I assure you that the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be friends of Pakistan,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said last month. Terrorists targeting it, he promised “will be outlawed and hunted down”. For many in Afghanistan, Monday’s near-successful Taliban strike on their parliament will have answered their questions about the worth of his word. In spite of promises made by Pakistan’s PM and army chief, the country is yet to arrest leaders of the Taliban’s shura, or central command — men operating in plain sight in Peshawar and Quetta. Nor has Pakistan proscribed the networks of Islamist warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, key to the Taliban’s strike capacities. Islamabad has also failed to deliver on its promises to temper the Taliban’s annual summer offensive and to draw its leaders into peace talks. For weeks now, President Ashraf Ghani has been facing mounting criticism of a foreign policy that appeared to concede much to Pakistan while little was gained in return. The criticism could intensify in the wake of the attack — potentially engendering tears in the ethnic-religious patchwork that underlies Afghan politics.
Yet, to rail against Pakistan’s policies is merely to describe the problem. Pakistan’s military has good reasons for not pushing the Taliban, and allied jihadis like the Haqqani network, hard. For one, both have credibility among Islamist political forces inside Pakistan, who in turn are key to the army’s own legitimacy. Then, in the midst of the battle against jihadists who challenge its authority, the army can ill-afford to make new enemies. Playing both sides of the game, to Islamabad’s generals, is a strategy that makes sense. Knowing the US hopes to militarily disengage from the region, the generals believe the West has no choice but to subcontract Afghanistan’s future to them.
For Islamabad to change course, its generals must be confronted with a new multinational alliance, replacing the one created after 9/11 — an alliance that would threaten global isolation if cooperation was not forthcoming. The elements are in place. Russia loses thousands of young people to Afghan heroin each year, and fears Islamists could destabilise the Central Asian states on its periphery. China faces a threat from the Uighur jihadists now fighting in northern Afghanistan. For Iran, the rise of new jihadist movements like the Islamic State in Afghanistan present an imminent threat. Even for India or Turkey, Afghanistan’s implosion would present real hazards. For the past decade, New Delhi has let the US take the diplomatic lead. It is time for it to start spelling out its roadmap.