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June 5, 2016
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New realities in Afghanistan

Opinion

June 5, 2016

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The death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed in a drone strike in Balochistan near the border with Afghanistan has raised more questions than it answers with regard to the Afghan peace process.

The first thought that comes to mind is: how come a person of his importance was travelling alone, without any guards or companions, in such a carefree manner? What was he doing in Iran? Was he working on a plan against the present government in Afghanistan or planning something with Iran? Was he involved in some kind of a deal with Russia or other countries which have reportedly tried to establish contact with the Taliban?

The US felt, perhaps rightly, that Mullah Mansour was a hardliner who would not support the process of reconciliation with the Afghan government. Most people feel that even if he was not averse to negotiations at the outset, the circumstances of his election – with Mullah Omar’s brother and son challenging his succession – had pushed him into a corner. And that he was left with no choice but to continue with offensive upon offensive against the Afghan government in order to prove his own credentials.

We have to wait and see whether his killing will pave the way for peace negotiations or make it difficult, but one thing is clear: the incident has left no option for his successor but to follow in his footsteps.

Shaikh Haibatullah’s first priority will be to avenge the death of his leader. From his personal point of view as well he will not have any reservations on this, being renowned for having delivered extraordinarily harsh judgements when he was judge. It is being predicted that he will continue with the offensive to give a clear message to all concerned that the Taliban are capable of striking any target in Afghanistan at will.

Pakistan has landed itself in a difficult position by not only stating but also giving in writing in meetings of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, that it would take action against those not willing to join the peace process. This is precisely what President Ashraf Ghani referred to in his speech after the tragic incident of Kabul where 64 people were killed and more than 347 injured. He asked Pakistan to honour its commitment. Pakistan, for obvious reasons, could not oblige nor will it do so in the near future it appears. It will continue preaching the path of reconciliation irrespective of whether the Taliban take that seriously or not. Such a course of action will not, however, absolve Pakistan of its responsibilities in the QCG.

Pakistan’s worries have been compounded by new realities like the killing of Mullah Mansour in an area outside Fata; the tribal areas had been somehow tacitly agreed upon as an acceptable area for US drone strikes but Mullah Mansour has been killed in Balochistan – which is not in Fata. That amounts to crossing a red line. By doing this the US has sent a clear message that the Taliban will be targeted wherever they are found, even in Pakistan’s settled areas with precision drone strikes, the art of which the US mastered in Waziristan thanks to our own decision-makers and rulers.

The region around us is changing fast and there are new harsh realities to be faced but Pakistan, I fear, is destined for total isolation among its neighbours for which it has only itself to blame because of the rigid blinkered’ policies the country has followed all these years and is even now reluctant to discard.

Our insistence on retaining strategic depth in Afghanistan through a puppet government in that country that is subservient to the dictates of Islamabad is proving to be our undoing. Despite all our meddling in that country for the last three decades we have not succeeded in installing an anti-India government. So far we have only been successful in generating animosity against us.

We must realise that, given the multi-ethnic population composition of Afghanistan, the Taliban will not take over all of Afghanistan and form a stable, durable government; and neither is the present Kabul setup capable of extending its writ all over the country. Sooner or later both sides will have to reach an accommodation and jointly form a government.

Instead of favouring one Taliban group or the other, Pakistan must try to facilitate such an accommodation with scrupulous neutrality. This is the only way we can try to regain some of the goodwill we have lost.

Unless we do that we will be surrounded by neighbouring countries that have good relations with each other but not with us. Prime Minister Modi has already visited both Afghanistan and Iran. He participated in the opening ceremony of the Chabahar port on a visit to Tehran, having already signed agreements of strategic importance with his Iranian and Afghan counterparts. He is scheduled to visit Afghanistan soon for the inauguration of a dam built there with Indian funding.

In no time the three countries will be linked through Chabahar for trade and commerce between them and beyond. This will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for trade and provide a secure route to India for trade with Central Asia. Pakistan’s importance for trade between the two thus stands reduced. The development of Chabahar now is obviously meant to reduce the importance of Gwadar. The fault with us alone as we took far too long to initiate work on Gwadar whereas India and Iran started work on Chabahar much earlier.

Pakistan is thus at a crossroads today. It has to decide whether to go for peace and reconciliation or whether to keep providing safe havens to Taliban even when they spurn its pleas for reconciliation. Opting for peace will certainly bring it honour and respect whereas following the other course will bring about isolation, if not worse. Will it be easy for us to defend ourselves at that time or would it be better for us to reconsider our policies now and adjust to the new realities without losing the Taliban’s trust as well?

The fast-changing situation in the region does not permit us to ponder over it too long. The government has to be pragmatic and take decisions which are in our best interests, even if they are unpalatable in certain quarters. That is what lends strength to a government – to take the right steps and defend them with public support.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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