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February 10, 2019

Back from the sidelines


February 10, 2019

After it appeared it had been pushed to the sidelines of talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban, it seems Islamabad may once again have been recognised as a potentially key player in the situation. While it is obvious to most observers that there can be no lasting peace in the region without Pakistani engagement in the crisis, the Trump administration’s suspension of security assistance to the country and its harsh posture had resulted in fears that Islamabad was being pushed away from centre stage.

After six days of talks in Doha between US officials and the Taliban, General Joseph Votel, the head of US central command in Islamabad, has told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that Pakistan would be involved in some activities involving the military in the region and that its ‘equities’ would be acknowledged and addressed in the future. The general also acknowledged that Pakistan had played a key role in arranging the Doha talks. This comes as a welcome sign for Pakistan which has been battling to regain its old position of influence in Afghanistan at a time when US ties with it seemed increasingly tense and both India and Russia had been attempting to enter the region and the conflict in Afghanistan as key players.

Pakistan is also reported to have been engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to support US peace talks with the Afghan Taliban by assisting travel for US officials and placing pressure on the Taliban to remain at the table. It is possible these actions have convinced the US it cannot get very far without the help of Islamabad, which has been consistently accused by the Kabul government of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the present time, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has not been included in the peace process, with the Taliban insisting it is a ‘puppet’ setup of the US. This too creates its own set of problems given reports that the US will be withdrawing from the region. A withdrawal would of course mean the Afghan government must on its own negotiate with the Taliban. It is quite obvious that without negotiations, there can be no peace in the country and that a working relationship between Kabul and Islamabad is also essential to this cause. Meanwhile in parliament, the PTI government has been asked by the PML-N to make its role in the Afghan peace process more transparent and to inform the National Assembly as to its policies.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has in Washington expressed the hope a settlement will be reached before elections in Afghanistan in July. We must hope attempts are also on to rebuild ties between the two neighbours that are both locked in a battle against militants. The apparent softening of the US stance on Pakistan, a country which had in the past been accused of harbouring terrorists, could help this effort and also prevent Pakistan from being pushed away from the centre of the conflict in the region where it has been actively engaged in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. Islamabad will therefore be anxious to ensure it can continue to play at least some role as efforts to keep the US Taliban talks going gain momentum.

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