While it is important that substantive peace talks are held between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the latter believe that since their government was overthrown by the US and not the Afghan government, it is the former they should talk to. It is true that without the US playing a substantive role, the talks will make no headway.
The final agreement would require the release of Taliban members detained in the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram jail and getting the names of Taliban leaders removed from the UN’s list of terrorists and their sponsors. Similarly, only the Pentagon or the CIA can cut down aerial attacks and drone strikes.
Adherent of the McCain-Lindsay Graham neo-conservative world view, the White House has once again employed a military-centric strategy which it has used for 17 years without any strategic gains. The US has not been able to wear down the Taliban in Afghanistan, who continue to control over 70 percent of the territory.
At the same time, the Afghan National and Defence Security Forces (ANDSF) have serious capacity issues. In March, the Afghan Air Force used its first laser-guided missile from an A-29 fighter jet to strike a Taliban compound in the Farah province. This establishes that the force is still struggling with the basics. Besides fencing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Kabul also needs to have a robust and technical border security mechanism to prevent cross-border terrorism. Since the Tora Bora adventure, the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan has been unguarded, leaving a security black hole. Kabul must take action against the terrorist havens along its border with Pakistan, and neutralise them to reap long-term peace dividends.
Rather than blaming Pakistan for all its ills, the Afghan government needs to find solutions within the country’s dynamics. It needs to introduce corrective measures to its constitution, find a balance and harmonise its ethnic groups, which is an explosive issue. Ghani is accused of doling out favours to the majority of Pashtuns. The defiance of the governors of the Samangan and Balkh provincesreflects the weak authority the Kabul government has within its own government. At the same time, the US needs to calm Afghanistan’s neighbours over its regional intentions in Eurasia. With Russia and China as the new ascending powers, and Iran among the so called axis of evil countries, the US has reasons to keep its army deployed in Afghanistan.
Rhetoric aside, the US has no overriding interest in peace in Eurasia. The US also has no interest in winning a war outright. As with Vietnam or Korea, the purpose of these conflicts is simply to block a power or destabilise the region, and not to impose order. In due course, even an outright American defeat is acceptable. However, the principle of using minimum force, when absolutely necessary, to maintain the Eurasian balance of power is – and will remain – the driving force of the US foreign policy throughout the 21st century.
In Pakistan, suspicions run deep as well, particularly because of two major incidents. When in 2015, Islamabad was prodded to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a US drone executed Taliban chief Mullah Mansour ahead of peace talks with Afghanistan. This resulted in the peace talks being subverted. The same year, while a delegation of the Afghan government was holding meetings with Taliban representatives in Pakistan, they were scuttled after information about Mullah Umar’s death was ‘leaked’.
Besides Islamabad, Russia and Iran also have reasons to be wary of Isis as it has a strong base in Afghanistan. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai believes, “the US is sponsoring and backing the terrorist movement.” Karzai has said that Washington is using the IS insurgency as a tool in Afghanistan, and aims to destabilise the whole region. While questions and suspicions continue to hang over the US’ designs for the region, Pakistan must wholeheartedly give all it can to stabilise Afghanistan in view of the emerging regional alignments. Islamabad is being watched in the Washington DC through the Afghan and Indian prism, so the pressure is likely to continue.
However, Pakistan must support the peace process within its limited options. Kabul needs to fast-pedal the peace formula with Russia and Iran’s involvement, considering that both now hold a major influence over the Taliban. Our national interest lies in economic prosperity which can only be achieved if we are at peace with our indispensable neighbours. Through them, we will be able to build commercial links with Central Asia and Saarc nations.
Our past and present policies in Afghanistan have failed, to say the least. It is time to hold a sustainable bilateral engagement with the Kabul government. It is cardinally important to build a genuine goodwill to defuse the prevailing hostility among the Afghans by launching informal diplomacy, and projecting soft power by introducing development projects like the Chaman-Kandahar-Herat railway line and the Peshawar-Kabul Motorway, besides several others in Taliban and Afghan government controlled areas.
We also need to revive and continue uninterrupted trade with Afghanistan, backed with comprehensive security guarantees to help materialise the Afghan economy. We can facilitate the Afghans along our border and avoid knee-jerk reactions of suspending the Afghan Transit Trade, or threats to push the Afghan refugees back. Since we have unwisely suspended the transit trade too many times, the landlocked country found a viable option in the form of the Chabahar Port. Undoubtedly, Afghanistan has on its own, as well as with India’s help, been a source of torment in the past, but time has come to shift to the next and a higher gear.
The excellent geo-strategic position that Pakistan enjoys has so far not provided it with any dividends, except those materialising in the form of CPEC. In order to truly benefit from CPEC and realise the dream of trading with Central Asia, West Asia and Saarc, like the low-hanging fruits of regional connectivity, we must undertake active bilateral engagements with our neighbours and utilise the trade and energy corridors. And no distant friend should dissuade Islamabad from pursuing national interest goals with its neighbours to improve security, economy and livelihood of its citizens.