Pakistan's Heart of Asia conference precedes a fresh reconciliation initiative

As Pakistan prepares to host the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting – a regional Afghanistan focused cooperation initiative – on December 9, it appears set to launch a fresh push for restarting the stalemated reconciliation dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban.

There has been a flurry of activity involving Pakistan, the US, the UK, and China last month for reinitiating the peace talks, but a breakthrough was seemingly achieved in Paris earlier this week on the sidelines of the Climate Change Summit when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met face to face for the first time since the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations worsened following the breakdown of the Murree peace talks that Pakistan hosted in July.

The meeting provided a fresh start of sorts to the bilateral relationship that has, for most of the last 14 years, remained strained due to mutual suspicions. The two countries made major strides towards repairing their ties earlier this year, and reached a high point with the July 7 start of the Afghan reconciliation process, but soon relapsed into acrimony and distrust due to the events that followed the disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death – the suspension of peace talks and the sharp rise in violence in Afghanistan.

In this context, there were two major outcomes from the meeting between Mr Ghani and Mr Sharif – first, the Afghan president agreed to visit Islamabad for the inauguration of Heart of Asia Conference, and second, Pakistan made the formal announcement that it was renewing efforts for bringing Taliban back on the table.

“Pakistan… would like to make renewed efforts to resurrect the peace and reconciliation process,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement issued a day after he met Mr Ghani.

Since the collapse of the Murree process, the Pakistani government had been stressing that reconciliation was the only way forward. But at the same time, it said it would only play a role in this regard if explicitly asked by Kabul.

It should be recalled that President Ghani had said after the Kabul terrorist attacks in August that Pakistan’s help for reconciliation was not needed. He accused Islamabad of not doing enough to eliminate terrorist bases on its soil.

It is unclear if Pakistan has received the request from Kabul that it had been waiting for.

From the way things are developing, it looks that Pakistan’s condition remains unfulfilled, but it was forced to go ahead under pressure from the West, primarily the US.

President Ghani sounded extremely cautious about the prospects of a resumption of talks. In an interview with a French television channel, he said Pakistan could be a broker, but would have “to earn the trust”. He looked wary because of what he called an “undeclared state of hostilities”.

Ghani does not consider Taliban a unified entity anymore, and said his government would consider talking to groups that would like to join the peace process through Pakistani efforts.

Speaking to a youth delegation in Kabul last week, he said he would not beg for peace talks, and criticized Pakistan for forcing the Afghan government and the Taliban to negotiate as equals.

Meanwhile, his interior minister Nurul Haq Ulumi said in Kabul this week: “Taliban and Daesh fighters, as always, are being trained in Pakistan. They are equipped and financed there and are then sent to Afghanistan. They are being given hope while in Pakistan of achieving their goals in Afghanistan.” He made this statement after the Paris meeting between Ghani and Sharif.

These statements clearly suggest that despite accepting Pakistan’s role for a fresh outreach to Taliban for reconciliation, skepticism about the neighbor persists. In view of their experiences this year, Pakistani leaders have been warning in their interactions with foreign leaders about elements within Kabul sabotaging any efforts in this direction. Hence Mr Sharif’s emphasis on the “quadrilateral initiative” and the role of US and China.

Mr Sharif also underscored this element in his conversation with Mr Ghani. “All parties should remain committed to the promotion of peace and stability in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the obstacles and impediments in the pursuit of this objective,” he said.

In such an environment, one cannot be very optimistic about the new initiative succeeding.

“It is correct that the prospects of peace and tranquility do not seem very much clear; yet, there are possibilities to start afresh from this point,” Daily Afghanistan Outlook said in an editorial.

Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif – who was the architect of the Murree process and had reached an understanding with the US over reviving the reconciliation process during his Washington trip – will also travel to Kabul in the next few weeks. The dates of his visit are yet to be finalized, but insiders say it is being delayed because of the negative vibes still coming from Afghanistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr