Pakistan’s predicament

What can Islamabad do for the resumption of peace talks in Afghanistan?

Pakistan’s predicament
Is Afghanistan going back to the peace talks that received a deadly blow late in July? Some developments suggest so.

Let us begin with the Taliban. As reported in the national media, the family of former Afghan Taliban supremo Mullah Omar declared (on September 15) its allegiance to the new chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. If true, this declaration removes a huge stumbling block in the new emir’s way. Secondly, all major stakeholders from outside the region – the US, the UK and China – are not only eager to restart the negotiation process, but are pushing for it through quiet diplomacy.

For instance, during discussions with his interlocutors in Islamabad, the British special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Owen Jenkins explored the possibility of the Afghan government and the Taliban returning to the talks. He also expressed the hope that the stalled Afghan reconciliation process could start sooner rather than later, and that Pakistan could leverage its unique position with the Afghan Taliban in nudging them into a constructive dialogue.

Only two days earlier, the commander of Resolute Support Mission and US Forces in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, accompanied by acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Jarret Blanc, held a detailed discussion with army chief General Raheel Sharif, agreeing that all friendly nations need to work harder for the resumption of peace talks in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders reminded the visiting dignitaries of the hostile statements coming out of Kabul and wondered whether insinuations and allegations on Pakistan being directly responsible for the Taliban violence inside Afghanistan leaves any space for it to intervene.

Another question that keeps recurring in such interactions is whether the argument of economic dividends of reconciliation could woo all stakeholders into an open dialogue on both sides of the Durand Line.
Why should we invite scorn and blame?

But clearly, security trumps economy in the current situation. The continued Taliban violence and the brazen jail-break in Ghazni last week underscores the capacity of the Taliban insurgents, who continue to prick the security establishment. Nearly 5,000 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in the first half of 2015, higher than the previous year, which saw a record number of deaths, according to a WorldBulletin.Net report. At the same time, attrition among the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remains extremely high.

“They lose 4,000 men per month, and a lot of that you would think is battlefield casualties… that is not the case. The biggest case is folks that go AWOL, absent without leave,” General John Campbell told a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington (August 4, 2015).

Will the settlement of the succession issue lead to greater unity among the Taliban? Will it serve as an incentive for the Afghan Unity Government to reach out to them for the revival of the stalled peace process? Where does it leave Pakistan? Should the talks take place in Pakistan or should Islamabad take the back seat and allow the Afghans to sort it out among themselves? And most importantly, how will Pakistan deal with the Afghan insistence – which is largely true – that most Afghan Taliban leaders are using the Pakistani territory for political and social purposes? Equally importantly, will the Afghan leadership use this argument to invoke the “do more” mantra as far as its expectations of Pakistan are concerned?

Also, Pakistanis wonder whether Afghan President Ghani’s statement that “we don’t want Pakistan’s help in these talks” draws the curtain on Islamabad’s role in reconciliation. If so, why should we invite scorn and blame, said an aide to the prime minister. “We have certain leverage and are ready to use it but nobody should expect us to move in disregard to the socio-political, tribal realities of the region,” he said. He also pointed out what General Campbell had said at the Brookings talk.

“Haqqani, we have always said, has been probably the number one threat to coalition forces and…Afghan forces as well. And there is no doubt in my mind that Pakistan over the years has probably not done enough to be able to help us get after the Haqqani threat... I had a very good one-on-one discussion with General Raheel when I was over there ten days ago and we focused on Haqqani and what I thought they could do to really help us out. That is going to take time. I think as they look at it, they have a lot of other issues they’ve got to deal with inside of Pakistan and they don’t want Haqqani to turn on them.”

During this talk, the General also spoke highly of the military campaign in Waziristan, but his take on the Pakistan-Haqqani ties encourages many others to ask more questions. It reflects the acknowledgment of a reality that many, including the Afghan government, seem to overlook and dismiss because they look at the situation in black and white. This they do in sheer disregard of the huge gray area that marks conflicts in tribal societies – tribal affinities, enmities, organized crime, drugs (President Obama has once again said Afghanistan is a top poppy producer) are factors that play out and go on to pollute the political landscape. Geo-political tactics are another undeniable spoiler.

It is absolutely essential not to overlook these factors when looking for solutions to the Afghan conflict. Minimizing violence is the foremost confidence building measure while the Afghan government and the Taliban engage in talks, and must remain the priority of all stakeholders.

Nearly all friends of Pakistan would want it to invoke its clout in the larger interest of peace and reconciliation. But these objectives will be achievable only if we synergize our efforts, instead of resorting to geopolitical maneuverings.

The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of ‘Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbu Tahrir’s Global Caliphate’