- Stimulating bait, but a damning prospect
There has been a flurry of activity relating to Afghanistan of late. While it is always heartening to see that efforts are afoot to untangle the tricky conundrum, it is also a bit scary to think of what may be expected of Pakistan in the circumstances and what it may end up doing without quite realising the consequences.
I say so because history relating to Afghanistan is replete with such instances where Pakistan did not quite think through before taking critical decisions and was overwhelmed by the thrill of securing short-term gains which were lost in the enormity of long-term challenges that it still remains confronted with in spite of decades having passed.
The convening of the so-called ‘Lahore Process’ with a session in Bhurban that was attended by a host of Afghan leaders representing a divergence of political interests, was an event that sent chills through my stomach. The timing of the conference and the constitution of the group that came from Afghanistan were two factors that indicated that a larger game plan may be on the anvil to compensate for the stalemate in the US-Taliban talks. This impression was further strengthened by the loud message that emanated from the conference regarding the reality and relevance of multifarious ethnic groups in Afghanistan and that a deal between the USA and the Taliban may not be sufficient to bring peace to the war-ravaged country. At the outset, that makes profound sense.
Pakistan has done well to stay in the background and must not move to taking on the role of a mediator. Let it be left to the stakeholders inside Afghanistan who should work to build consensus among themselves
Then was the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It was a bit of a shocker as, barely two months away from the end of his tenure as President, and having remained entrenched in a bitter confrontation with Pakistan for a bulk of the time that he has been the head of the unity government, his arrival here was nuanced with possibilities that are not quite spoken of in public. He stayed for two days, undertaking an informal visit to Lahore also for meeting some friends from his days in the past.
What’s cooking? In order to be definitive about the prospects, we will have to go by the way of evaluating what has happened so far, what have been the successes and failures of the peace process which was initiated almost a year ago, and where does it seem headed in the near future. Also, whether this is the only way that should be pursued further, or whether there is a need for it to be broadened to induct other interest groups?
In a recent statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed the hope of clinching a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1. This is less than two months away. Gauging by the speed at which the 7th round of talks has progressed so far, and the hurdles that remain to be overcome, the stated deadline does not look more than a pipe dream.
At the conclusion of the sixth round, the talks appeared to be stalled because of multiple outstanding issues including a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops and the holding of a broad Intra-Afghan dialogue which would, understandably, lead to a comprehensive ceasefire. There is also the need for a mechanism to ensure that the peace deal is enforced in totality. There has been scant progress on any of these steps so far and, by all indications, there is not likely to be either as long as both parties don’t show considerable level of flexibility.
It is here that I feel Pakistan may be dragged into doing more than what it has done so far in facilitating the peace talks. What would be that new responsibility that the US, Afghanistan and some other countries may want Pakistan to shoulder in pushing the talks further, and what can be its benefits as well as its pitfalls?
So far, Pakistan has played the role of a facilitator in helping the USA and the Taliban engage with each other to find a way to end the war in Afghanistan. The recent developments have brought forth the insufficiency of a deal between the USA and the Taliban as a precursor to peace in the country.
It’ll also be appropriate to look at it from another perspective. If the USA and the Taliban are able to reach a deal after all, how will it be perceived in Afghanistan and will it guarantee peace in the country with the assurance that none shall exploit it to their exclusive benefit? And what will be the mechanism in place to ensure that this does not happen? Similar concerns have been expressed at most of the conclaves which have been held in the recent past.
This prospect assumes even graver dimensions in the absence of unity among the Afghan stakeholders with each one trying to outwit the others. The government of President Ghani appears determined to holding the presidential elections scheduled for September this year which, inter alia, would ruin any prospect of peace emerging in the aftermath of a successful conclusion of talks between the USA and the Taliban. This is possibly the reason why the US does not appear overly eager to go through with the electoral exercise in the absence of first piecing together the contours of a peace and reconciliation paradigm– and we appear to be a fair distance away from that goal yet.
It is because of a combination of these factors that the pressure on Pakistan may be growing to go beyond playing the role of a facilitator. The IMF approval of the economic support plan to Pakistan, the designation of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terrorist entity and the soon-to-unfurl red carpet in the USA to receive Prime Minister Imran Khan are all indications of a thaw in US-Pakistan relations. What does it portend in the context of taking further steps on the road to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan? A meeting between Prime Minister Khan and the Taliban in the offing and the brokering of an intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha on July 7-8 without representation from the Afghan government are other steps of considerable significance.
But, there are immense challenges, too. Exerting further pressure on the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government is a tricky bargain. In the first instance, it appears highly unlikely that the Taliban would agree to change their oft-repeated stance that they remain the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Second, it is widely believed that they will have their cake in due course, so why would they share it with anyone else at this late juncture?
For Pakistan to transit to playing a role beyond that of a facilitator will be full of risks and may result in jeopardising its current position also. Pakistan has done well to stay in the background and must not move to taking on the role of a mediator. Let it be left to the stakeholders inside Afghanistan who should work to build consensus among themselves. Without that happening, the dream of peace would remain elusive and the prospect of further strife shall continue to assume greater relevance.