By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, Weekly Pulse Magazine, September 02, 2013
From Fall 2012 to Spring 2013, Afghanistan and Pakistan appeared to be on the same page: In November, a delegation of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) visited Islamabad to share a comprehensive peace plan, and Pakistan corresponded with the release of some 26 Afghan Taliban prisoners. Then, in February, presidents of the two countries joined hands at a British-sponsored tri-partite platform, taking the debut step as proposed in this plan: that of calling upon the Afghan Taliban leadership to hold talks with members of the HPC.
However, this important but brief phase of cordiality soon gave way to traditionally sordid mode of relationship: in the months that followed, including couple of months of the Sharif regime in Islamabad, the Afghan side opted for the familiar theme of accusing Pakistan of sabotaging the prospects of peace in Afghanistan by not meeting due expectations of Karzai government in this regard. Its criticism got harsher in June upon the opening of Taliban office in Doha, and Pakistan was in particular blamed for using Afghan Taliban proxies to expand its undue influence over Afghanistan.
This was despite the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif soon after resuming power clarified the foreign policy priorities of his government in a directive to all of Pakistan’s foreign missions abroad. The thrust of this document was on securing regional peace and stability by building upon convergences and overcoming divergences in the country’s two important relationships across the frontiers: Afghanistan and India. Overlooking the conflict-prone stance of the Karzai regime, Prime Minister Sharif dispatched his national security policy advisor Sartaj Aziz to Kabul in July, extending an official invitation to the Afghan leader to visit Islamabad.
Seen in this brief backdrop, President Karzai’s August 26-27 visit to Islamabad is of considerable significance. For it took place after months of renewed tensions in relations between the two countries. In July, the Afghan leader had only reluctantly accepted the invitation, while his spokesman had made the visit conditional upon Pakistan’s prior commitment towards Taliban-HPC dialogue.
During the first day of his visit, President Karzai reiterated the same demand, urging Pakistan to provide “opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council” and the Afghan Taliban. In his brief address, the Afghan leader pinned “great hopes” on Prime Minister Sharif for facilitating the Afghan peace process. On Mr Sharif’s insistence, President Karzai extended his visit for another day, when the two leaders met again in Murree and were joined by Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani.
Pakistan has long desired to facilitate an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process, a discourse that has gained momentum in the last couple of years. Since early last year, a clear shift in Pakistan’s traditionally Afghan Taliban-prone policy has been visible, whereby the leadership of the former PPP-led regime has attempted to cultivate non-Pashtun Afghan leaders, especially from the erstwhile Northern Alliance. The Sharif regime has continued with the same approach, while pledging to use its good offices to facilitate intra-Afghan talks.
Pakistan does have clout over the Afghan Taliban leadership, which has reportedly lived in exile since losing power in Kabul in 2001. However, for the sake of stability in Afghanistan and in line with radically changed post-9/11 political landscape in the war-torn nation, it now considers the realization of an inclusive Afghan setup after NATO’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in December 2014 extremely crucial. This is for the simple reason that the return to Taliban to power in Kabul will only fuel its own Taliban movement in Afghan border regions.
For Prime Minister Sharif, this was the first-ever direct interaction with the Afghan leader, who has been at the helm of Afghan affairs ever since the fall of the Taliban. He was the first Pakistani elected leader to facilitate peace in Afghanistan, after the downfall of Dr Najibullah regime in 1992, which explains why the Afghan leader pins “great hopes” on him insofar as Pakistan’s traditional role as a facilitator of Afghan peace is concerned—something that the Afghan leadership, and the rest of the stakeholders of Afghan peace, now expect it to play.
During his second tenure in office, Prime Minister Sharif had no choice but to deal with the Taliban regime, which had by then gained control over 90 per cent of Afghanistan. However, even then, the priority of the Sharif regime was to somehow secure a pipeline agreement with Kabul so that Pakistan could benefit from natural gas supply from Turkmenistan.
This time again, as clear from Sharif-Karzai parleys, Islamabad seems to see a direct link between amity in relations with Afghanistan, and peace there, on the one hand, and peace in Pakistan and stability in the region, on the other. This is clear from Prime Minister Sharif’s remarks on the occasion, underscoring the need for the two countries to “work closely to bring peace in the region” for the simple reason that “Pakistan’s security and future prosperity was linked to Afghanistan in multiple ways”.
The longer-run vision that the Sharif regime has for the region necessitates rapid progress in two peace processes, one with Afghanistan or within Afghanistan through peaceful dialogue among different ethno-religious Afghan groups, and another with India, especially in the domain of trade and investment. Accordingly, Afghanistan and Pakistan could become important corridors of trade and energy between Central and South Asia.
Peace in Afghanistan hinges significantly on progress in Indo-Pak peace process, which explains why Mr. Sharif had indicated it to be his government’s top most priority. Unfortunately, recent weeks have seen the situation across the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region worsening by the day. Consequently, the almost daily exchange of fire and the casualties of troops on both sides resulting in the process threaten to sabotage a ceasefire that, since 2003, has survived major terrorist incidents such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
India and Pakistan have during this period engaged in a blame game—with the Indian side, especially the opposition BJP, seemingly more jingoistic in its approach towards the latest round of tension over Kashmir, stately for electoral reasons. Interestingly, while electoral considerations in India’s case have emerged as a destabilizing factor in Indo-Pak relations; the same factor in Karzai’s case appears to be behind Kabul’s current quest for rapprochement with Pakistan.
The Afghan leader expects Pakistan to use its clout over the Afghan Taliban and persuade their leadership to have fruitful dialogue with the HPC. Mr. Karzai wants to secure a legendary role for himself, as a leader to won peace for the Afghans after a long war. His pragmatic ambition is to put in place pliable leadership in power through April 2014 presidential elections, which he cannot contest. A peace deal prior to that will help him realize such long-run desire and short-term ambition.
Pakistan’s pragmatic ambition in Afghanistan is also to facilitate a peace settlement that should be viable enough to sustain itself credibly beyond the withdrawal of NATO forces in December 2014. However, its means for the purpose may not necessarily conform to the plan that President Karzai has in mind. Pakistan would like the Afghan Taliban to talk to every other Afghan group, whether it is represented duly in HPC or not, which means even the factions who are opposed to the Karzai regime.
As for the Sharif regime’s long-term desire of linking Central Asia with South Asia—with Pakistan, friendly towards both India and Afghanistan, assuming the role of an important trade and energy corridor—this eventuality can be realized, disregarding the fact who occupies the seat of power in Kabul in early next year. The same holds true in the case of Pakistan’s ties with India, which will go to polls around the same time. However, amid many uncertainties in the months ahead, the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are once again on the same page augurs well, at least for now.