Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's promised 'New Pakistan' is tied, he says, to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan. The odds are against him.

Ascending on to the political world stage after winning last month's general election, Imran Khan rightfully declared that the success of his "Naya Pakistan" (New Pakistan) project is irrevocably tied to peace and stability in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The homeland of Khan's forefathers figured prominently in his post-poll meetings with the ambassadors of Pakistan's major diplomatic partners, echoing the progress made in ongoing secretive talks with the Taliban.

Significantly, it recently acknowledged an atmosphere conducive to the resumption of peace talks created during recent meetings between US and Taliban negotiators in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Khan's first foreign policy challenge as prime minister, therefore, would involve engagement with Kabul, at the invitation of President Ashraf Ghani, to discuss how to take forward a political process dogged both by the history of antagonism between the neighbours and the contradictory geopolitical interests of rival global and regional powers.

The list of other interested parties includes most major strategic players in Asia and the Middle East: China, India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The ultimate outcome of the Afghan peace process would hinge on the ability of these stakeholders to overcome their differences sufficiently, at least, to prevent Afghanistan from descending into an irredeemable state of chaos similar to that which is prevalent in Syria.

For Khan, the most formidable challenge would be to bring about a halt to the sub-conventional warfare which has scarred relations with Afghanistan since Pakistan came into being in August 1947. Without it, any negotiating process would be undermined by Afghan and US recriminations about Pakistan's alleged support for the Taliban, in particular the movement's notorious Haqqani Network faction. Pakistan denies the allegations but accepts that some insurgents live in hiding among the massive Afghan refugee population resident on its soil since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

A history of mistrust

The first four decades of bilateral ties were soured by Afghanistan's solo opposition to Pakistan's admission to the United Nations in 1948. From then until the Soviet invasion, various Afghan regimes sponsored incursions by tribal militias into Pakistani territory to press demands for a renegotiation of the border drawn up in 1893 by the British colonial rulers of the Indian Subcontinent. Although the so-called Durand Line is recognised by the UN, Afghanistan contends that its rulers agreed to the border demarcation under duress.

Throughout this period, governments of landlocked Afghanistan supported Pashtun and Baluch separatist movements in the two western provinces of Pakistan, hoping it would yield access to the Arabian Sea at Gwadar, where China now operates a commercial port as part of its $62 billion Belt and Road Initiative programme in Pakistan.

Pakistani pushback began in earnest in the 1970s with the training and arming of pretenders to the Afghan throne, including the charismatic “Lion of Panjshir" Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The rebels morphed into the mujahideen resistance against the Soviet occupation, but attempts by their foreign benefactors to corral them into forming a stable coalition government in Afghanistan in the early 1990s failed miserably.

The resultant civil war was remarkable for the propensity of rival camps to shift their domestic and foreign allegiances, a phenomenon noted by colonialists during the “Great Game” played in Afghanistan between Britain and Russia in the late 19th century.

This brazen opportunism—coupled with foreign interference—created the huge ungoverned space at the confluence of Asia and the Middle East which was subsequently filled by the Taliban, with the aid of its rich foreign Al Qaeda allies, thereby setting the stage for the enduring age of global terrorism.

As Pakistan's new prime minister, Khan has the opportunity to energise a peace process which could bring about an end to the "endless war" in Afghanistan. He is a longstanding critic of the US military occupation of Afghanistan and its “War on Terror”, and an advocate of political reconciliation with the insurgents - a stance which has earned him the derogatory nickname "Taliban Khan".

To attain the stability requisite for his reinvention of Pakistan's governance, as well as political vindication to establish himself as a global statesman, Khan must now perform a delicate diplomatic dance with President Ghani, the Taliban and an aggressively self-centred US government.

Recent events on the ground have served to demonstrate that Afghanistan is an ever-shifting political minefield for which no reliable map exists.

Optimism that the Taliban would agree to a second consecutive Eid ceasefire had been heightened by the movement's defeat in July of the Daesh-allied forces which had seized and held remote parts of Afghanistan's northern province of Jawzjan for two years. 

Neither Afghan forces nor US warplanes interfered as some 2,000 Taliban fighters gathered to launch the successful two-pronged assault, giving rise to conjecture about an informal tactical anti-Daesh alliance between the main protagonists.

Such optimism was quickly dispelled by the Taliban's storming of Ghazni - after Farah, the second city to be temporarily seized by the insurgents this year. Designed to publicly humiliate Kabul, the operation sparked a war of words between Ghani and the Pakistani army's chief of staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, thereby undermining their fledgling China-mediated rapprochement.

This could explain Khan's subsequent decision not to undertake any overseas tours during his initial three months as prime minister. As the new kid on the block, he stands to gain nothing from leaping blindly into the abyss otherwise known as Afghanistan, especially when an ongoing series of multilateral engagements, both including and excluding the US and the Taliban, are the manifestation of an increasingly complicated Great Game.

From his experience as the world-beating former captain of Pakistan's cricket team, Khan understands that a single mistimed shot at peace could result in a disastrous loss of diplomatic credibility. He would be wise to continue to exercise caution.

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