Can dialogue defuse distrust?

In the wake of the latest Heart of Asia conference held in Pakistan, Rahimullah Yusufzai considers the prospects for peace and security in the region, and for improved relations between three of its  key players.

The recent Heart of Asia Conference—Istanbul Process held in Islamabad afforded a rare opportunity for Afghanistan, India and Pakistan to discuss their disputes on the sidelines of the event and try to improve their uncertain relations.

The conference focused on Afghanistan and was the fifth of its kind, with the inaugural event held in Istanbul in 2011.  It aimed at pooling efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, assist it in its reconstruction efforts and help its economy through greater regional connectivity.

However, far more interesting happenings, in the context of relations between Islamabad, Kabul and New Delhi, took place on the sidelines during the two-day conference on December 8-9. The event served as a useful platform for Pakistan to achieve a breakthrough in resuming its stalled dialogue with both Afghanistan and India on a host of contentious issues.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj agreed to come to Islamabad after much uncertainty due to the unfriendly nature of their countries’ relations with Pakistan. Ghani explained his participation before embarking on the trip by telling a media event in Kabul that the Heart of Asia conference concerned Afghanistan rather than Pakistan. Swaraj, too, pointed out that she had come to Pakistan for the sake of Afghanistan.

However, it is also true that Ghani’s absence would have harmed Afghanistan’s cause and India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s well-being would have been questioned if Swaraj had stayed away from a conference dedicated to the conflict-torn country. In fact, Ghani and  Swaraj’s participation enhanced its importance.

Nevertheless, the distrust between Islamabad and Kabul, and Islamabad and New Delhi, remains too wide to be overcome in one or two sittings between their officials. The ground for India and Pakistan to resume bilateral dialogue was prepared as a result of the brief chat between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Climate Change conference in Paris, and the subsequent meeting of the Indian and Pakistan national security advisors and foreign secretaries. As for Ghani’s decision to mend fences with Pakistan, President Barack Obama played a role by asking Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The rising violence in Afghanistan due to Taliban attacks also pushed Ghani to make another attempt at reconciliation with the Taliban.

Two key factors will determine the improvement in relations. Regarding the Islamabad-Kabul relationship, much will depend on the outcome of Pakistan’s renewed efforts to arrange successful peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. For Islamabad and New Delhi to overcome their mutual mistrust, the trial of the seven suspects in the November 2008 Mumbai carnage would have to be expeditiously brought to a close so that justice is done. Though Kabul and New Delhi would have to do their bit to improve relations with Islamabad, the main onus for moving forward on both peace fronts is on Pakistan.

Preparations are being made for Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar to undertake a visit to Afghanistan in the coming days to hold crucial talks with President Ghani, his National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar and the Afghan army commanders on restarting the reconciliation process involving the Taliban. The visit could take place by the last week of December 2015 if the Afghan authorities give the go-ahead. The modalities of the revived peace talks between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban would be worked out during the visit. Pakistani authorities are in touch with the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, particularly Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, who is head of the mainstream Taliban faction, to persuade it to agree to the peace talks. The Taliban haven’t said anything about their participation, but privately they admit that Pakistan is bringing them under pressure to join                                      the negotiations.

The representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban last met on July 7 in the Pakistani hill-station of Murree, near Islamabad, but the second round of talks, scheduled for July 31, couldn’t be held due to the unexpected revelation that Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar had died more than two years earlier in April 2013. The Taliban leadership had kept the news secret due to its justified concern that this could trigger a battle of succession and cause differences in Taliban ranks. This is how it turned out to be in the absence of a strong leader like Mulla Omar, as the hitherto disciplined Taliban movement split into two factions and even began fighting each other in Herat and Zabul provinces. The bigger and mainstream group is headed by Mulla Omar’s longtime deputy Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, while the splinter faction is led by Mulla Mohammad Rasool. The Rasool faction was at the receiving end in the internecine fighting as it lost its two top military commanders, Mansoor Dadullah—who was also its deputy leader—and his elder brother Maula Dad, alias Haji Lala. A ceasefire has now been reached due to mediation by pro-Taliban clerics and tribal elders, but the damage has been done as the deaths of scores of fighters on both sides has resulted in blood-feuds that could cause more bloodshed and are difficult to resolve.

The fragmentation of the Taliban has complicated the situation and made the success of peace talks uncertain. The Afghan government, too, appears divided on holding unconditional peace talks with the Taliban and giving Pakistan the leading role of facilitator and guarantor of the process.

The recent resignation of General Rahmatullah Nabil, head of the Afghan intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security (NDS), due to differences with President Ghani, showed that many Afghans, including those who are part of the unity government in Kabul, were uncomfortable with the idea of holding peace talks with the Taliban through the good offices of Pakistan. The strongly-worded criticism of President Ghani by Nabil in his resignation letter and his postings on Facebook explained the divergence of views among the Afghan ruling elite with regard to the reconciliation process. Nabil, appointed head of the NDS by President Hamid Karzai five years ago, publicly criticised President Ghani for undertaking the visit to Pakistan and trusting it in the hope of using its influence over the Taliban to end the Afghan conflict. Like Karzai, Nabil was of the view that Pakistan cannot be trusted as it was using the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan for its own interests.

While Pakistan was expending its energy on the foreign policy front and offering its services to help end the conflict in Afghanistan, it faced a new wave of terrorist attacks in different parts of the country. The biggest was a bomb explosion in Parachinar, headquarters of Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, which killed 25 people at a market and injured more than 70 others. The attack was sectarian in nature; almost all those killed were Shias and responsibility was claimed by the anti-Shia militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (L-e-J). Bomb blasts and targeted killings also took place in Peshawar, Charsadda, Quetta and Karachi as the relative peace of recent months was shattered by militants.

This rise in acts of terrorism happened just before the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 147 people, including 122 schoolchildren, were brutally killed by six suicide bombers on December 16, 2014.  A major event that brought together the country’s civil and military leadership, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army chief General Raheel Sharif, was held at the renovated school on December 16, 2015 and those martyred and wounded were honoured and generously rewarded with gallantry medals and cash compensation. It was noted by the speakers, who included the prime minister and the school students, that the bloodshed of these young children had pushed Pakistan’s ruling and opposition politicians, military leaders and civil society to adopt a united stand against terrorism and take extraordinary measures to defeat the terrorists.

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