RAWALPINDI: The head of the Pakistan army’s media wing has said the Afghan Taliban were not excluding Pakistan from US-led talks currently being held in Doha to seek a negotiated end to the Afghan war but that Pakistan was a facilitator and had fulfilled its task of coaxing the insurgents to the table for dialogue.
This week, the Taliban resumed stalled peace talks with US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, where the insurgents have long maintained an office. The dialogue, originally meant to run over two days, entered its sixth day on Saturday, raising hopes that the latest efforts to find a mechanism to end the 17-year Afghan war might be the most serious yet.
Hopes of a denouement also increased due to a recent reshuffle in the Taliban team, with senior leaders including Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar put into key positions.
The U.S. has long been pressuring Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table. Last week, Khalilzad visited Pakistan to push the peace process forward amid media reports that the Taliban had refused to meet him in Islamabad, insisting that they preferred to hold talks in Qatar and did not want Pakistan, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia to be involved.
“The Taliban are not excluding Pakistan from the peace process,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, the head of the army’s media wing, said in a wide-ranging interview to Arab News on Friday evening. “We are a facilitator. We have done our job of bringing them to the negotiating table. What is discussed and how the process moves forward will depend on progress during every meeting.”
When asked if the Taliban had refused to meet Khalilzad in Islamabad, Ghafoor said: “There are so many factions and stakeholders involved in the process. Coordination takes time. One faction or party gets out of coordination, [which] can result in changes in schedule or place.”
He said Pakistan had pushed for the dialogue to restart but had “no preference for time or place.”
Taliban sources have told media the Doha talks have focused on a roadmap for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and a guarantee the country will not be used for hostile acts against the United States and its allies.
The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Kabul government, which it views as an illegitimate, foreign-appointed force. Ghafoor said there was as yet no certainty on whether the insurgents could be persuaded to engage with the Afghan government but added that progress from the meetings would determine all outcomes.
He also spoke about abiding fears about how Afghan government forces would withstand the Taliban threat without US military support if US President Donald Trump acted on his desire to bring home half of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan should not go into turmoil” when US forces leave, the army’s media chief said: “The U.S. should leave Afghanistan as friends of the region, with a commitment to assist Afghanistan in becoming self-sustaining and help in socio-economic development.”
Islamabad also fears that increased turmoil in Afghanistan would mean more sanctuaries there for Pakistani Taliban [TTP] militants who have lost control of all territory in Pakistan since a major counter-terrorism operation was launched after a 2014 attack on an army school.
Pakistan has also fenced part of its porous 2,500 km border with Afghanistan to prevent incursions by the Pakistan Taliban who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the South Asian nation.
Ghafoor said the Afghan government did not currently have the capacity to eliminate all sanctuaries given that it was embroiled in fighting an insurgency, but once the Taliban entered the political mainstream, Kabul would be in a better position to tackle groups like the Pakistan Taliban and the Middle Eastern Daesh.
“If there is peace in Afghanistan and greater control of the area by Afghan forces, it will be difficult for TTP to continue their sanctuaries there," the military spokesman said.
The general dismissed fears that the U.S. would lose interest in Pakistan once it exited Afghanistan, or be free to take harsh actions when it no longer needed Islamabad’s help to end the conflict.
“Pakistan has always remained relevant and will continue to be relevant,” Ghafoor said. “And when the U.S. leave Afghanistan, it will leave acknowledging Pakistan’s role in ending the conflict. Our relationship shall further strengthen.”
But as Pakistan’s ties with the U.S. have soured in recent years over the war in Afghanistan, Islamabad has turned to neighbouring China to fill the void. The countries are partners in a $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) of infrastructure and energy projects that Beijing touts as the flagship programme in its vast Belt and Road Initiative.
Responding to media reports that Pakistan was building military jets, weapons and other hardware with funds received under the CPEC umbrella, Ghafoor said the corridor was “purely an economic project.”
“We have separate defence cooperation with China but that has nothing to do with CPEC,” he said. “We had F-16 deals with the U.S. That was our requirement. Later we have jointly made the JF-17 Thunder with China. Like any sovereign country, Pakistan takes decisions suiting its national interest.”
Speaking about a growing protest movement by Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns who want the army to remove landmines and check-posts from the country’s northwest where most Pashtuns live, and allege extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and “disappearances” of young Pashtun men, which it vehemently denies, the army spokesman said:
“Till such time that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement [PTM] is peaceful and they stick to their genuine demands, which are natural in a post-conflict environment, the state is committed to take care of them.”
Responding to a question about PTM leaders Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar who, along with the movement's founder Manzoor Pashteen, have emerged as the strongest voices against alleged military high-handedness, Ghafoor said the demands of the Pahstun people were genuine and the state was committed to addressing them.
“But instigating people against institutions is neither within the law nor a public sentiment,” he said. “Once we have fulfilled the genuine demands which are already in the overall plan, then we see how to deal with anyone who still tries to exploit.”
The army’s media chief also said the movement was being exploited by Pakistan’s enemies, in a veiled reference possibly to arch-rival India and neighbouring Afghanistan: “When there are fault lines, then enemies will always try to exploit them. So there is an effort to exploit PTM, whether with their connivance or not.”
The general warned that India needed to “stop using proxies against us,” adding that “just as we are concerned that an unstable Afghanistan is not in our interest, India should also know that an unstable Pakistan is not in its interest. They need to change their behaviour.”
Responding to a question about an extension in military courts first set up by parliament in 2015, and decried for their lack of transparency, Ghafoor said the courts were a “national requirement” because the country’s civilian judicial infrastructure was ill-equipped to deal with terrorism cases.
Ghafoor said verdicts could be appealed at several levels, including in military appellate and civilian courts, and those on death row had the right to file mercy petitions with the army chief and the president of Pakistan.
“Military courts proceed as per law; there is a laid down legal process with full transparency. Courts decide on evidence and not emotions,” the army's media chief said. However, he added, “should parliament decide that military courts are not needed, then they will not be renewed.”