Islamabad’s exclusion from secret talks between Afghan government and Taliban in Doha calls for a change in Afghan policy
There is a growing realisation on the part of the US, China, Pakistan and Afghan government that peace talks with Taliban is the way forward for peace in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, for a number of states, Pakistan allegedly plays a spoiler role in Afghanistan. As the succeeding discussion shows, there are a number of hurdles, many beyond Pakistan’s control, hindering peace talks between Afghan Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government.
First, Taliban are a divided lot. The hawks are for a military victory on the ground emboldened by gains in the battlefield and the withdrawal of most of the international troopers from Afghanistan. In addition, there is a stubborn division within Taliban ranks post Mulla Omar over the question of succession. As a sign of growing disappointment within the militants, operatives from Taliban have been defecting to IS’s Afghan chapter.
Second, there appears to be some disillusionment on the part of Afghan Taliban regarding Pakistan’s relevance in the peace talks. News is making the round that a few within the Taliban do not want any involvement of Pakistan in the Afghan peace process. This brings Afghan Taliban on the same page with Afghan government, which remains critical of Pakistan’s role in the peace negotiation.
Third, there are huge differences between the Afghan government and Taliban, however. The latter’s traditional stance has been the demand that the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan would serve as a necessary condition for talks with Kabul.
The latest and the more worrying irritant is the exclusion of Pakistan from two rounds of secret peace talks held in September and October in Doha between Afghan officials and Taliban within the presence of a US diplomat.
What is Pakistan’s position on Afghan peace talks?
In Afghanistan, Pakistan’s objectives are concurrent, overlapping and, in some areas, conflicting with other stakeholders, more so in the case of India. Pakistan’s support to Afghan peace process is India centric. A complete Taliban’s victory, desirable from the country ruling elites’ perspective, is illusory though. In the end, what we are going to see is a costly war of attrition whereby neither the Afghan government nor Taliban are going to score a decisive victory.
In Pakistan, the prevailing disillusionment emanates from the alleged fact that the incumbent Afghan government is an Indian proxy. From Islamabad’s perspective, a successful negotiation between Afghan government and Taliban without carving a strong niche for Islamabad works to Indian advantage at the expense of Pakistan. A strong central government sans Taliban’s meaningful representation is considered equivalent to a robust Indian presence in Afghanistan.
A recent session of Pak-Afghan representatives at LUMS, as part of "Beyond Boundaries" to cultivate understanding and cooperation between the members of civil society in the two countries, gave a clue to Islamabad’s sensitivity of India’s alleged use of Afghan territory for nefarious aims. In the second phase of "Beyond Boundaries"--Track 1.5/II dialogue series led by Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in collaboration with its Afghan counterpart Women Peace and Security Organization (WPSO), the prevailing sense from Pakistan’s side, represented by a former ambassador, was that India was using Afghanistan against Pakistan’s interest.
The US, China, India and Taliban have their own positions. The US is interested in a permanent foothold in Afghanistan not only because it helps the US project its power globally but also to contain rising China and an assertive Russia and to control energy sources in Central Asia. A continuing but manageable crisis in Afghanistan only justifies American presence in that country.
With regard to China, Beijing’s ‘one belt one road’ policy goes far beyond CPEC. China’s policy is geared towards a stable Afghanistan, peaceful and unsupportive to China’s Muslim insurgents no matter who runs the country.
India has two-fold interests in Afghanistan. In Kabul, Delhi sees a proxy role to counter Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and a trading partner, which also gives India an inland access to Central Asian markets. Taliban do not suit Indian interests. Taliban peace overtures, demonstrated by pro-negotiation group within the militant organisation, reflect a growing realisation from illusion to reality: overrunning Afghanistan as during late 1990s is not even a distant possibility.
Taliban want their share of power -- ideally being the exclusive rulers of Kabul -- in Afghanistan, which should be regarded as their due right provided that they give up violence in favour of political participation through contesting elections.
The problem with Pakistan’s Afghan policy is not the country’s national interests in Afghanistan ranging from strategic depth to friendly regime to access to Central Asia. It is the pursuit of these goals allegedly through a brutal non-state actor, a deviation from internationally accepted norms of state behaviour, which brings Pakistan at loggerheads with Kabul, regional states and big powers and earns the country a bad name.
Resultantly, Pakistan’s Afghan policy is under stress from Kabul, regional states and the US. As a result, Pakistan’s Afghan policy is in a state of disarray. Arresting Taliban leaders to pressurise them to join Afghan peace process while fearful of losing influence with the movement catches Islamabad’s policy between the devil and deep blue sea. In addition to locking horns with other states on alleged support to Taliban, Pakistan has seemingly been losing its influence with Taliban too.
Islamabad’s exclusion from secret talks between Afghan government and Taliban, a letter of Syed Tayyab Agha -- former head of Taliban Qatar office who resigned a year ago -- to Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhunzada to stay away from Pakistan, Iran and other stakeholders and the occasional arrest of Taliban leaders in Pakistan seemingly demonstrate that all is not well between Pakistani government and Afghan Taliban.
What should Pakistan do?
Help Taliban transform from a militant militia to a political party, coax it to participate in the Afghan peace process meaningfully and patch up differences with Afghan government. Pakistan’s long term interest is in Taliban as a political party rather than a militant militia.