In peace talks with Taliban, both Islamabad and Washington are skating on very thin ice
Since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, this unfortunate country has petitioned for peace and normality at least a dozen times only to relapse into more chaos and mayhem.
There are good reasons, therefore, to be sceptical about the latest attempts at forging a peace deal between the Taliban and the Kabul government that may allow a final US troops withdrawal and the beginning of another phase of healing and reconstruction of a torn and broken.
But Pakistani officials are unusually upbeat about the outcome. The country’s military and intelligence heads are pushing hard to keep the process going and sources close to them say that the progress is notable.
Much of this optimism grows out of recent developments starting from the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban February this year.
The intra-Afghan dialogue itself has tricky hurdles to jump over. There are un-answered questions about US withdrawal, interim set-up, new elections and before these, modifications in the Afghanistan constitution to accommodate new ground realities
The agreement on conditional US pull out in return for reduction in violence, among other things, bound Kabul’s recalcitrant government led by the duelling duo Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah not to leave the negotiating table.
Pakistan for its part has used its diminished but still significant influence over the Taliban to ensure that they do not undermine the delicate peace process by escalating hostilities to unacceptable levels.
So far the main parties have generally adhered to swap of hundreds of prisoners and are close to meeting each other’s complete demand-list in this regard thus crossing another signpost.
The Taliban have met Pakistani officials last week in Islamabad whereas the Trump administration has been wielding their clout over Kabul to keep them positively engaged in the process.
This delicate diplomatic dance may become a complex tango when an intra-Afghan dialogue starts. The date has already been shifted from 2nd of September to another day when the prisoner swap is completed.
This dialogue, whenever it starts, means that all ethnic and political shades will form a composite team that will talk to the Taliban, who themselves have to bring with them all the representatives of groups fighting Kabul. The outcome of this phase is crucial to hammer out broad outlines of a peace deal.
Pakistani officials believe that for the process to have come thus far itself is a remarkable thing. Predictably, they give much credit to themselves for keeping the Taliban in the game of negotiations.
That may be so, but Pakistan’s own interests in stabilising Afghanistan are deep. These interests now coincide with the Trump administration’s desperation for a marketable foreign policy success close to the elections.
If the Americans leave Afghanistan without any commitment to manage what follows in the wake of the withdrawal, Pakistan will bear the extreme brunt of it. Spread of violence will inevitably spill onto Pakistan territory.
Ideological brothers inside Pakistan
Terror groups operating as free agents and mercenaries can bring their deadly agendas to its soil. This in turn can increase Pakistan’s dependence on the Taliban to manage its northwestern border. This can be a dangerous proposition as their ideological brothers inside Pakistan will be hard to control.
Pakistan has experienced in the 90s how the Taliban rule in Afghanistan promotes right wing forces in its own backyard and what grim social political consequences it entails.
More important, a solid face-saver to Washington in the shape of a peace deal can go a long way to prove Pakistan’s credentials as a being part of the solution undermining the virulent criticism of detractors at the Capitol Hill that Islamabad is part of the problem.
In sum, Islamabad needs this peace process to succeed as much as the Trump administration does or even the Taliban do, since they see a free and open political space for them extending all the way to Kabul once the Americans leave.
But this winding road is littered with roadblocks. Start with the Kabul government. Ashraf Ghani sees himself being reduced to invisibility in the big matrix of these negotiations.
The Taliban refuse to recognise his government as a legitimate entity. With truncated influence and a diminishing US backing, Ashraf Ghani and his close associates want to ensure that the Taliban don’t get an easy deal from all of this.
Intrusive toehold in Afghanistan
In fact, they want the Americans to maintain an intrusive toehold in Afghanistan so that the Taliban’s expanding power has a counterweight in place.
Interestingly, not everyone in the US wants to cut a deal and run. There is a tug of war between President Trump and the US deep state on how much should Washington concede in this peace process.
President Trump wants to win an election and wants every US soldier to be brought back, leaving a very light intel and operational footprint in Afghanistan.
His intelligence and defence subordinates don’t submit to this goal. They see this as a disastrous rollback of US military power from a crucial region where China and Russia continue to expand their zones of influence.
India, Pakistan’s arch rival, would not want to see Pakistan come out of the process smelling like roses and the rise of the Taliban to cause its diplomatic and military investment of decades in Kabul to come to nothing.
The intra-Afghan dialogue itself has tricky hurdles to jump over. There are un-answered questions about US withdrawal, interim set-up, new elections and before these, modifications in the Afghanistan constitution to accommodate new ground realities.
More certain past peace attempts have fallen apart on less complex grounds than the one Afghanistan is experiencing at present. As always Afghanistan’s negotiators and their guarantors, including Pakistan, are skating on very thin ice.
Their ardent hope is that the fragile surface does not crack till the final round is over. As always there are no guarantees that it won’t.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer.
This article was originally published on Gulf News. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.