in store Pakistan within this geo-strategic context: DT: Pakistan and the US got off to a rocky start this year. First came the infamous Tweet in which President Trump accused Islamabad of lies and deceit as well as harbouring America’s enemies; while receiving $33 billion in military assistance. Next was the inevitable strong response from our side. Do you think that there can now be any positive way forward? NS: Before addressing your question, let me say a few things about the past myths we have entertained about US-Pak relations. First, we talk today of our relations being transactional but they have always been that way. We joined the American sponsored pacts to contain communism in the Middle East and East Asia, when we had no clash of interest with the Soviet Union or China but adopted anti-communism to obtain the military and economic assistance we needed to counter the Indian threat. We joined the Americans in the jihad in Afghanistan, because we genuinely feared that a Soviet consolidation there would inevitably lead to a Soviet move through Pakistani Balochistan to the Arabian Sea. The Americans, on the other hand, were only interested in inflicting on the Soviets the same humiliation that they had suffered in Vietnam. We created what I call a contrived commonality of interests. Second, we seem to think that American interest in securing India as an ally is new. In fact, it dates back to the 1950s when the US approached New Delhi first to join the pacts that we joined after the latter rebuffed American overtures. Third, our involvement in the Afghan jihad and the consequences – gunrunning, narcotics trafficking, unimpeded movement of Afghan refugees to any part of our country – flowed from our decision to fight the jihad in the name of “Islam in Danger” rather than in the name of “Afghan Nationalism”. This was the decision of our then leader Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who believed that such a slogan would help his programme of “Islamising” Pakistan’s domestic polity. It was not forced upon us. Fourth, with regard to our relations with Afghanistan – a vital relationship – no party in Afghanistan can afford to give up its irredentist stance on the internationally recognised Pak-Afghan border. Theoretically this will remain an area of contention. We have to see if there are practical consequences. If there are none we should live with verbal jousting on what we should see as part of the Afghan psyche. These are the realities, which must be part of the calculus on which our policies should be based without emotional outbursts about betrayal etcetera. To come to your question, President Trump’s tweet on New Year’s Day was, by my reading, related to the same incident that brought words of effusive praise from the same President in October. When the Canadian-American family was rescued from their Haqqani network captors, one of the hostage takers was arrested by our forces. According to a New York Times story published on December 29, the Americans learned of this and asked for access to the prisoner saying that by interrogating him they would be able to establish the whereabouts of two other Americans that they believed were being held by the Haqqanis. We apparently refused to acquiesce. It is my conjecture that this New York Times story was part of the daily briefing the President received on New Year’s Eve and prompted the 4 am inflammatory tweet the following day. With regard to what I see as the future, the US cannot maintain its presence in Afghanistan without the use of our overland routes and airspace. There is no way the Northern Distribution Network can be resuscitated. On the other hand, Pakistan must tread carefully when it contemplates a rupture in relations with the world’s sole super power unless; its vital national interests are jeopardised. We have to consider in a hard-headed analysis whether this is in fact the case. American policy makers, Trump apart, realise this and have therefore modulated their demands. The Americans want that whatever elements of the Haqqani Network are on Pakistan soil be eliminated. Other requirements that were first laid down –action against the LeT – have now been omitted. We maintain that there is no organised presence of the Haqqanis in Pakistan and would act if provided actionable intelligence. The Americans are obdurate that they are here and they are planning attacks on Afghan and American targets in Afghanistan. The point is what Pakistani national interest is served by the presence of the Haqqani network or, for that matter, the Afghan Taliban on our soil. In that context we also have to look at what our interests are in currently war-torn Afghanistan? To my mind our interest is to have a stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbours; and to have it be, along with Pakistan, the bridge between South Asia and Central Asia, thereby allowing us and countries eastward to benefit from trade with Central Asia and beyond. As well as the import of Central Asian fossil fuel resources for the energy starved nations of South Asia. That interest is not served by letting the Taliban leadership be here. DT: You have touched on Afghanistan. What do you make of the political situation over there? Namely, can the Ghani government survive? And will parliamentary elections scheduled for this year ahead? NS: Today in Afghanistan the political situation, to say the least, is fraught. The National Unity Government in which President Ashraf Ghani and Chief executive Abdullah Abdullah share power – while disagreeing on a number of issues – were on the same page in calling for a letter of resignation from Atta Noor Mohammad, the Governor of Balkh and a key member of the Jamiat-e-Islami, which is Abdullah Abdullah’s party. Atta refused to resign. There are reports that negotiations have been going on since the dismissal was announced but so far there seems to be no resolution of the issue. At the other end of the country, Gen Raziq, theoretically a subordinate of President Ghani, reacted to instructions to refrain from engaging in politics by stating that he was in his position by the will of the people and would resign only when the people asked him to do so. Elections theoretically are to be held for the Parliament and district councils by July; but at this time this appears impossible. In November the head of the IEC (Independent Election Commission) was dismissed by President Ghani. A successor has been named but he is accused of having counterfeit degrees. This may be resolved but it still seems unlikely that the July deadline will be adhered to given the other difficulties; including the issuance of identity cards far exceeds the number of eligible voters. Opposition groups have been clamouring for change. A former ally of President Ghani has said: “When he started off as President, his political base was formed by 54 political groups that were meeting on a weekly basis to support him. I doubt if three of the 54 are left with him.” It is my feeling that the international community, nevertheless, has no choice but to continue to support the NUG while urging it to settle internal differences. DT: And what of the security situation? NS: The Afghan National Defence forces, comprising the Army, the Air Force, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Local Police and the National Directorate of Security, today amount to some 320,000 personnel. There is general acknowledgement that only Afghanistan Special forces – numbering some 16,000 – are effective fighters and have, as a result, been overused to throw back Taliban attacks on provincial and district headquarters. President Ghani, on the strength of the Trump policy of maintaining and marginally increasing American troop presence and making withdrawals condition-based, now asserts that the Taliban can no longer claim that while the Americans have the watches the Taliban have the time. Time, he believes, is on the side of the government. How much truth there is in this assertion will become more evident in the days to come. Undoubtedly, a much greater use of American airpower in the past year – 3, 554 weapons used against the Taliban, which is nearly three times the 1,337 dropped in 2016 – as well as the number of ground operations undertaken suggests that substantial damage was inflicted on anti-government forces of all hues and complexions. This has not so far resulted in any substantial gain in terms of territory on the ground. Gen Nicholson has claimed: “There are signs the Taliban insurgency is lowering its ambitions as it suffers greater losses” He says 12 percent of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban while another 30 percent is contested; with the government’s control extending to only 56.7 percent of the territory He says his plan over the next two years is to extend government control to 80 percent of the territory; leaving the Taliban with 10 percent, thus rendering them irrelevant. Gen Nicholson is not alone in having claimed that US forces have turned the corner in the battle against the Taliban. The same claim has been made by the secretaries of State and Defence and even by the President; but the situation on the ground so far belies these assertions. DT: What about securing the Afghan economy? What is the likely timeframe on that front? NS: The NUG government has to depend on foreign aid for 55-63 percent of its budget. It is the largest employer in the country. The terms of employment have created pension liabilities of enormous size. The tax base remains small and there are no immediate prospects for exploiting the country’s mineral resources or its location which makes it the bridge between South Asia and West Asia. Almost the entire expenditure on Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) – amounting to 4.1 billion dollars annually – has to be met by foreign aid and there is little prospect of this situation changing over the next decade or more. Afghanistan will remain dependent on huge dollops of foreign assistance well beyond the year 2020; till which time economic aid has been pledged by foreign donors. President Ghani has said that the Afghan economy would collapse in six months if aid for the ANDSF was withdrawn. The truth is that it would collapse in two months. Aid must continue at least until 2030 – or perhaps 2035 – even if reconciliation happens because it will take at least that long before Afghanistan can achieve a modicum of self reliance and can reduce ANDSF to a more affordable size. It will be many years before Afghanistan’s location or its mineral deposits can be exploited. Trump’s pledge to forsake “nation building” means Afghanistan may not get the managerial assistance and money to bring about reform. The picture is not bright. DT: What are the prospects for reconciliation? NS: There appears to be a reasonably good chance that some Taliban groups may be persuaded to engage in a reconciliation process. This must be the first priority for all friends of Afghanistan. But it must be recognised that this will be a long and arduous process with many people – extremist Taliban on the one hand as well as Afghan warlords anxious to maintain their fiefdoms – throwing a spanner in the works at every possible opportunity. Persuading a recalcitrant Taliban that a team authorised by Haibatullah Akhund will nominate the delegation for the talks may be problematic. Reconciliation’s first requirement – localised ceasefires – will be violated. Let me say that even if the Taliban were united, the negotiations would still be long since they would involve: (i) changes in the constitution to bring it more in accord with the Taliban interpretation of Sharia; (ii) settling disputes over the degree of Taliban control in various provinces and districts; (iii) agreeing the division of power between the Central Government and the Provinces or even districts; (iv) the division of available funding between the Centre and the Province or districts from tax resources and from foreign aid; (v) the conversion of the Taliban movement into a political party recognised by the IEC; (vi) the date for the next election: (vii) the number of unelected offices to be given to Taliban nominees; (viii) possible concrete Taliban steps to curb poppy cultivation and how the impact of this could be mitigated. In these circumstances, it will be fortunate if the terms can be settled in negotiations spread over five years. DT: What, for you, would be the best-case scenario for Afghanistan? NS: Assuming that there is a level of good governance and some progress on reconciliation and some stability, the following may happen: some regional projects may start functioning, such as TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline) and CASA (Central-South Asia power plant); some trade between South Asia and Central Asia begins to be routed through Afghanistan and yields transit fee revenues; the agriculture sector takes off and increases exports of Afghan products, including fresh and dried fruit as well as saffron to an annual level of $1.5 billion against the current $500 million; while wheat imports are reduced, thereby off-setting in some measure the losses caused by the curbing of opium production. Availability of energy from TAPI and CASA allows for the setting up of some small-scale industries and perhaps the restarting of mineral resource exploitation. The ANDSF is reduced to about 80,000 with the Army being cut to 25,000 and the rest being Afghan National and Local police. A reduction in budget deficits will be achieved but the size of this will be heavily influenced by the pension burden. A target date of 2030-35 to achieve these desirable targets may be overly optimistic but anything short of that would certainly be unrealistic. DT: How should Pakistan respond to these challenges? NS: I do not believe that the Americans want a permanent base in Afghanistan but it they do, does a hard-headed analysis suggest that we can prevent it? What we do know from the foregoing analysis is that American military presence and American financing is necessary to prevent a collapse of the ANDSF and of the Afghan economy. This need will to persist until 2030-35 and it would be in our interest, as the country most affected by a collapse of the Afghan economy, to ensure that they do stay and are not required to withdraw because of moves in the US towards reducing “foreign involvement”. Second, the Indians, as the second largest aid donors to Afghanistan and the purveyors of soft power by way of their film industry, enjoy a great deal of support among Afghan officials and the general public. They are using this and their growing physical presence in Afghanistan to create trouble for us in Balochistan and for funding and otherwise helping the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other groups ranged against us. India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is troublesome but we need to make a dispassionate assessment of to what degree their presence in Afghanistan adds to the potential they already have for mischief across the Pak-India border and across our long coastline that is known to be a smuggler’s paradise. I don’t think we can come to the conclusion that the accretion to their disruptive potential is such as to justify the jeopardising of the Pak-Afghan relations. Third, the CPEC has the potential to be a game changer for Pakistan but to see it in narrow Sino-Pak terms is doing a disservice to the grand regional vision of the Chinese planners and the significant part they visualise CPEC playing in the overall One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. The Chinese ambassador to New Delhi, answering questions about the mischievous Indian assertion that CPEC is illegal since it runs through India’s territory, suggested that another fork of the CPEC could be built through Indian-occupied Kashmir. This was not just a gambit to disarm Indian objections. It was part of the view that CPEC would be truly successful when it served the entire region: West Asia, South Asia and Central Asia. I believe the capacity of Gwadar was designed to provide access to the sea for the trade of the Central Asian Republics. It is also the logical route for other South Asian countries to trade with Western China. We have been so focused on security – for understandable reasons – that we have ignored the one advantage that we enjoy in an area where we are in many ways dwarfed by our neighbours; either because of size or because of natural resource bases. We, along with Afghanistan, are the overland bridge between South Asia and Central Asia. We are also the bridge between India and the other SAARC countries lying to the east for overland trade with West Asia and through the latter to markets in Europe. The ISPR rejoinder to the Indian Army chief’s rather stupid statement about calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff underlines our confidence in the deterrence value of our nuclear capacity which, rather than conventional weaponry, will be our principle defence against India. I have long argued that with this capability in hand – we do not need to give security against India’s conventional strength the salience that it had perforce enjoyed in the past. Let us now focus not on the security aspect of our location but rather on the economic and expand trade in every direction. We are already committed to allowing Turkmen gas to pass through our territory to the market in India when TAPI becomes operational. Why should we be wary of allowing other traffic when it will yield transit fees and generate other economic activity? DT: What do you think will be the end game over the coming year? NS: Pakistan, the US, China, and Afghanistan working in tandem; getting the Taliban shifted to Afghanistan and engaging in reconciliation talks with local ceasefires coming into being. The US has persuaded the State Department to provide advice and finances for economic and administrative reform under President Ghani; whom I see as genuinely committed to what will be the enormously slow process of freeing Afghanistan from opium, from warlords and a reduction of current ethnic tensions. A tall order, I know, requiring in the most propitious circumstances many years to bring to fruition but helped, perhaps, by the opening of trade routes. Published in Daily Times, January 28th 2018.