A glimmer of hope
In the past six months, we have witnessed Pak-Afghan relations shift from one spectrum to the other; although some would say that they had predicted it. Since assuming office, Ashraf Ghani made the bold decision of banking most of his political capital by charting a friendly course with Pakistan in hopes of reaching a settlement with the Taliban. A number of official visits took place in the initial months where both parties gave a plethora of statements emphasising their mutual resolve to curbing the menace of terrorism in the region. However, as Taliban’s most intense spring offensive in recent years commenced, there seemed to be a noticeable change in Ashraf Ghani’s otherwise cordial and diplomatic tone. Understandably so, as the Taliban managed to make their biggest territorial gains on the battlefield in years, upping the ante of their attacks and threatening significant districts in many parts of Afghanistan. President Ghani came under fire from a number of directions as the Afghan media and members of parliament chastised him for being overly reliant and trustful of the Pakistani administration, which would explain his statement regarding trade routes on his visit to India, and also the secret letter he wrote to the Pakistani leadership where he made a number of demands with regards to the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. The Taliban offensive showed no signs of slowing down and mistrust grew in Afghanistan with regards to Pakistan’s commitment as many Afghan officials termed Pakistan’s statements as mere rhetoric. Even the momentous intelligence sharing deal signed between the ISI and NDS was received with immense criticism on the Afghan side of the border as some members of the ex-Karzai government went to the extent of terming it an act of betrayal. There seemed to be no respite for Ghani or for the Pakistani administration in this case, as the latter’s influence over the Taliban leadership was put into question and suspicions were raised of the strategic depth policy still being deployed.
The effort of the Pakistani military in bringing the Taliban representatives to the negotiation table was acknowledged by western officials, which also quelled doubts regarding the military’s influence over the militant organisation
This week reports emerged that Pakistan hosted a meeting between the Afghan Government and Taliban which also consisted of US and Chinese representatives. The meeting apparently held in Murree, on the 7th of July, was the first time publicly acknowledged talks were being held with the militant group. According to Afghan officials, they discussed key issues such as the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, United Nations sanctions, and prisoners of war. Officials report that the tone of the meeting was upbeat and that there was a general air of optimism as the delegation returned; even the most vociferous of President Ghani’s critics wholeheartedly welcomed the progress.
While other informal meetings had taken place in China and Norway, this was perhaps the biggest breakthrough they had managed to achieve as was stated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The spokesman for Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs, Qazi Khalilullah, informed that the talks were held in a cordial and positive atmosphere, and that that the two sides had agreed upon meeting again after the month of Ramzan. Moreover, the effort of the Pakistani military in bringing the Taliban representatives to the negotiation table was acknowledged by western officials, which also quelled doubts regarding the military’s influence over the militant organisation. Another positive for Pakistan’s image in the global arena is the fact that this development will also silence those accusing Pakistan of sleeping with the enemy. It would be rather naïve to imply that the Pakistan’s strategic depth policy is still in place with the regards to the Afghan Taliban considering how China is now a key player in this peace process. With the CPEC deal being signed and the troubles it has been facing in its own Xing Jiang region, one would assume that China would have asked for certain sureties as its stakes have increased in the region. However, what Pakistan could be accused of is that it perhaps exaggerated the amount of influence it wielded over the Taliban leadership, which resulted in the Afghan government harbouring unrealistic expectations. Nevertheless, the talks held in Murree this week prove that the Pakistani military still retains the intimidation factor with Taliban leaders that have taken shelter in Pakistan.
Factions within the Taliban:
While the recent meeting is without any doubt a significant step forward for both the parties involved, there still exists a lot of uncertainty with regards to a possible cease-fire or even the probability of future talks being held with the Taliban. It is no secret that the Afghan Taliban is anything but a monolithic organisation owing to a number of factions where top leaders continue to disagree over the future they envision for the organisation. While Taliban’s political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, authorised the delegation to Islamabad for talks, battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum Zakir has threatened Mansour that he along with his men would consider setting up another group or even joining the Islamic State if the negotiations were not brought to a halt. Taking into consideration that Zakir holds sway over several thousand fighters in eastern Afghanistan, it is uncertain whether any ceasefire could hold and would also explain the ongoing attacks while talks were in progress.
It remains to be seen whether the Taliban leaders can carry their fighters with them, or if the leadership’s stronghold weakens over its followers in the aftermath of a political settlement
The growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan could further exacerbate the risk of splintering within the Taliban as it has quickly managed to attract a wide array of disillusioned leaders and insurgents towards its cause of realising an Islamic Caliphate. Consequently, this development could further persuade the Taliban to seek a political settlement to the war. On the other hand, there is also the concern that peace negotiations would result in speeding up defections to the rival group. All in all, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban leaders can carry their fighters with them, or if the leadership’s stronghold weakens over its followers in the aftermath of a political settlement.
With the Islamic State coming in to the equation, the end-game of this ongoing conundrum is further shrouded in mystery. However, the first official talks being held between the Ghani government and the Taliban is a noteworthy step that can help Pakistan and Afghanistan bring their relations back on track. Pakistan has admirably played its part in bringing the Taliban leadership to the table while allowing this to be an Afghan-led and owned peace process; though it may have taken longer than the Afghan administration would have liked. Regardless, the two countries need to hold on to this development as they move forward and put an end to this toxic atmosphere of suspicion, especially members of the Afghan parliament. The recent attack that took place at the Afghan parliament where the NDS blamed the ISI for being complicit along with the Haqqani network was the quintessential example of these matters should not be handled. According to reports, Afghan officials claimed that they aware of the possibility of such an attack since the 10th of June; the question that arises is that why this information was not shared with Pakistan in light of the intelligence deal that was signed? Afghan officials would be better served if they followed Ghani’s footsteps out of the past that was characterised by deep mistrust with regards to Pakistan. The two countries realise that their paths and interests are intertwined if they are to fight terrorism in order to achieve peace in the region. Furthermore, taking in to account the high desertion rate of the Afghan armed forces and the uncertainty surrounding the stay of the remaining US troops, Afghanistan needs Pakistan by its side for more than just the influence it wields over the Taliban leadership. Similarly, Pakistan would be needing cooperation from the Afghan side of the border if it is to bring the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the TTP to its logical conclusion. Therefore, the two nations being cognizant of the ground realities need to stick with each other and work out a political settlement with the Taliban in the near future, so that they can finally move on from the 14-year long conflict.