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November 6, 2018

Talking peace in Russia


November 6, 2018

The Afghan government right now is as weak as it has been at any point in the last decade. A report by the US government finds that the state only controls 55 percent of the territory in Afghanistan, with the rest is being used as launching pads for attacks by the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State. So far in 2019, the government has lost more districts than in any year since 2015. All sides in the conflict – including the US – now realise that this war cannot be won on the battlefield. After 17 years of stalemate, the only way to end military conflict is through peace negotiations. In recognition of this reality, the newly-appointed US envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has met twice with representatives of the Taliban, most recently last month. Now, the Afghan government and the Taliban are finally ready to meet face-to-face at a peace conference in Russia next week. This marks the first time that the Taliban have been asked to send a delegation from their Doha office to an international conference of this nature. But it seems the Afghan government is yet to be convinced of the wisdom of this idea, with President Ashraf Ghani saying he is still negotiating the terms of the conference with the Russians.

The Russian conference could provide the impetus that is needed to kick-start peace negotiations. Other than the Afghan government and the Taliban, Pakistan, China, India, Iran and five former Soviet republics from Central Asia will also take part. For Pakistan, the inability of the Afghan government to assert its writ over half the country is of particular concern since the remnants of the TTP use that territory as a base from which to carry out attacks in Pakistan. But as the US and Afghan government have directly reached out to the Taliban in recent months that has reduced our leverage. Pakistan’s one selling point used to be that it was better positioned than anyone else to act as an intermediary to the Taliban. The killing of Maulana Samiul Haq – whose Darul Uloom Haqqania produced some of the most notorious Taliban commanders – has further reduced our ability to make contact with the Taliban. It is not clear now what role, if any, Pakistan will have to play in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. While we have always maintained that the peace process needs to be Afghan-led, there is no hiding the fact that what happens in the country directly impacts. Any final settlement between the two sides could cause blowback on our territory. Pakistan will need to assert its interests at the Moscow conference and make sure it is not sidelined.

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