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Opinion

January 24, 2018

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No hope in sight

The murderous attack on Kabul’s iconic Intercontinental Hotel underscores once more the hopelessness of the tragic situation that is prevalent in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it demonstrates that the Taliban and other networks retain the capacity to block efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan under the present dispensation. On its part, Pakistan has made significant progress in quashing terror networks. But they continue to strike regularly. This has diverted considerable human and material resources away from the tasks of the state.

The challenges in effectively eradicating terrorism are also at the root of inter-state tensions in South Asia. Furthermore, the issue has brought Pakistan’s ties with the US under tremendous strain. The recent visit of US Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells to Islamabad did not succeed in reducing divergences between both countries. Pakistan gave a positive spin to the discussions held behind closed doors, citing America’s recognition of its successes and sacrifices by in combating terrorist networks.

However, the US Embassy has emphasised that America urged the government of Pakistan to address the continuing presence of the Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups within its territory. General Votel, the head of US Central Command, called Pakistan’s army chief to convey a similar message. Mindful of the angry reaction to Trump’s January 1 tweet about Pakistan, both the civil and military representatives of Washington have stressed their desire to continue parleys with Pakistan and find a common ground on taking action against terrorist outfits – the carrot being the possible resumption of US military assistance to Pakistan that has, for now, been blocked.

Both countries engaged in some public sparring as the situation in war-torn Afghanistan was discussed at the UN Security Council in New York. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan stated:

“We seek to work cohesively and effectively with Pakistan, but cannot be successful if the status quo, one where terrorist organisations are given sanctuary inside the country’s borders, is allowed to continue”.

Ironically, Sullivan threatened more action against the Taliban while urging them to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. He added that any peace deal must include a firm commitment from the Taliban that they will cut any ties with terrorism, cease violence and accept the constitution. If that is not placing the cart before the horse, one wonders what is?

Pakistan’s Representative, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, countered the claim that “Afghanistan and its partners, especially the US, need to address the challenges inside Afghanistan rather than shift the onus for ending the conflict onto others”. She emphasised the fact that paying lip service to a negotiated settlement and executing a strategy of force was not the way to find a solution. She did, however, call on the Taliban to abandon the path of violence and join talks.

The divergence of views and positions between Pakistan and the US over terror outfits working on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border has driven relations between Washington and Islamabad to a low point that is akin to what was seen in 2011. However, there is an important change as the civil administration under Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi enjoys a more harmonious relationship with the military. This can also be seen in the counter-narrative that is being witnessed in response to allegations emanating from the Washington-New Delhi-Kabul axis.

Bold civil and military public diplomacy will not be sufficient to discourage the detractors from their relentless campaign to portray Pakistan as a country that harbours terrorists. What is the way forward? Is there any way forward?

Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and one of the most knowledgeable diplomats on the Afghan conflict, Riaz Mohammad Khan, has recently authored a paper on the subject for the Jinnah Institute in a series titled ‘The Afghanistan Essays’. It carries the subtitle, ‘A history of errors’.

The paper traces and analyses the series of errors made by all sides, with the lion’s share going to the US. The author refers to the fundamental question of America’s motives in Afghanistan. According to him, many in Pakistan have viewed the Taliban as an asset for two reasons. First, they are sceptical about whether the US is in Afghanistan for the long haul or will abandon the country as it has done before. Second, the Afghan Taliban have a pro-Pakistan leaning and appear to be the only counter to India’s rising influence in Kabul.

Khan’s paper notes that as a result of the differences over the Taliban, Pakistan’s relations with both Kabul and Washington are in a state of disarray.

However, the author is of the view that “Pakistan cannot hound the Afghan Taliban out of Pakistan for cultural and political reasons…Pakistan has limited capacity to influence the Taliban. If asked, Pakistan should play its part provided that other players clearly understand its limitations. [A] candid and forthright conversation is necessary with both Kabul and Washington.”

Khan has also explored the much-talked-about but extremely complex issue of reconciliation through a negotiated resolution of the decades-old war. While urging the authorities in Pakistan to cooperate with any initiative for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan – bilaterally or multilaterally – he believes that claiming a role in that direction only reinforces accusations that it is protecting the Taliban.

Reconciliation though a seductive prospect has defied meaningful progress because the government in Kabul and the Taliban “do not believe in any mutually acceptable power-sharing agreement”. Islamabad and Washington have no clear ideas beyond the procedural stage, he says. As the impasse continues, Pak-US divergences simmer, sapping Pakistan’s energies away from vital issues of socioeconomic development.

At a time of declining exports and a ballooning trade deficit, the decline in two-way trade with Afghanistan from $2.5 billion to $500 million is nothing less than a tragedy. Pakistan is the main country that will suffer on account of this dangerous trend caused by the incomprehensible but vicious cycle of measures and countermeasures on transit trade.

Riaz Mohammad Khan has referred to the problem and made a series of recommendations to redress the situation. The paper concludes with the suggestion that: “transit arrangements for landlocked Afghanistan require a positive approach and situations in which these are leveraged against Kabul should be avoided. Pakistan needs to reset its relations with Kabul…even if only to check [the] Indian influence and activities directed against Pakistan.”

Email: [email protected]

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