Hope clouded in shades of despondency – Raoof Hasan

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We are transiting through critical times laced with ardent hope for peace to return to Afghanistan and the region. Simultaneously, there is lurking fear of more violence in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the US and Nato forces from the country.

It is in such times that sane and pragmatic voices should speak with an open, dispassionate and candid mind to set forth their take on the ongoing developments and how best to address the challenges.

The gathering of a galaxy of politicians, diplomats and former ambassadors, parliamentarians, social activists, writers, economists, clerics and peace negotiators from Afghanistan, Doha and Pakistan on a track-II platform in Islamabad provided a rare and enlightening glimpse into their minds regarding how they read the situation that currently prevails and how it is likely to unfold in the days, weeks and months to come. I was privileged to be one among them.

Let me assert at the outset that there is undying hope that peace will ultimately be realised as, indeed, it should be. But the parleys factored in multiple core realities, cultivating several hypotheses, each different in substance and appraisal from the others.

For the Afghans, the dream of peace is laced with intense pain stretching back to more than four decades of war which has taken away countless lives and put the country back by years. That is why there is near desperation to work out a tangible basis for all stakeholders to come together and facilitate the advent of the cherished dream. But that is where the ingredient of hope almost ends, giving way to a flurry of scenarios, each laden with the fear of continuing violence. The enactments make for a near despondent outlook.

The discussions took place under the umbrella theme of ‘Stepping into the future – Peace, partnership, progress’ with the four working sessions covering a vast range of sub-themes encompassing ‘The dynamics of peace process – Hopes and impediments’; ‘The centrality of women’s role in the future of Afghanistan – Inclusivity for societal growth and sustainability’; ‘Post-withdrawal paradigm – Forging economic partnerships for sustainable progress’; and ‘Parliamentary cooperation – Strengthening democracy and cementing bilateral relations’.

The delegates came from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Doha. The participants from Doha comprised four women who are all part of the Afghan government delegation which is negotiating with the Taliban: Fawzia Koofi, Fatema Gailani, Habiba Sorabi and Sharifa Zurmati. Women from Pakistan included parliamentarians Hina Rabbani Khar, Shandana Gulzar Khan, Nafisa Khattak, Andleeb Abbas and former ambassadors Fauzia Nasreen, Tasnim Aslam and Riffat Masood while women delegates from Afghanistan were Hassina Syed, Hasiba Efat and Sahraa Karimi. Together with their male colleagues, they had a fascinating exchange of ideas, hopes and fears which transcend the conflicting emotions of a yearning for sustainable peace and the horror of continuing violence in Afghanistan that may extend to the larger region.

It may be difficult to go over the entire maze of ideas, but the dominant factor was the need to set matters right with Pakistan. Keeping the past in mind, there are still apprehensions which continue to cultivate a lack of trust, but there is also an urge to remedy that in the shortest possible time. This is built around the core faith that the two neighbourly countries need to work together for the cause of peace both within their respective precincts as well as the larger region to facilitate the evolving of mutually conducive business and trade relations.

In his inaugural address, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi set the tone and tenor of the dialogue. He was candid, forthright and pragmatic both in his critique as well as appraisal of the bilateral relations. He spelt out the broad contours for a future partnership which could be built between the two countries.

He warned that Pakistan will not take responsibility for any deterioration in the Afghan peace process: “It is a shared responsibility and Pakistan should not be blamed for things going wrong in Afghanistan. We have been accused enough. We will not take any further responsibility”. He advised the Afghans to find a leadership which can negotiate a successful deal to transit the country to peace and which is not worried about perpetuating and hanging on to power. It is time to move on.

He stated that there will be no ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistan: “We have no favourites. We are no advocates of the Taliban. We don’t represent them. [The] Taliban are Afghans. That is where they belong”. Urging the Afghan leadership and the Taliban to show flexibility, he warned that time was running out. He recalled that Prime Minister Imran Khan was the first leader who had warned years ago that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. He was dubbed “Taliban Khan” for taking a stand which is today the unified stance of the whole world: “There is an international convergence on dialogue since the world has seen that the most sophisticated armies, weaponry and technology could not bring peace to Afghanistan”.

Stressing on the key role that women could play he said that “the Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 20 years ago. It has moved on. The role of women is now irreversible”.

Most of these statements found broad resonance among the delegates from both sides who felt reassured about the clarity of Pakistan’s role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. They also agreed that time was of the essence as foreign troops would be gone by July 4. It is, therefore, vitally important that the broad contours of a peace deal are agreed upon before that as, otherwise, Afghanistan is likely to be consumed by a horrific spiral of violence and bloodshed. For this purpose, it would also be important to identify the spoilers and defang them.

Peace in Afghanistan hangs by a tenuous thread. It is up to the Afghan leadership across the divide to choose between banishing the demons of war and plunging into fratricide. In the event of the latter, not only Afghanistan, but the whole region may have to bear its ugly consequences. The foreign minister stated unequivocally that Pakistan will not interfere in Afghan affairs, but will support all initiatives directed towards forging peace among the warring factions in the conflict-ravaged country: “We will not dictate. We will not interfere. We will only play a supporting role for the cause of peace in Afghanistan”. This should be a reassuring factor for the Afghan stakeholders, and a motivator for surging ahead.

Like I said earlier, hope for peace remains clouded in shades of despondency.

The writer is the special assistant to the PM on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.

Twitter: @RaoofHasan