Pakistan and Afghanistan must overcome mistrust to find peace
As 2018 makes way for a new year, the hopes for ending the Afghan conflict through a negotiated settlement have never been so high in the 17 years since the US decided to invade Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.
It is another matter if these hopes will be fulfilled because the Afghan conflict is complicated and has many stakeholders with different agendas. Reaching a peaceful conclusion on the Afghan battlefield won’t be easy after years of bloodshed and suffering.
For the first time since 2001, when the Taliban regime collapsed as a result of the US-led military intervention, the two sides have engaged since July 2018 in the most sustained peace dialogue to date in Qatar and the UAE, and have agreed to continue talking. The next round of talks may be held this month, which would be fitting as 2019 could herald a new push for peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is one of the most important neighboring countries of landlocked Afghanistan, providing it with the quickest access to the sea and playing a crucial though increasingly reduced role in its economic life. However, deep mistrust fueled by security concerns has prevented the two Islamic countries from realizing the full potential of their relationship.
It isn’t surprising that Pakistan is playing a key role in facilitating the peace talks between the Taliban and the US, because it has maintained contacts with the armed group since its emergence in southern Afghanistan in late 1994. Though there has been no breakthrough in the talks even after several meetings, the fact that they are still talking after years of fighting is a positive development.
A bigger challenge for Pakistan will be to persuade the Taliban to agree to hold talks with the Afghan government. This should be the logical next step, even though the Taliban continues to refuse to do so until the US agrees to a timetable of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. In Pakistan’s view, ending the hitherto intractable Afghan conflict through peaceful means has to be a shared responsibility of the major stakeholders, as it alone cannot ensure peace and guarantee the implementation of an accord.
In Pakistan’s view, the ideal scenario for Afghanistan in 2019 would be a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that is guaranteed by the global and regional powers. This would have to be preceded by a cease-fire and certain other confidence-building measures to pave the way for a comprehensive peace agreement containing specific timelines.
In Pakistan’s view, the ideal scenario for Afghanistan in 2019 would be a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that is guaranteed by the global and regional powers.
Pakistan would wish that Afghanistan’s soil isn’t used by militants threatening it and other countries. Though it is fencing its border with Afghanistan to prevent infiltration by terrorists, this isn’t enough to tackle the threat. Of particular concern for Islamabad is the presence in Afghanistan of Pakistani militants affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Lashkar-e-Islam, as well as the transnational groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
Islamabad ought to be aware that Kabul won’t reciprocate as long as Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network members are able to find refuge in Pakistan. In fact, it is a tit-for-tat situation, as those threatening Pakistan are based in Afghanistan and the ones fighting the Afghan state are positioned in Pakistan. This has to change if the desire is to have friendly relations.
Pakistani authorities used to express the wish for a friendly government in Afghanistan. It was interpreted by many Afghans as Pakistan’s desire to have a government of its choice in Kabul. But the wording was changed and Pakistani officials now say a stable government is all they wish for Afghanistan. They dismiss the allegation that Pakistan wanted “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, arguing it is neither possible nor feasible. They also deny wanting a Taliban government in Kabul by pointing out that this would embolden the TTP to aspire for a similar outcome in Pakistan.
Islamabad has serious reservations over India’s growing presence and influence in Afghanistan, particularly in the security sector. As nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have gone to war three times and are still confronting each other by amassing troops on their working border and the Line of Control in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state, their troubled relationship has yet to show any sign of improvement.
For Islamabad, one “red line” is its claim that India is using Afghanistan’s soil to destabilize Pakistan by supporting Pakistani militants, including the Baloch separatists. Pakistan should have no objection to the development assistance India is providing to war-ravaged Afghanistan, but it was concerned when Kabul signed a strategic partnership agreement with New Delhi in 2011 and rejected a similar offer from Islamabad.
Successive governments in Pakistan have argued that peace in their country is linked to a return to normalcy in Afghanistan. However, the two countries have yet to overcome mutual mistrust to be able to bring about the wished-for peace on both sides of their Durand Line border.
• Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst of Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1