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'There is no shortcut to ending the Afghan conflict'

"There is no likelihood of a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan without a cooperative Pakistan. What Pakistan does have is the power to play spoiler if any agreement is judged to run against its national interest. Pakistan’s preferred outcome would have been a political settlement that returned the Taliban to Afghanistan but that also checked its ambitions through a power-sharing arrangement".

DR. MARVIN G WEINBAUM, currently scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute, was an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the US Department of State. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, where he previously directed the Program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and held Fulbright Research Fellowships for Afghanistan and Egypt. In an exclusive interview with Trans Asia News Service (TANS), Professor Weinbaum talks about Afghanistan Pakistan relations, United States approach and possible orientation towards the region and regional security dynamics.

Q 1: The recent incidents and skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops at Torkham are alarming. What do you make of these? Do these portend a recidivist slide in Afghan Pakistan relations?

The recent clashes are indeed alarming not because they are likely to escalate into a larger military conflict but because they are a token of how far relations have soured over the last year. This deterioration of relations is reflective of the deep level of suspicion and distrust, especially from the Afghan side, that stands in the way of any attempts to achieve bilateral military, political and economic cooperation. To reverse the trends, Pakistan will have to demonstrate its sincerity to the Afghans by evicting insurgent forces enjoying sanctuary, and Afghanistan will need to convince the Pakistanis that it is ready to distance itself from India. With both sides clinging to their hedging strategies neither is likely to be able to satisfy the other’s "bottom lines" any time soon.

Q.2: What implications and consequences would flow- regionally and in terms of global security- from strained Afghan Pakistan relations?

There is no likelihood of a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan without a cooperative Pakistan. That doesn’t mean, that Pakistan is able, if it chooses, to exercise its influence to deliver the Taliban for a political solution. What Pakistan does have is the power to play spoiler if any agreement is judged to run against its national interest. Confrontation between the countries works to the benefit of their respective insurgencies and in Afghanistan could bring a return to the 1990s —only more chaotic—when regional powers intervened to provide assistance to their client forces. Without progress toward reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will be impossible to realize well conceived plans for regional economic integration through trade, border control reforms, gas pipelines and electricity transmission.

Q.3: Will it have implications on United States’ comprehensive withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The failure of Pakistan and Afghanistan to reset their normally difficult relationship means that a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict is impossible anytime in the foreseeable future. It strengthens the case for the United States and its international partners to extend their military and financial commitments to the Afghan government.

Q.4: Should the United States withdraw entirely from Afghanistan?

To withdraw military and financial support any time soon would guarantee the collapse of the Afghan security forces. However much President Obama would have liked his legacy to be that he extracted the United States from the Afghan quagmire, he does not want to leave behind an Afghan state that collapses with a US departure. In truth, no country in the region, including Iran and Pakistan is anxious to see an early or precipitous exit of US and allied forces---whatever their public criticism of the American role.

Q.5: In terms of talks with the Taliban, where does the United States stand? Is a negotiated settlement between the US and Afghan parties like the Taliban in the offing? Or do you envisage a military stand off?

Although the United States still keeps alive the idea of reaching a negotiated agreement with the Taliban, the disappointments of the last year have convinced Washington that there is no shortcut to ending the Afghan conflict. We should anticipate a prolonged military standoff, with the Taliban continuing to make gains in the countryside, and the Afghan security forces, assisted by international trainers, advisers and special operations units, able to hold on to the population centers. This assumes, however, not only that the international community continues to fund the Afghan security forces but also that the Kabul government does not unravel politically from within.

Q.6: Where does Pakistan stand in either scenario?

Pakistan is in a bind. It feels the need to hold on to its Taliban/Haqqani proxies as insurance against the prospect of a disintegrating Afghanistan, whether from military pressure or domestic disarray. But at the same time Pakistan has no interest in seeing an outright military victory by the Taliban that could energize extremist forces within Pakistan. Pakistan’s preferred outcome would have been a political settlement that returned the Taliban to Afghanistan but that also checked its ambitions through a power-sharing arrangement. The Taliban's apparent determination to seek a military victory and its unwillingness to compromise on its vision of a Sharia state precludes a political deal any time in the foreseeable future.

Q.7: Does the US have a strategy for Pakistan beyond the transactional relationship it has had historically with the country?

It will remain transactional and therefore unsatisfying for either the US or Pakistan. But the transactional nature of the relationship and American concern over nuclear proliferation and the possibility that the AfPak region could become again the epicenter for global terrorist activity ensures that for all of the American displeasure with Pakistan over Afghanistan and other issues there will be no divorce as occurred in 1990. The emergence of Islamic State in the region provides still another reason for not walking away.

Q.8: Against the backdrop of India’s diplomatic activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s leverage in the country, what do you envisage of the region’s future?

The best hope for the region is for the major countries to have strong, politically stable governments capable of addressing their pressing economic challenges. Promise for the region’s future also rests heavily on achieving regional economic cooperation. But as much as the countries could together prosper from cooperation, under prevailing conditions of uncertainty, all hold on to defensive hedging strategies that undermine chances of their cooperating and open up the possibility of their being adversaries.

Q.9: What are the implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for the region particularly India and is the recent Trilateral Chabahar deal any indication of new power game in the region?

C-Pak has been oversold as offering salvation for Pakistan’s economic ills. That China will deliver on all its commitments seems problematic, and the projected benefits may not be widely shared. Yet any new investment can help to stabilize Pakistan’s economy, making its political system less vulnerable to extremist influences. Greater Chinese involvement in Pakistan is therefore not necessarily contrary to India's interests. There is no evidence of China’s intention to use C-Pak for strategic military advantage. No doubt, the economic value of C-Pak will be diminished somewhat by India's agreement with Iran and Afghanistan on making Chabahar port an alternative to Pakistan’s Gwadar. While the development will not create some fundamentally new power rebalancing in the region, it will likely result in increasing Pakistan’s feelings of isolation and dependence on China. In the absence of any rapprochement with Pakistan, Afghanistan will be drawn closer to India and Iranian influence in Afghanistan will also increase. But all these shifts will have greater economic than political consequences.

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