Early this month, the fifth Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process Summit was opened by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Attending were the foreign ministers of ten countries – including all four of Pakistan’s neighbors. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was making his second visit to Islamabad this year, and was joined by Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had reportedly been reluctant to visit Islamabad given an upsurge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan and the derailing of the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban following the revelation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omer, both developments severely straining bilateral ties.
However, according to Afghan media reports, China’s ambassador in Kabul conveyed a message from the Chinese leadership, advising Ghani to make the trip. The Pashtun leadership of Pakistan also visited Kabul to convince Ghani to attend the conference. When Ghani did arrive, it was to an impressively warm welcome. Islamabad-based analysts believe that both the political and military leaderships of Pakistan are now keen to improve ties with Kabul, although skeptics say that it is Beijing that has been robustly pushing Islamabad to amend ties with Kabul ever since the announcement of China’s $46 billion investment in Pakistan.
Farooq Sulehria, a senior Pakistani journalist based in Sweden, told The Diplomat, “Civilians have no control over foreign policy, in particular Afghanistan and India-related policies. They cannot issue a press statement on their own. It is a shame that civilians have capitulated so comprehensively. If capitulation is tantamount to similarity of views, we can say that they (political and military leadership) are on the same page. But ‘to be on same page,’ implies having equal strength. This is clearly not the case. Civilians utter the mundane statements they are told to say in public.”
Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, a favorite of American officials and a staunch critic of his government’s policies toward Pakistan, resigned in apparent protest at Ghani’s efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, M.K. Bhadrakumar, in an article for Asia Times, noted that tensions between Pakistan and India and the two countries’ mutual suspicions of each other’s intentions pose a major hurdle to a political settlement in Afghanistan. Washington recently hosted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif for in-depth discussions with them regarding Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has personally urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at least twice recently to engage Pakistan in dialogue.
As a result, in a major breakthrough, India and Pakistan also announced that they were resuming a dialogue on outstanding issues. Modi followed up late this month with a surprise visit to Pakistan, where he once again met with Sharif.
“Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad was meant for the multilateral Heart of Asia conference,” observes Tufail Ahmad, who currently heads South Asia Studies at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), adding, “Although she went for the multilateral conference, the main focus of which is to ensure the stability of Afghanistan by involving regional partners, both India and Pakistan utilized this opportunity for bilateral objectives.” He added that as in previous attempts to improve relations, the intentions are good. However, success will occur only when Pakistan stops supporting the Taliban and jihadists.
Tufail told The Diplomat that he expected these fresh attempts at a bilateral peace between India and Pakistan will meet the same fate as A B Vajpayee’s sincere peace efforts with Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf, which ended in the Kargil war and 26/11 Mumbai attacks respectively.
Ali Arqam, a journalist for Newsline Magazine in Karachi, noted that the Heart of Asia conference, with its emphasis on regional trade and cooperation, was followed by a visit by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Turkmenistan for the groundbreaking ceremony of the long-awaited Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. “But,” he added, “news of attacks on Kandahar Airport and the Taliban capture of Khanistan, a district of Helmand province, are reminders of the hard realities on ground.”
Even as the Heart of Asia conference was underway in Islamabad, the Afghan Taliban reportedly killed scores in the Kandahar attack. Al Jazeera reported that at least 70 were killed. The attack took place just hours after the Afghan president arrived in Pakistan. Ghani told the media that he remained committed to a lasting and just peace within which all armed movements convert to political parties and participate in the political process legitimately. Pakistan meanwhile condemned the attack on airport in Kandahar.
When asked about the Heart of Asia conference and peace in Afghanistan, journalist Farooq Sulehria told The Diplomat: “There are two basic causes for the unrest in Afghanistan. First, the U.S. occupation. Second, interventions by neighbors, in particular Pakistan and Iran (and by proxy India). Nobody is serious, at present, about changing course. Such conferences have only served to gain time while the policies remain the same. Mullah Mansour Akhter was reportedly shot in Quetta recently. What does that indicate? A change in the Strategic Depth Policy? On the day of the conference, pitched battles were fought at Kandahar Airport between the Taliban and security forces of Afghanistan.”
With top American and Chinese diplomats also present at the Heart of Asia conference, both the U.S. and China are seemingly in accord on the peace process in Afghanistan. China has been playing a proactive role in influencing the Pakistani approach toward Afghanistan. It is also rumored that apart from Pakistan, China is the only country that has direct contact with the Taliban leadership. But after Mullah Omer’s death, discord among the Afghan Taliban has increased under new leader Mullah Mansour Akhter. Violent clashes between two rival Taliban groups in southern Afghanistan in November resulted in the death of at least 50 fighters. Meanwhile, the ISIS presence in Afghanistan grows. Anwar Ishaqzai, governor of southern Zabul province, revealed that a Taliban splinter group known as the High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate that took part in the clash had joined up with fighters from ISIS. “The Taliban faction under Mullah Rasool was backed by the ISIL and Uzbek fighters in the fight,” he said. “About 40 Taliban from Rasool’s group and 10 from Mansoor’s were killed in the fight.”