The Taliban are successfully advancing through Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province as they push to regain control of the country. The region borders Pakistan on the Durand Line, a porous boundary which cuts through Pashtun tribal areas. There are some 13 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, constituting at least 40 percent of the population. They are the country’s largest ethnic group and have always constituted the core of the Taliban, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
The Taliban’s progress is cause for concern in Pakistan, home to some 30 million Pashtuns. Kabul and Islamabad are expected to begin joint negotiations with the Taliban early this year. The U.S. and China will also participate. Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Raheel Sharif has provided impetus for the renewed talks.
The instability to its northeast aside, Pakistan’s main foreign policy concern continues to be India. Scars remain from the countries’ partition, including the subsequent resettlement of millions of people. Most importantly, the issue of Kashmir remains unresolved. The two countries have fought a number of wars over the region since they gained independence. The fact that both are nuclear powers may have provided a deterrent from open conflict in recent years.
The relationship between these two countries has steadily been improving for some time, and progress has been especially clear on the Pakistani side. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India called his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to wish him a happy birthday on December 25, the two agreed that Mr. Modi would make an impromptu visit to Lahore that same day. The visit was the first by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan in nearly 12 years. Both leaders agreed to continue government level meetings to resolve their differences.
That’s good news. Renewed armed conflict between these two countries has the potential to escalate quickly and involve other major powers, such as China. Relations with Islamabad are crucial for Beijing, since Pakistan provides China with access to the Indian Ocean.
The changes seem to indicate that Pakistan’s army has gained sway over government policy and that General Sharif is influencing Pakistan’s new national security advisor, retired General Naseer Khan Janjua. Mr. Janjua was appointed to the position in October. It is the first time a general has taken on the role.
The army’s role in promoting peaceful relations is important. Its advantage is that it is well-positioned to perform risk assessment. A political role for the military in security matters and related foreign policy issues can be valuable. It is worth remembering that President Pervez Musharraf, also a general, began laying the foundations for a resolution to the Kashmir conflict by initiating negotiations with India back in 2004.
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