Now or never

January 23,2019

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A decisive moment to bring peace and end the longest war in Afghanistan has emerged. Peace efforts have been intensified and all stakeholders are actively trying to find a quick solution to the Afghan crisis.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad seems keen to ensure fruitful negotiations with the Taliban. He was on a marathon tour of various capitals earlier this month and visited India and China besides meeting officials in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. After holding consultations for three days in Kabul, he visited Pakistan between January 17 and January 20. In Kabul, he spoke to the Afghan government, the High Peace Council and other concerned officials. Officials of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA are also with him.

Unlike past initiatives, the current peace efforts have been taken with more seriousness and a sense of urgency and the US special envoy, who is facing pressure from Donald Trump, seems to be committed to finding a quick solution. Khalilzad, the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon are afraid that if they don’t find a solution soon, Trump could make a unilateral announcement about Afghanistan in his upcoming State of the Union address.

Trump seems indifferent to Afghanistan’s problems and is only interested in reducing the costs of the war on the US exchequer. The American establishment fears that given his current approach Trump could take any cursory and injudicious step.

The Afghan government is also worried about Trump’s unpredictability. For the first time, Kabul seems to be serious about peace efforts and wants a quick solution. The Afghan government is paranoid that the US will leave Afghanistan and the Afghan government at the mercy of the Taliban.

It is also concerned that Pakistan and the US will bypass the Afghan government in the current peace effort and reach an agreement with the Taliban – a dangerous scenario that could prove to be devastating for Afghanistan and the Afghan government. These factors have led Kabul to reach out to the Taliban and develop closer ties with Pakistan for the time being.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been critical of Pakistan over the past two years, has started sending positive messages to Islamabad. Through his special representative Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Ghani informed the Pakistani authorities earlier this month that Kabul would address Pakistan’s concerns if Islamabad played an effective role in the reconciliation process. This message has also been conveyed to Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. I am sure that Kabul will agree to the strategic cooperation agreement with Pakistan if Islamabad plays a strong role in the reconciliation process.

For the first time, Pakistan also seems prepared to provide full cooperation to the reconciliation process. COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa has maintained that the Afghan crisis should be resolved and is also making sincere efforts towards that end. The ISI and the army chief have been utilising the services of political and religious figures to influence the Taliban. The Taliban are being pursued to engage in result-oriented negotiations. But Taliban leaders complained that they were being pressurised to negotiate. Many of them believed the arrest of a former Taliban minister in Peshawar ahead of Khalilzad’s visit to Pakistan is part of these pressure tactics.

There are multiple reasons for Pakistan’s serious attitude towards the Afghan peace efforts. It seems that the Pakistani authorities have realised that the unilateral withdrawal of US troops without a durable solution will push Afghanistan towards another civil war that will gravely impact Pakistan. What’s more, the US is using a carrot-and-stick approach by enhancing pressure on Islamabad and giving it the assurance that it will support Pakistan in securing a financial deal with the IMF.

Islamabad is also being pursued through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE to help the Afghan government reconcile with the Taliban. China has strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan and wants stability in the region. Therefore, Beijing has no objection over Pakistan’s cooperation with the US and Afghan governments. India has so far been kept away from the current peace process and even Kabul seems prepared to address Islamabad’s concern about India’s involvement in Afghanistan. All these factors have led to Pakistan playing an effective role in the peace process.

Unfortunately, there was a deadlock in the negotiation process on various grounds, such as the Taliban’s reluctance to involve the Afghan government; differences over whether negotiations should take place in Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan; and a few irresponsible comments made by Khalilzad in this regard. But through the efforts of all stakeholders, the peace process has been put back on track.

Peace in Afghanistan has reached a ‘now or never’ position. This is a golden opportunity and all stakeholders should find a solution to the Afghan crisis and end the 18-year-long war.

In order to achieve the desired outcome, the US must eliminate any contradictions in its current approach and within its Afghanistan policy. The White House and all other US institutions must be on the same page and proceed with the same formula. Washington should end the double game that is being played with Kabul and Islamabad, and jointly work with them on developing a workable and prudent formula. All stakeholders must realise that the peace process won’t have the desired effect without Pakistan’s support.

Similarly, the Afghan government is the main stakeholder in the crisis and peace will be nothing more than an illusion without its involvement. Although the Afghan government is weak, it has the potential to sabotage the peace process at any time. In addition, countries such as Iran should also be taken into confidence. For this purpose, the assistance of the Afghan government will be required as the US cannot fulfil this task.

While the US should take India into confidence, the latter shouldn’t be allowed to be part of the peace process as it will use all possible means to undermine the peace process so as to discredit Pakistan’s efforts. India’s involvement will also make Pakistan withdraw its cooperation from the peace process. The Afghan government shouldn’t offend Pakistan at the behest of India or any other country. Kabul should sign a strategic partnership agreement with Pakistan and address the latter’s concerns.

The Taliban should adopt flexibility and prudence in their policy, and realise that the US could take a U-turn on its decision to withdraw troops. Even though the Taliban have not been defeated, they must understand that Afghanistan and other countries in the region are tired of the endless bloodshed. The Taliban have fought a historic war against Nato. But they must bear in mind the repercussions that may arise if the all war-weary Afghans as well as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar become their opponents.

The writer works for Geo TV.

Email: saleem.safijanggroup.com.pk


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