The initiation of Afghan peace talks was received with a sigh of relief by all peace loving nations, the world over. The Afghan war is well in the 18thyear and, all these years, has exacted onerous sacrifices from the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States of America in blood and treasure without making any headway toward a military solution. The longest of the American wars, it finally impelled the President of the sole superpower to talk to his bête noir, the Taliban. Though the need for a negotiated resolution of the Afghanistan conundrum was also felt by President Barak Obama after the failure of his ‘troop surge’, he could not overcome his aversion to the Taliban and his obsession with the comprehensive nuclear deal negotiated and signed with Iran in May 2015, the only legacy of his presidency.
The candidate Donald Trump shared the disgust of his predecessor about the involvement of his country in the unnecessary wars of the Middle East and the protracted conflict in Afghanistan and intended to pull out of them. The politicians live on tall promises and election rhetoric. When faced with realism of the statecraft and the pragmatic conduct of state affairs, President Trump also settled down on giving a chance to his sluggishly evolved policy on conflicts in Asia which came to be known as ‘maximum pressure and inducement’ hinged to two powerful engines of military arrogance and financial power to surmount the uphill task of intimidating or luring the recalcitrant states and groups.
The sharp edge of this policy was acutely felt in Pyongyang and Islamabad. Along with North Korea, Pakistan had to bear the brunt of this bullish, mendacious and intimidating policy. Every other tweet of Mr. Trump was telling us Pakistan would gain enormous benefits from any cooperation with US in counterterrorism, and would lose much by failing to do so – a threat couched in diplomatic euphemism.
The pleadings of Pakistan – even slightly diverging in emphasis or on modus operandi with the repetitive outbursts from Washington – unfailingly increased the irritation of the US leaders. Two years down the lane, we faced this bully with the progressive degradation of bilateral relations and withdrawal of the American military and financial aid. The US leaders never tried to understand Pakistan’s political and strategic compulsions being the next door neighbour of Afghanistan, and having been actively involved in the war on terrorism catching and handing over to them the senior Al-Qaeda leaders – Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Abu Faraj Al-Libi, Hamza Rabi, Abu Zubaydah and Al-Shibh. While using our seaports and airstrips for transportation of their goods and ammunition, they kept propping up Pakistan’s archrival and building it as a regional power providing it with a steel-frame security cover to expand its development works and increase its influence in its backyard using the Afghan land to destabilize Balochistan.
Donald Trump’s policy of maximum pressure and inducement made some headway in luring the North Korean leader for economic sanctions relief in exchange for the termination of his nuclear missile development. However, the dreams of Jong Un for economic and financial relief crumbled like a sand house when Donald Trump laid before him an entirely altered plan in the Hanoi summit. Unlike their understanding for step by step approach or incremental denuclearization with parallel easing of economic sanction, President Donald Trump, to the chagrin of the Korean leader, placed on the table his modified demand of Full, Final and Verified Denuclearization (FFVD).
The summit was more of a shock for leaders of both the Koreas. President Moon Jae-un of South Korea had put in a lot of diplomatic diligence to level the ground for the second submit. The whimsical decision of the US leader was a great snub to the equally unpredictable and rash Jong-Un and a political setback for Moon Jae-un. He was banking on the success of the summit to improve his electoral prospects in the elections. This event carries a lesson for Pakistan if our leaders entertain high hopes that as a quid pro que for our help in Afghan peace talks, the US leaders will elevate bilateral relations between the two countries to a high pedestal. It will be well and good if this happens before or in the pendency of the proposed peace agreement. The importance of Pakistan will not be as much crucial in the post settlement period for the USA. Donald Trump is well adept in taking somersaults.
We should also clearly sketch out our core interests in Afghanistan. What we want to have in our war ravaged neighborhood, is an Afghanistan in peace with itself and its neighbours, a state with a responsible, if not friendly, government which would not allow its territory to be used as a springboard for subversion in Pakistan. Pakistan’s concern with economic connectivity strikes chord with China. We access Central Asia through Peshawar to Uzbekistan or Wakhan to Tajikistan corridors or the long route from Northern Areas to Kashghar in Xinjiang to Naryn, the border town of Kyrgyzstan.
We should not mince words in elaborating our concerns on all these issues along with our reservations about any role being contemplated for India in Afghanistan after the pullout of the US and NATO forces. This is the time to nudge the American leaders to see their folly. Should we want the Americans to pull out step by step and leave behind a stabilizing force to avoid mayhem of 1990s? The internecine fighting between two militias killed more Afghans than the deaths caused by the war with the Soviet Army. Would the Taliban acquiesce in this imperative need for retaining a stabilizing foreign force in their country? We need to work on them to accept this in the peace agreement.
No stakeholder – USA, Taliban, Kabul regime – has undervalued the role of Pakistan in the peace talks. The other countries which are interested in peace in this troubled region and could substantially help in the success of the process including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been apparently appreciative of Pakistan’s contribution to the peace talks. The Ashraf Ghani regime has its own political compulsions to look askance at the role of Pakistan. However, after the failure of the grand loya Jirga called by him in Kabul only last week which was boycotted by his own Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai, President Ashraf Ghani has come down to realizing the vitally important role of Pakistan in shaping the peace deal. It remains to be seen whether he will be a part of the peace deal or choose to play as a spoiler. Nevertheless, he does not have leverage to stop the process.
India’s dislike of Taliban is no secret. Its trepidations over the Taliban’s role in the future political dispensation of Afghanistan that the peace deal will shape and legitimize are understandable. Iran is beset with a grave situation with all the economic sanctions slapped on it recently, and the intensifying hostility of the USA, Israel and some Arab brothers. There are even apprehensions that after a peace deal in Afghanistan, the USA will train its guns at Iran or initiate serious plans for regime change in that country. The Iranian leadership is watching the ongoing diplomatic activities carefully. Iran has recently suspended some clauses of the comprehensive nuclear deal particularly those relating to its nuclear development programme, causing trepidations in the guarantor countries of the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China. Keeping all this in view, we could not expect Iran to allow the USA a comfortable withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It seems the six rounds of talks in Doha have gone forth and back on the moot questions of withdrawal of foreign troops and ceasefire. The Presidential elections in Afghanistan were postpone to July and then to September apparently on the insistence of Taliban. Many important issues such as the role of the Kabul regime in the future administration; the share of Taliban in power and the merger of Taliban militia in the country’s security forces and the anti-terrorism war remain to be thrashed out before a peace deal is clenched.
The process is slow and sluggish for a number of reasons. The 18-year long war has impelled many countries to entrench their political and strategic interests in Afghanistan. The warlords patronized by the USA and the successive regimes in Kabul have vested interests in the continuation of the war. Taliban also have been moving cautiously towards a final peace deal trying to strengthen their strategic position on the ground by harassing the Afghan national security forces and expanding the territory under their control in the belief that by doing so, they will enhance their bargaining position. Their other objective in lingering the peace process may be to reassure their militia in the war zones that they have not sold out their sacrifices to the USA.
The way the USA envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzade and the senior officials of the State Department have been vigorously pursuing the peace process indicates that President Donald Trump wants in earnest to settle the Afghanistan conundrum before he goes into election mode for his second term. But this should not delude Taliban that the US leader has already lost the patience and could abruptly pull out of Afghanistan. Any such wrong calculation will be fraught with potentially damaging consequences for the peace process. Pakistan should also beware of such miscalculations. A superpower is like a mad elephant and could cause rampage anywhere on the slightest provocation.
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