Pakistan becomes pivotal to Afghan peace

(A view of the Taliban’s office in Doha, Qatar) 

The marathon talks between the US officials and the Taliban representatives at Doha through a 16-day period ending yesterday can be seen as a defining moment in the endgame in Afghanistan. Both the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have signalled that progress has been achieved in the negotiations. 

Khalilzad has tweeted: “The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides. Peace requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire. In January talks, we “agreed in principle” on these four elements. We’re now “agreed in draft” on the first two.” 

“When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and otherAfghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire. My next step is discussions in Washington and consultations with other partners. We will meet again soon, and there is no final agreement until everything is agreed.”

The Taliban has broadly confirmed Khalilzad’s account in a statement yesterday: “This round of talks (in Doha) saw extensive and detailed discussions taking place regarding two issues that were agreed upon during January talks. Those two issues were the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing anyone from harming others from Afghan soil; how and when will all foreign forces exit Afghanistan and through what method? Similarly, how will the United States and her allies be given assurances about future Afghanistan?” 

“Progress was achieved regarding both these issues. For now, both sides will deliberate over the achieved progress, share it with their respective leaderships and prepare for the upcoming meeting, the date of which shall be set by both negotiation teams.” 

Taliban had earlier clarified that issues relating to ceasefire and talks with the Kabul administration were not part of the current agenda. The remark yesterday by FM Shah Mehmood Qureshi that Pakistan wants a “responsible” withdrawal of western troops from Afghanistan says it all.

The Western powers and NATO must be particularly pleased that Pakistan has persuaded the Taliban to agree to a reduced US military presence for the near term. The unannounced visits by the German foreign minister Heiko Maas and the British defence secretary Stephen Lovegrove on successive days this week to Islamabad are a timely recognition by the US’ key western allies of Pakistan’s cooperation that made such remarkable progress possible in the Afghan peace process and the pivotal role of Pakistan in regional security in the weeks and months ahead as the Afghan settlement gets implemented. 

(Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai (L) with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai at intra-Afghan dialogue, Moscow, Feb 6, 2019) 

Looking ahead, intra-Afghan talks leading to power-sharing and a ceasefire will need to be addressed shortly. But here, Russia is working in tandem with Pakistan to create a platform of intra-Afghan dialogue where Afghan government could also participate, thereby sidestepping the Taliban’s extreme aversion to recognising President Ashraf Ghani’s set-up in Kabul as its interlocutor. Ghani and his associates have huffed and puffed about their demotion as one of several Afghan groups, but are gradually coming to terms with the reality. 

However, Taliban remains obdurate that Ghani is only an American creation and cannot even be regarded as an ethnic Afghan. In a scathing attack on Ghani, Taliban said on Tuesday that “even though Ashraf Ghani is an Afghan national, he can distinctly be considered an American due to his character, ideology, loyalty, working past and political commitments especially in these times as the special forces (butchers) under his leadership continue to ruthlessly murder Afghans in night raids, raze their homes, loot their valuables, desecrate their sacrosanct and as civilian tragedies keep piling up… It seems that this individual has no roots and ties with the Afghan nation… Afghan nation demands that Ashraf Ghani disclose his past and current ties with America.” 

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Pakistan will allow the Taliban to turn its back on intra-Afghan dialogue due to the participation by Ghani’s people. From present indications, Moscow is raring to host the second meeting of the intra-Afghan dialogue once it gets the green signal from Islamabad. 

The Russian role works splendidly for Pakistan. On the one hand, Russia creates space for Pakistan pushes back at the US and ensure that any settlement will not lead to American hegemony over Afghanistan and Central Asia. On the other hand, the back-to-back dealings with Moscow and Washington would enable Islamabad to optimally negotiate and secure its own interests in a settlement. Then, there is the bonus that the Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations also get a swagger, which of course has profound implications for Pakistan’s troubled relations with India.  

The hidden charm of the great game is that there are periods when rival protagonists suspend mutual animosities temporarily for pursuing a common interest in the immediate terms. We are witnessing one such interlude at the moment. The US feels that Russia has barged in uninvited to have a say in the Afghan peace process, but having said that, the latter’s participation can also be useful to navigate the endgame through the tricky phase ahead as the intra-Afghan dialogue gets under way. 

Of course, this only means that the great game is in hibernation briefly but will resume sooner rather than later. Nothing is forgotten or forgiven in the great game.

(General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistani army chief with UK Defence Secretary Stephen Lovegrove at GHQ, Rawalpindi, March 12, 2019)

No doubt, the lateral entry of the British defence secretary into the matrix at the present juncture underscores that any expansion of Russian influence in the Hindu Kush (or anywhere on the planet) will be severely contested. London enjoys leverage over Imran Khan and Washington regards it as a strategic asset in the Afghan peace process. By the way, wasn’t it a vehement prioritisation of the British regional policy in Afghanistan that the defence secretary found himself in Islamabad on such a crucial day for British politics when PM Theresa May was battling desperately for the survival of her government in the House of Commons at the Westminster?

On the whole, Pakistan has done brilliantly well, as the hurried trips by the German and UK ministers to Islamabad this week would testify. The big question is about the new trajectory of US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan is seeking a revival of the full-bodied relationship with the US, which it used to have historically up until 2011 when all hell broke loose. Qureshi had forecast on Sunday: “Our relations with the US are going to take a new turn. US-Taliban peace dialogues are underway in Doha and positive results are expected.” 

The US-Pakistani dalliance, in all probability, will commence with the visit by PM Imran Khan to Washington, which could be in the making. Indeed, the phone conversation on Monday between the US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Qureshi would even have touched on the scheduling of Imran Khan’s visit.