There are faint rays of optimism for an eventual solution to Afghanistan’s long-running conflict. Babar Ayaz reports
For the second time, there is a glimmer of hope that peace can be restored in Afghanistan as Pakistan has finally pushed the Afghan Taliban to negotiate directly with the US. Talks between the US Special Representative on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the group’s leaders took place in Abu Dhabi in the UAE on December 18.
The venue was changed from Doha to Abu Dhabi, partlydue toa tense relationship between Qatar and the Gulf States and partly because Pakistan wanted to include the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the talks, since both enjoy good relations with the Taliban, with some of the finances to the Afghan Taliban coming from these two countries.
This was the first time that the US has entered into face-to-face talks with the Haqqani group, despite the fact that they have been declared terrorists by the UN.
Khalilzad referred to the dialogue as ‘productive’. However, no specific time frame for the next round of negotiations was given by either party; nor were or details on what agreements were reached. Both parties spoke about the release of prisoners, with Khalilzad calling for the release of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan who were kidnapped by the Taliban in August 2016. In turn, the Haqqani group asked for the release of Anas Haqqani – a brother of its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani – captured by Afghan intelligence services in 2014.
Perhaps the real test of the talks’ success would be signalled by both sides releasing these captives.In the meantime a more tangible gain was the announcement soon after by President Trump of the withdrawal of 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan, which is almost half the US forces currently stationed there. Seemingly, there is a connection between the Abu Dhabi talks and Trump’s announcement regarding the troops’ withdrawal.
Earlier, Pakistan’s attempt to arrange quadrilateral discussions between the Afghan Taliban, the US, China and Russia had failed because Afghan intelligence leaked the story that Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, had died months ago in a Pakistan hospital, while a fake letter, purportedly from Omar, in favour of the talks was circulated anonymously. This forced the Afghan Taliban to announce the new amir of their movement, Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in May 2016 by an American drone attack in Pakistan after crossing the border from Iran. It was generally believed that Mansour was not in favour of peace talks with the US and that was the reason the American stargeted him.Consequently, the Afghan Taliban selected as their amir Hibatullah Akhundzada, who was running a madrassa in a village in Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Mullah Omar’s death in a Pakistan hospital, his successor Mullah Mansour’s killing in a US drone attack in a border city in Pakistan(and the fact that he was carrying a Pakistani passport on which he had travelled to the UAE several times), and the new leader of the Afghan Taliban presiding over a madrassa in Pakistan all gave credence to accusations by the US and the Afghan government that Pakistan is harbouring leaders of the Afghan Taliban. This was always denied by the Pakistan Foreign Office.
The Pakistani establishment has also refuted the presence of Haqqani group leaders in the tribal areas, knowing full well that Kabul and Washington do not believe these denials.
Whenever the US and the Afghan government insisted that Pakistan should do more to combat militancy, the Pakistani government reduced the whole discussion to the operation against the Pakistani Taliban, maintaining that Pakistan had suffered the killing of 70,000 people in the war against terrorism, including armed forces personnel and innocent civilians. It may be noted that the Pakistan Taliban were initially the creation of our own establishment, which only turned against them when they revolted against their masters and became a Frankenstein’s monster.
We have also been claiming that Pakistan has suffered financial losses of US$123 billion as a result of the war on terror. But the US and the rest of the world were not impressed by the sacrifice Pakistan has made in this civil war because while they were talking about Pakistan giving sanctuary to the AfghanTaliban and Haqqani group, we were talking about a different set of terrorists who are Pakistani by origin and had challenged the writ of the government.
Impressed by the Osama bin Laden doctrine,these terrorist groups believe they must establish an Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan through the barrel of a gun. Thus, it is also wrong when Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly says that we have been fighting other people’s wars in Pakistan. We only fought those who challenged the writ of the Pakistani establishment, so much so that they attacked GHQ and other military installations.
Now, this time around, Pakistan has brought the Afghan Taliban leaders to the negotiating table in Abu Dhabi. It seems that they have really changed the policy of continuing support for the AfghanTaliban and Haqqani group insurgency in Afghanistan and stopped believing that they can install a Taliban-led government in Kabul, asin the 1990s. Besides Pakistan, only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognised the Taliban government at that time.
A significant role in this change of heart has apparently been played by China and Russia, which have also been telling Pakistan to stop relying on non-state actors to further its national security policy.
Another reason for Pakistan’s shift in policy is that Afghanistan has given shelter to Pakistani terrorists who ran away after the operation against them. Afghan intelligence is using the Pakistani Taliban to pressurise the Pakistani establishment to push Pakistan to tame the Afghan Taliban, who have been actively attacking Afghan and US forces’ camps.
Pakistan is also worried about the frequent ceasefire violations by India on the LoC and cannot afford to keep both itseastern and western front shot at the same time.
With clear signs that Khan has the blessing of the military, the Americans seem in no doubt as to who calls the shots on these foreign policy issues. Indeed Khalilzad’s first port of call after the Abu Dhabi talks was a meeting with COAS General Bajwa – not Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.