The success of the quartet’s — Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China — efforts in the reconciliation process will largely depend on the response of the Taliban. For Pakistan, it is vital that this endeavour succeeds, as resolution of the civil war will bring stability in Afghanistan and the region. Pakistan’s credibility internationally and with regional powers is also interlinked with the outcome of the peace process. More significantly, a political settlement that would bring an end to the civil war in Afghanistan would significantly contribute positively to Pakistan’s own fight against terrorism. It will weaken the TTP and reduce their space in Afghanistan.
There is an impression that Pakistan uses the Taliban as a proxy and is reluctant to push them hard in order to retain its influence in Afghanistan. This perception can hopefully be addressed once the Taliban leadership engages in dialogue. Sartaj Aziz rightly remarked at the quadrilateral meeting that the “aim should be to bring maximum number of Taliban to the negotiating table. Providing the incentive for political mainstreaming to the insurgent groups and gradually shrink the space for the irreconcilables.”
General Raheel Sharif’s efforts at building a strong relationship with Afghanistan has started to show results, as the latest understanding between the intelligence agencies of the two countries indicates. The question of which group of the Afghan Taliban must be engaged is a serious problem considering the divisions in their ranks. It may be easier to bring the Taliban that are living in Pakistan and are under the control of Mullah Mansoor, generally known as the Quetta Shura, to the negotiating table than the faction led by Mullah Rasool operating from Afghanistan. And even more problematic is dealing with groups that have migrated to join the IS and owe their allegiance to Baghdadi.
The Afghan government has been insisting that it is going to address the Taliban’s demands within the framework of the country’s Constitution although Mullah Mansoor has stated that the Constitution should be revised in accordance with the principles of sharia and the spirit of jihad. The government also wants the inclusion of a woman representative in these talks. While dealing with the Taliban, the reality of the huge urban and rural divide in terms of value systems and priorities should not be overlooked. Moreover, while the Afghan government and the international community remain focused on dealing with the Taliban, warlords and drug mafia continue to further distort the political process and the economy.
As the security situation deteriorates, the government’s position in dealing with the Taliban will relatively weaken. Clearly, the demand of the Taliban that foreign forces should leave is a clever move to keep up the pressure and make the other side look subservient to foreign dictates. If the Americans were to completely withdraw, it will be easier for the Taliban to gain additional territory and be in a better position to dictate terms for peace. Even now with the recent military successes, they feel sufficiently confident to talk. Moreover, experience has taught the Taliban that it may be difficult to overrun the entire country and it may be more advisable to consolidate the gains and leverage it for a better deal in power-sharing and to make changes to the Constitution. They realise that with the world opposed to their ideology, military successes alone can take them so far. On the other hand, will a war-fatigued and internally divided Afghan regime succumb to the pressures and yield considerable space to the Taliban?
To some extent, relations with Afghanistan are influenced by the quality of our relations with India. This synergy suits Afghanistan as by playing the Indian card, it leverages its position with Pakistan and also against the Taliban. However, in light of repeated assurances by Pakistan and the recent commitment by the security agencies to cooperate, it is expected that the two countries will build a relationship independent of the India factor.
The presence of the Chinese in the quadrilateral arrangement is of special significance and adds considerable weight to the peace process. Taliban leaders understand the importance of China in the region and consider it as one party that has no legacy. Beijing’s interest is also dictated by the danger of militancy spreading in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Pakistan is striving for peace and stability in Afghanistan that in turn should help stabilise the border and provide the opportunity to fight its own insurgency more effectively and facilitate the combating of terrorism. It will not be in Pakistan’s interest for the Taliban to assume power in Afghanistan, as it would give a huge boost to the TTP and other militant groups. Afghan leaders and its government have continued to blame Pakistan to cover their own weaknesses. This is despite the assurances given by our civilian and military leaderships that we want Afghanistan to stabilise as that is in our own interest. True, there is a view Pakistan could do more to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The very presence of the Taliban leadership and Haqqani network in Quetta and the tribal region gives the Afghan leadership a reason to blame Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan has long reiterated that it only has limited influence over the Taliban and pushing them too far would mean losing the advantage it does have, which will drive them to make common cause with the TTP. But the blame game serves more as a cover for the Afghan government’s own weakness and plays in the hands of the the Taliban and Haqqani network that believe the government’s resolve is shaking.
For the West and Afghans, Pakistan has remained a scapegoat for all of Afghanistan’s ills, conveniently forgetting the harmful policies that the US and the West pursued during the Soviet occupation and after 9/11, the debris of which primarily fell on Pakistan. This is not to absolve Pakistan of its share of policy errors. The point is that this is no time for apportioning blame. The tragedy and challenge of Afghanistan requires all nations to look toward the future and work in unison to prevent the onslaught of militant forces that seem to be gaining ground.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2016.