Pakistan’s “constructive role” and bumpy road to Afghan talks

Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and chief of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation in Kabul on Tuesday, June 09. Statement, issued by the Afghan side, says that Pakistan’s chief army staff assured his country’s support for intra-Afghan peace talks and renewed Islamabad’s efforts for facilitating the intra-Afghan dialogue.

In this visit, Gen Bajwa was accompanied by Pakistan’s newly appointed especial envoy for Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, and chief of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. Sadiq, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul from 2008 to 2014, is credited for his knowledge of Afghan affairs in Pakistan’s circle of diplomats. Pakistan’s especial envoy for Afghanistan, as some Pakistani sources in the country’s foreign ministry believe, will act as Pakistan’s focal conduit in the intra-Afghan peace talks. Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who has served in Baloch regiment of Pakistan’s army, was handpicked by Gen Bajwa as chief of the ISI, on June 17, 2019. Seen as “very hardliner” army general, he runs an influentially powerful spy agency which has instrumental role in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign affairs.

The highest Pakistani military delegation visit to Kabul follows by US especial envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s trip to Islamabad. Khalilzad, who brokered a peace deal between the US and the Taliban, signed on February 29 in Qatari capital Doha, has been commissioned to end America’s longest war before coming presidential election in the United States. He is working tirelessly to push the Taliban and the Afghan government to sit around conciliation table and discuss the future of the country.

Neighbors locked in hostility

Relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been tense and unfriendly though the two nations share common culture, long border and bilateral economic interests. Over last four decades, successive Afghan governments in Kabul kept accusing Pakistan of jeopardizing stability of the country. The Afghan government led by former president, Hamid Karzai, blamed Pakistan’s military establishment for harboring the Taliban insurgency, something the Pakistan’s leadership refused. In 2014, when President Ashraf Ghani took office, he made a futile effort to change Kabul’s language and tone against Pakistan’s stance in Afghanistan, eager to convince the Pakistani generals to end sponsoring Afghan insurgency but to no avail.

The Pakistani military establishment, mainly anxious about India’s growing dove policy in Afghanistan, has kept a mighty hand over shoulders of the Taliban insurgents who are fighting against the US-backed Afghan government for nearly twenty years now. Some retired Pakistani generals repeatedly defend Pakistan’s support of the Taliban in public but Pakistani officials have cautiously denied the accusation.

The bumpy road of Afghan talks

In June 09 meeting, Gen Bajwa reassured that Pakistan would support an independent and democratic Afghanistan, according to statement issued by the Afghan presidential palace. The Afghan chief of High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, also expressed optimism. After his meeting with Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Mr. Abdullah said: “I told him that we are ready to engage with the Taliban on our common issues and to end the conflict and live together in peace. I reiterated Pakistan’s constructive role in this regard.”

The Afghan government has released 3,000 Taliban prisoners and in return the Taliban have freed 473 government detainees, according to statements issued by the Afghan government and the Taliban. The two sides, under the US-Taliban peace deal, are obliged to exchange prisoners as measures to build confidence for commencement of the intra-Afghan talks. As part of confidence building measure, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire during Eid-al-Fitar last month. In return, the Afghan government said that I would release 2,000 Taliban inmates.

Reduction in violence was set as a key precondition for the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue. With signing a deal with Washington, the Taliban leadership made a commitment to bring substantial reduction in violence, avoid targeting US military facilities, public properties and civilians, and cut ties with al-Qaeda. On June 02, at least seven civilians were killed in a Taliban-controlled area in Khan Abad district of the northern Kunduz province, according to local security officials. The Afghan security authorities claim that the Taliban continue to stage attacks against the Afghan security forces on daily basis.

The Taliban leaders in Doha claim that that the group’s leadership has full command over Taliban commanders in the field but in surge in sporadic violence by the Taliban fighters suggests the opposite. Though the group’s senior leaders say that they have cut their ties with al-Qaeda, a US report, made public earlier this month, indicates that the ties between the Taliban—notably its Haqqani network—and al-Qaeda remains tight and close.

A Kabul visit by Pakistan’s highest military generals at a time when the Afghan capital is hit by the fatal corona pandemic suggests that a Pakistani-facilitated political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government remains on the peace agenda which was initially started by the US government but the road to a lasting peace settlement seems bumpy given the realities on the ground. In retrospect, the hardliner Pakistani generals showed little interest to reach a win-win situation with the Afghan governments. The Afghan side, though not equally as Pakistan does, has also drummed over old drum of hostility each time it has ended up in a political stalemate with Imamabad. A sober policy will help the two countries reach in a peaceful end to this old hostility.