Working towards reconciliation in Afghanistan

One of the foremost foreign policy issues demanding attention by the next government would be how to inject fresh vigour in improving relations with our neighbours, particularly Afghanistan. COAS General Bajwa’s sustained efforts to develop confidence in Afghan leadership shows that Pakistan is genuinely interested in advancing the peace process is showing encouraging signs. The two countries have agreed to establish an institutional mechanism of coordinating their policies and reviewing progress periodically. This policy would need a strong civilian back-up from our side after the elections.

The collusion between Indian and Afghan intelligence was a source of concern for the Pakistan establishment. With better understanding of each other’s position this issue in future should not stand in the way of relationship.

To improve relations with Afghanistan in isolation without improving the confidence level of the US and to an extent reducing the hostility of India would be difficult, if not impossible. We would need to strengthen our Afghan policy by pursuing a similar institutional approach with major regional powers such as China and Russia.

Satisfying Afghanistan and the US on major issues such as “Pakistan’s support of Haqqani’s and Quetta Shura” is also critical. Because no policy on Afghanistan would succeed without the tacit support of the US and regrettably they still have serious reservations about “Pakistan providing shelter to top leadership of the Taliban”. Principal Deputy Assistance Secretary Alice Wells, who has been a frequent visitor to the region, remarked that Pakistan take “sustained and decisive steps” against the Taliban and encourage them to join the Afghan peace process. She recently articulated the lists of reservations that still persist in the perception of the US. According to Washington, Pakistan’s soft policy towards the Taliban boosts their fighting competence and allows them to play a strong hand while negotiating the peace process. To what extent the Taliban would be amenable to further persuasion by Pakistan is questionable. However, is Pakistan willing to agree to the US demand that it push the Taliban leadership to engage in dialogue, failing which it is prepared to deny them the sanctuaries? This is what the US has been demanding for a long time but Pakistan has limitations and its own interests to protect while dealing with the Taliban.

Recently, the Afghan Taliban took advantage of the one-sided extended ceasefire by the Afghan government. Suspension of the air strikes allowed the Taliban to move freely, infiltrate cities and attack without the fear of reprisal.

Speaking recently at a seminar organised by the Jinnah Institute, Afghan ambassador Omar Zakhilwal was cautiously optimistic about prospects for peace. According to him there is an overwhelming desire for peace among Afghans, including the Taliban. Although President Ghani’s offer — inviting the Taliban to the negotiating table, declaration of a brief unilateral ceasefire and his intention to show flexibility in his position — has so far not convinced them towards peace talks. Afghan and US leadership believes that Pakistan has a major role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. According to the Afghan government, the obstinacy of the Taliban to engage with the Afghan leadership is a consequence of Pakistan’s support to them. Pakistan’s perspective has been that there are limits to what it can do in persuading the Taliban.

The other impediment in the way of the peace process is that the Taliban leadership remains adamant it will only engage with the Americans and downplays the Afghan government by describing them as puppets. The US is not willing to directly participate in talks but is willing to act as a facilitator.

Pakistan’s major grievance has been that its enormous sacrifices in terms of human casualties and expending of resources due to the turbulent conditions in the region have remained largely unacknowledged by the international community.

Another issue that affects the credibility of the Afghan regime is the repeated postponement of parliamentary elections. These were originally scheduled for mid-2015 but were twice postponed because of security concerns. It is also believed that President Ghani is hesitant to hold elections for the Wolesi Jirga and district councils, as he would have to share power with them. The current national assembly that has been given an extension through a controversial presidential decree obviously is in no position to challenge the president’ decisions.

What remains largely ignored by the international community is that the situation in Afghanistan has adversely impacted Pakistan’s security! Even now Pakistan continues to cope with its consequences.

The TTP leadership has always taken pride about their ideological mentor, the late Mullah Omar. Ideologically, there is no difference between the two Taliban. TTP leaders have been taking refuge in parts of Afghanistan where Taliban influence reigns. Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP leader, enjoyed years of safe sanctuary in Afghanistan until he was recently targeted by a US drone strike.

Pakistan has consistently promoted the policy of reconciliation in Afghanistan. Its emphasis that it is a political problem and cannot be resolved by military power has proven to be right. President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban to come to the negotiating table is a vindication of Pakistan’s oft-repeated position that reconciliation will only come through a political understanding. Having failed to make any significant gain in marginalising the Taliban, as an armed entity, reconciliation through dialogue seems the most rational course to adopt.

Moreover, neutralising the Taliban would have required the Afghan government to establish a state that is in control of its territory and its governance meets the basic needs of its people without heavy dependence on foreign support. President Trump has been emphatic that US goal will be restricted in countering insurgency and terrorism and not in building the Afghan state. Whether the Afghan leadership will be in a position to build an effective state will very much depend on how the peace process moves forward. And the Afghan government is able to satisfy the people by improvement in governance.

On balance, reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban despite the great challenge that it poses is the only way forward. And for that, the United States and important neighbours especially Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran should play their role.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2018.

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