Will Pakistan Remain Committed to the Afghan Peace Process?
For peace to be a realistic goal, Pakistan's commitment is crucial
NEW DELHI: As reports speculate on whether the Afghan Taliban is finally willing to join a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, violence in the troubled country continues unabated. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near a police vehicle in Helmand province, killing seven and injuring 23. A few days ago, gunmen stormed a Sufi place of worship in Kabul, killing six. Late last month, a suicide car bomber targeting a Turkish diplomat ended up killing a Turkish soldier. Also in February, a prominent female politician -- Angiza Shinwari -- was killed in an attack on her vehicle.
The list is endless. In fact, 2014 was the worst year yet in terms of civilian casualties, as corroborated by a recent UN report that said that at least 3,188 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict in Afghanistan last year, making the year the deadliest yet in terms of non-combatant casualties. Compared to the same period last year, civilian deaths were up 19 percent and had already surpassed the previous high set in 2011, when 3,133 civilians were killed. Further, for the first time ground battles between the Taliban and Afghan forces became the main cause of civilian deaths, opposed to planted bombs -- the leading cause of civilian casualties in previous years.
This scenario makes the rumoured peace deal all the more significant. If the Taliban agrees to a dialogue with the Afghan government, there is a chance that the leadership will put a moratorium on attacks in the country -- a crucial development in the lead up to the summer months where the militant group launches its “Summer offensive” owing to better weather.
However, there is a crucial factor that need to be addressed if these talks are going to be more than a routine exercise in political posturing. That factor is Pakistan’s commitment to the dialogue process, and hence, to peace in the region.
These talks, if they do happen, will be quite a political feat for the newly elected Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani. In fact, this election has been a crucial factor in paving the way for talks -- as Ghani is better disposed toward neighbouring Pakistan than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Ghani, with the support of the US, reached out to Pakistan, hoping to mend ties that had dipped to a historic low under the previous government.
Pakistan, in turn, has been crucial in enabling these talks. The Taliban has thus far refused to open a dialogue process, terming the government illegitimate and stepping up attacks on officials and security forces. Pakistan, it appears, pushed the Afghan Taliban to agree to talks.. A report in The Express Tribune quoted an unnamed former top commander of the group saying, “Taliban officials, who had been involved in talks with the Pakistanis and the Chinese, and had sought time for consultations with the senior leaders, have received a green signal from the leadership,” adding that “Pakistani officials had advised Taliban leaders to sit face-to-face with the Afghan government and put their demands to find out a political solution to the problem.”
The same report quoted another unnamed Taliban source confirming the report and adding that “a small delegation will be visiting Pakistan in days for consultations” to be able to take the discussion with the Afghan government forward.
Pakistan was able to use its leverage over the Taliban leadership to enable the dialogue process. Ironically, this same level of influence was a key factor in deteriorating relations between the two countries, with Afghanistan accusing Pakistan of furthering militancy across the border by providing a safe haven for militants active in Afghanistan, and their leadership.
The key question that emerges from this, however, is: will Pakistan remain committed?
Not everyone is convinced. Karzai, in fact, has been vocally critical. In an interview with The Guardian published a few days ago, Karzai said that the Afghanistan’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan. Karzai openly lashed out at Ghani’s moves to mend ties, ,including the decision last month to send six army cadets to Pakistan for officer training. “We should not send troops for training in any of the neighbouring countries, particularly when they are sending us suicide bombers in return,” Karzai said -- referring to a long held contention of Afghanistan, namely, that neighbouring Pakistan is supporting is nurturing militants who are in turn active within Afghan borders.
This view was echoed by Karzai’s associates who sat in on the interview. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser said that the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways.
Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister, had a similar point to make. “There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time.” Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad said, adding that whilst he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous,” they would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour. “He has taken controversial steps that his predecessor didn’t take, and now we have to wait to see whether the Pakistani side is sincere or not,” he said. “But I am far more sceptical than I ever was before about Pakistan’s sincerity.”
Further, Pakistan itself is not the best example of a country that has led a committed peace dialogue with militants -- and hence, there is the problem of precedent. Pakistan initiated a dialogue process with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), early last year. The government and the TTP agreed to a ceasefire on several occasions, with it being invariably flouted time and time again. Each time, the two sides would return to the negotiating table, achieving nothing in the process. Pakistan was clearly never committed to the talks, intending them to be more of a holding exercise than aimed at achieving any tangible solution. The talks never had a clear agenda, with the government team groping in the dark without crucial reference points.
If the Afghan talks are to be successful, the Afghan government will have to prove its commitment by developing a clear agenda based on achievable goals. This is no easy task, given that the Afghan Taliban is not going to easily budge on key demands -- and here again, Pakistan’s commitment becomes crucial in playing a mediating role in convincing the Afghan Taliban of the importance of compromise.