With a second round of conversation, the trilateral meet holds promise for peace in Afghanistan

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With a second round of conversation, the trilateral meet holds promise for peace in Afghanistan

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On December 15, the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan will hold their second round of talks during a trilateral meeting in Kabul to discuss the Afghan peace process.

The meeting will take place against the backdrop of intense US diplomatic efforts to kickstart negotiations for Afghanistan. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy appointed by US President Donald Trump for Afghanistan, has been spearheading these efforts and has made multiple trips to the region in order to broker a political reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will lead their respective delegations during the trilateral meet. The mechanism's main focus will be on three key areas – strategic and security issues, counter-terrorism and security, and economic development and connectivity. A key driver, however, is China’s interest in improving the working relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which Beijing increasingly views as vital for the long-term security of its own Muslim majority region in the Xingjian province which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The first trilateral meeting was held in Beijing, months after China brokered the three-party forum, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to Kabul and Islamabad in June last year, following a massive truck bombing which killed 150 people in Kabul in late May, resulting in additional pressure on the already-strained relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

For the past 17 years, Islamabad and Kabul's relationship has been characterized by mutual mistrust and suspicion. 

Kabul has consistently accused Pakistan's  government and its intelligence agencies of supporting and harboring the Afghan Taliban who had fought the Afghan government and a coalition of international forces.

Pakistan has long denied direct support to the Taliban movement while at the same time maintaining that the only solution to the 17-year-old war is political reconciliation with the militant group.

This year, efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan war received an unprecedented boost when senior US diplomats held the first direct US-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, in July.

At this juncture, an improvement in the mutual trust and working relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes even more important.

Both the Afghan government and President Trump have voiced their concerns, expecting Pakistan to use its influence in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and start a meaningful peace process with the Afghan government.

Recently, President Trump, in a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, requested Pakistan's support for the peace process.

Pakistan, in response, reiterated its willingness to support the process as it aligns with its own long-held position.

Given the current urgencies related to international efforts for the peace process, the upcoming presidential election cycle in Afghanistan, and the intensification of war inside Afghanistan, the APAPPS' framework offers limited utility and flexibility to push forward the full spectrum of Pakistan’s regional interests.

Dr. Simbal Khan

The unstable and volatile nature of Pakistan’s bilateral relations with the Afghan government and its security forces is a stumbling block and a barrier for better coordination between the security establishments of the two countries in brokering an opening between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Despite US-intensive diplomatic initiatives and engagement with Pakistan, led by Khalilzad, its past dealings in Afghanistan precludes its ability to play the role of an honest broker between Pakistan and Afghanistan at this juncture.

In fact, in the past, trilateral dialogues between the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have usually led to more bitter recriminations between policymakers in Islamabad and Kabul, and further vitiated bilateral relations between the two neighbors.

While the US remains the key security, political, and economic actor in Afghanistan, China’s changing role in the region and its willingness to engage more proactively within its neighborhood is creating new opportunities. As the US seeks to end its longest war in its own history in Afghanistan, China is in a unique position to play a stabilizing regional role as Washington militarily disengages from Afghanistan.

Additionally, the growing Pakistan and China economic relations -- defined by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its future prospects to include Afghanistan in its multiple infrastructure and other energy corridors -- holds promise for a greater understanding between the two countries.

In any case, it is vital for Pakistan, with or without third party mediation, to move proactively to mend and expand its relations with political actors inside Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace (APAPPS), initiated by Islamabad in 2017, was a good step and provides a framework for upgrading government-to-government relations and making progress on a common set of security and economic agenda items.

Given the current urgencies related to international efforts for the peace process, the upcoming presidential election cycle in Afghanistan, and the intensification of war inside Afghanistan, the APAPPS' framework offers limited utility and flexibility to push forward the full spectrum of Pakistan’s regional interests.

Perhaps, it is time for PM Khan and the security establishment to consider designating a high-level diplomat or a National Security Advisor for Afghanistan to undertake the intensive diplomatic efforts and open channels of dialogue with all key political stakeholders in Kabul.   

• Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh

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