A game of second chances?

October 18, 2020

The peace talks may represent Pakistan’s last best chance to assert itself as both an independent broker in the region and as the prime US ally in South Asia

The Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship has been tumultuous since 1947. Despite sharing culture, history, wars, and terrorism as a common threat, the two countries have never developed their bond. Despite a long and complex history, an opportunity for détente may be developing now.

Once again, Pakistan has become the most crucial ally for the US. It is expected to play a significant role in facilitating the burgeoning dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Before the inaugural ceremony of intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. In that phone call, the “importance of US-Pakistan cooperation on the Afghan peace process and the importance of regional stability” were discussed. The Trump administration’s nominated envoy to Pakistan, William E Todd, also stressed Pakistan’s key role in ending the Afghan war.

Despite these reaffirmations by the US officials regarding Pakistan’s promising role in this historic peace accord, the former US national security advisor, Gen McMaster (retired), had his reservations. When I asked him about Pakistan’s role in the region, he was quick to say that “… Pakistan is on its way to becoming a pariah state like North Korea with a single state sponsor, China...”

In Gen McMaster’s view, the reason behind Pakistan’s imminent political isolation would be the support for terrorist organisations. According to McMaster, organisations, such as the Haqqani Network, a specific aggressive offshoot of the Taliban, work as a “… bridge between the Taliban and groups like Lashkar-i-Taiba” in Pakistan.

McMaster also denounced Pakistan’s overall stance stressing that since 1948, Pakistan had used illegal armed groups and terrorist organisations as part of its foreign policy.

When I asked McMaster specifically about Pakistan’s role in the region, he replied that Pakistan was mainly motivated by India. He said that the Pakistani army sees “…an Indian behind every tree, hence viewing Afghanistan through that lens…”

Interestingly, Lt-Gen Amjad Shoaib (retired), now a government-sponsored defence analyst, responded to this statement by saying that it is actually the US that “…sees things through India’s lens…” because of their interest in counterbalancing China. He identified India as the sponsor of terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil. In a press release, Foreign Minister Qureshi underlined the need to guard against “spoilers” who do not wish to see the return of peace in the region.

Pakistan’s foreign policy has been in this dilemma throughout its history. With India’s massive regional presence and its close ties to Afghanistan, Pakistan has had to play a balancing act, particularly after the rise of international terrorism. Pakistan has had to balance its position as an ally of the United States against terrorism while maintaining its national security interests to counter India’s regional strength.

Pakistan has been openly accused by several US representatives of playing a “double game”. McMaster reiterated that the US policy towards Pakistan should be one of “…forcing Pakistan to make a choice…” While briefing the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week, US envoy to Pakistan William Todd called Pakistan a “…difficult, but essential…” US partner.

Pakistan’s role is significant for Afghan peace talks, and the US has realised this despite many reservations. Pakistan has always maintained that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict.

The succession of visits to Pakistan by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban Delegation from Doha led by Mullah Baradar, and the recent successful trip of Dr Abdullah Abdullah of the High Council for National Reconciliation highlight Pakistan’s position as one of utmost importance.

Johnny Walsh is a senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace. Walsh’s focus of expertise is the Afghan peace talks. Walsh stated, “A durable political settlement is the only responsible exit strategy for the United States from Afghanistan.”

I asked Walsh about the seriousness of Pakistan concerning its role in the Intra-Afghan peace talks. Walsh thinks that visitors’ succession to Islamabad suggests “Islamabad’s acceptance of the talks, which is important to its success.” According to him, Pakistan’s involvement in the intra-Afghan peace talks “does not necessarily mean that Pakistan will be helpful; on the other hand, Pakistan can spoil the peace process if it decided to.”

It is unclear what impact these statements from former Trump administration officials and political analysts can have with regards to the backroom stance of the US towards Pakistan. In official statements and communiques, the US indicates that they are aligned with Pakistan and the Afghan government, while surrogates such as McMaster threaten Pakistan’s existence on the international stage.

Pakistan’s role is significant for Afghan peace talks, and the US has realised this despite many reservations. Pakistan has always maintained that no military solution to the Afghan conflict is possible and has repeatedly encouraged all parties to reach a political solution through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. It is yet to be seen if Pakistan will seize this opportunity of rapprochement with the US and Afghanistan.

In 2018, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, had called the struggle for peace efforts a “…controlled experiment” – two years later, we are in a position where all concerned groups are willing and serious to take this to the next level.

Although about Afghanistan, these peace talks are as important, if not more, to Pakistan. This may represent Pakistan’s last best chance to assert itself as both an independent broker in the region and as the prime US ally in South Asia.

The writer is Project Pakistan founder, and Correspondent Deutsche Welle (DWUrdu)

Afghan peace process: A game of second chances?