During Islamabad visit, President Ghani is in for a surprise
On June 27th, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will pay an official visit to Pakistan on the invitation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. This comes against the backdrop of serious accusations made by both countries which threatened to derail bilateral relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
With President Ghani’s beleaguered government fast losing relevance because of an intensified Taliban insurgency on the one hand and US-Taliban peace talks that exclude his government on the other, he will prioritize diplomacy with Pakistan in this complex political environment. He will also seek to create a space for his isolated government by reaching out to Islamabad — which he believes has considerable leverage over the Taliban.
Mr Ghani is also trying to convince all stake-holders that only an ‘elected’ president should be deemed fit to represent the Afghan people in crucial peace talks, as many of his erstwhile colleagues look toward greener pastures in the event of a major upheaval.
With the insurgency now in full gear and increased Taliban attacks, peace has become ever more fragile. Unemployment has gone beyond 45 per cent with thousands leaving the country illegally for safer destinations like Turkey and Eastern and Western Europe.
As the Taliban and the US deepen direct contacts, Ghani is faced with an insurmountable obstacle. His government survives on the back of the presence of roughly 20,000 US and NATO forces and therefore cannot outrightly demand an end to negotiations that don’t include Kabul.
He speaks from a position of weakness but as the Taliban expand formal contacts with Iran, China and Russia, his frustration is understandable.
In Islamabad however, President Ghani might be surprised to find no real response that could alter the fundamental dynamics of the peace process conundrum. There are a number of reasons for this.
For one, the Taliban have already formulated their views in the six rounds of Doha talks with the US. There is no likelihood of any perceptible change now in their stance on critical issues.
Secondly, though many in the Taliban leadership rely on Islamabad to provide a fitting environment for their families to live, most have no love lost for governments in Pakistan. They largely believe Pakistan’s government can be pressurized easily by any US sponsored strategy for ending the conflict, and this huge trust deficit haunts all Taliban-Islamabad dealings.
With President Ghani’s beleaguered government fast losing relevance because of an intensified Taliban insurgency on the one hand and US-Taliban peace talks that exclude his government on the other, he will prioritize diplomacy with Pakistan in this complex political environment.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
Thirdly, the Taliban are now more empowered than ever before, especially after official engagements and direct contacts with Russia, China and Iran (which have both Washington and Kabul worried.) The result is, the insurgency’s leaders now speak with greater authority and conviction.
Despite his strategic intentions, Ghani’s visit to Islamabad will not change any of these ground realities, but it could serve to help Islamabad understand the Afghan government’s point of view and the red lines for Kabul when it comes to the peace process.
Before Pakistan can play any effective role in the Afghan peace process, it must first try to comprehend the reason behind the ongoing Taliban insurgency. Pakistan believes, naively so, that official contacts between Kabul and Islamabad are important for improving the situation and are crucial in ending the conflict. They are not.
The insurgency is really only caused by one predominant factor: The presence of foreign forces. It has very little to do with official visits, formal statements or pledges of support.
Therefore, all endeavors must seek to create an environment that is conducive for the pull-out of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, and creating a climate for such a withdrawal requires an agreement that establishes a multi-ethnic, broad-based interim government including the Taliban as an important component.
The agreement must also lay down a framework for the withdrawal of troops and on issues like ceasefire and the removal of names from international blacklists.
These are matters where Islamabad’s help could indeed be useful and constructive, but not necessarily decisive.
President Ghani’s stance that a peace plan must be endorsed by the institutions of his legitimate government makes a lot of sense on paper. But in this rapidly escalating conflict, the unity and integrity of the country trump democratic philosophies, no matter how sacred those institutions are. Added to this, Ghani’s claim that he is representative of the whole country as an elected leader, seems hollow when his government has no control over 55 per cent of Afghanistan’s area.
With US –Taliban talks stalled, there is little optimism for any notable progress in negotiations in the next few weeks, and there is now a need for Afghanistan’s own leadership to keep the supreme interests of their country above all partisan considerations.
Peace in Afghanistan must not be held hostage to the whims and wishes of a few individuals. The country’s representatives owe it to the millions of ordinary Afghans who have suffered heavily at the hands of this long and terrible war.