Pakistan has played a pivotal role in facilitating the US-Taliban peace deal while promoting intra-Afghan dialogue to end the devastating war in Afghanistan. Yet Kabul continues to look askance at Islamabad’s role and intentions despite this country having taken several initiatives towards engagement to improve bilateral ties; while offering reassurances that it is not playing favorites and sincerely wants peace in Afghanistan.
Last week, COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Kabul for separate talks with President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan (HCNR) Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The Army chief reiterated that a peaceful Afghanistan means a peaceful region in general and a peaceful Pakistan in particular, saying: “We will always support an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan owned’ peace process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders.” He also stressed that a return to Taliban dictatorship was not in Pakistan’s interests. President Ghani thanked him for the meaningful dialogue between the two sides and also appreciated Pakistan’s sincere and positive role in the Afghan peace process.
However, the very next day saw the Afghan president give an interview to German magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ in which said that, given the reduced American role in his country, “[t]he question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands”. Continuing in this vein, Ghani, while responding to a question, called on European allies to contribute to the peace process by actively getting Pakistan on side while floating the idea of sanctions “if the decision goes in a different direction than hoped”.
The day after the COAS visited Afghanistan, President Ghani said that ‘[t]he question of peace or hostility is now in Pakistani hands’. He also floated the idea of sanctions ‘if the decision goes in a different direction than hoped’
From the foregoing, it becomes abundantly clear that the ambience of mistrust still persists. In fact, this is not the first time that Ghani has expressed such sentiments about Pakistan. Following the deal between US and Taliban, for example, Kabul and the Taliban had reached a deadlock on the question of prisoner release. The president pointedly asked when the group would sever links with Pakistan.
At a time when the US has already started pulling out of Afghanistan and there seems no end to violence in the country – despite the resumption of the stalled intra-Afghan dialogue – statements of this kind will do little to help the cause of peace. The withdrawal of US and NATO troops before any agreement is reached between the Afghan stakeholders on the future of their country will likely push Afghanistan back towards factional fighting. Ghani, in his interview, also expressed concern about the possibility of civil war in Afghanistan.
In case the Taliban and Kabul fail to conclude an agreement before the American exit, the burden of ensuring peace will fall to the region, particularly Pakistan. Thus, the Ghani regime must stop doubting Islamabad’s intentions in this regard. After all, who has suffered more than Pakistan in terms of both lives and material lost in the fight against terrorism that emanated from across the western border after the US blitzkrieg? Admittedly, most neighbouring countries, including Russia, China and some Central Asian nations, countries have also been affected by this export of violence. But none to the extent that Pakistan has endured.
Islamabad’s commitment to Afghan peace stems from its unmistakable realisation that this will stabilise home territory, which is crucial to realising its dreams of regional connectivity for shared economic prosperity. So, Pakistan has much to lose if peace fails next door. Its efforts at bilateral and multilateral forums to promote an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution to the conflict bear roaring testimony to this and have been acknowledged by the international community, including the US, as well as the region.
Sources believe that Pakistan put pressure on the Taliban to re-start stalled negotiations with the Afghan government; although the latter were averse to the idea and repeatedly refused to restart the dialogue while stepping up attacks on Afghan security forces. Kabul is surely privy to these developments and the positive role that Pakistan continues to play. The Afghan government and the Taliban have now reached a now-or-never moment when it comes to preventing peace efforts from going down the drain. One wrong move and the country risks returning to perennial instability. The path to success undoubtedly lies in trusting regional countries, but none more so than Pakistan.