A renewed effort is underway to revive the stalled Afghan peace process and the first step to make it happen was taken when Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif paid a visit to Afghanistan on December 27.
In fact, things started happening on the Afghanistan front at the Heart of Asia conference held in Islamabad on December 8-9. It was at this conference that President Ashraf Ghani, who had reluctantly agreed to visit Pakistan after having bitterly criticised it for being the source of the instability in Afghanistan, accepted Pakistan’s offer to help facilitate the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.
The next move was the visit of the Pakistan Army chief and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar to Afghanistan to discuss the way forward in context of the peace negotiations involving the Taliban. If President Ghani had his way, the visit will have taken place before the Heart of Asia moot so that it could have strengthened his position in Afghanistan in the face of domestic opposition, but Pakistan government resisted the pressure and decided to send General Raheel Sharif to Kabul after the conference.
In Pakistan, some critics objected to the handing over of decision-making on Afghanistan to the military as they felt the elected government should have sent a minister or someone from the foreign ministry along with the Army chief to Kabul. This indeed would have been a prudent move for conveying the message to the Afghan government that Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities were jointly handling the issue and taking decisions.
The impression conveyed by the visit of the Army and ISI chiefs is that the Afghan issue is the exclusive domain of the Pakistani military with insignificant input coming from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s democratically elected government. There is no doubt the military has a major role to play in matters of Pakistan’s Afghan policy as it concerns issues of national security and terrorism, but the absence of a civilian official in the delegation that travelled to Afghanistan would have conveyed once again to the Afghan government that it needed to deal with the Pakistan Army and ISI heads if it wanted to bring the Afghan conflict to an end.
General Raheel Sharif’s visit had a few positive outcomes. One was the decision to set up a hotline between the Afghan and Pakistani director general military operations (DGMOs) to quickly get in touch to tackle issues on or near their joint, 2,500-kilometre long border. The real-time information available to the two sides could be shared to avoid escalation of any disputes on account of cross-border infiltration by the militants or border demarcation issues. The hotline was activated on December 30 and will hopefully be used more often to bridge the acute trust deficit between the two sides. Pakistani officials have in the past complained that decisions made at the highest level with President Ghani haven’t filtered down to the Afghan border authorities and seldom implemented. The Afghan side too would have its complaints and the two DGMOs would be expected to deal with such situations.
A mechanism existed to look into the complaints and allegations by the Afghan and Pakistani side until the end of 2014 when the Nato completed the planned drawdown of its forces from Afghanistan. The tripartite military commission with representation from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US-led Nato command used to meet regularly to take up issues arising on the border and find timely solutions. Intelligence cooperation also existed to a certain extent and officials of their respective spy agencies used to be deployed in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to help increase trust and share knowledge.
Another outcome of the Army chief’s trip to Kabul was to initiate steps to revive the peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. The quadrilateral arrangement already agreed upon during the Heart of Asia conference with representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US would henceforth be fully put into practice to facilitate and monitor the peace talks. It was earlier given the name ‘steering committee’ but it was learnt that China objected to it because, as one Chinese diplomat put it, the ‘steering wheel’ should remain with the Afghans in view of the commonly used phrase that the peace process should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
It is possible the term ‘coordination committee’ could be used to describe the four-country committee in future to oversee the peace talks and also work as guarantors in case an agreement is reached on ceasefire or power-sharing.
The first meeting of the committee will be held on January 16 with the expectation that it would draw a roadmap of the peace process and the tasks the four countries would be assigned to remove the bottlenecks to be encountered on the way. Obviously, Afghanistan and Pakistan would need to do the more significant tasks as the former has to offer something tangible to the Taliban to make them stop fighting while the latter is required to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table and keep them engaged in talking rather than fighting.
Pakistan has also made a commitment that action would be taken against the irreconcilable elements refusing to join the peace process while the reconcilable armed factions would be facilitated. The type of action to be taken and at what stage hasn’t been explained, but it is obvious this would be an extreme step to be taken if all other options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement don’t work.
The division in Taliban ranks has made the situation complicated as the faction that refuses to talk could attract fighters opposed to talking to the Afghan government. One is aware that neither the mainstream Taliban faction led by Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor nor the much smaller headed by Mulla Mohammad Rasool has yet to publicly agree to the peace talks. However, both would eventually come around to talk to Kabul on Pakistan’s persuasion as refusal to do so could make life difficult for the Taliban and Haqqani network leadership present in Pakistan.
The smaller and weaker Taliban faction would easily succumb to Pakistan’s pressure, but its military power is insignificant and therefore of little help to make Afghanistan peaceful. Former mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami too is militarily weak and getting it to talk to Kabul would be managed as it had held talks with the Afghan government and US officials in the past as well.
The real challenge would be to get the Mulla Mansoor faction on board as it is doing almost all the fighting and had occupied districts and even the major city of Kunduz, and is running the Taliban office in Qatar.
There is also growing worry among Pakistani policymakers that further Afghan Taliban victories on the battlefield would negatively affect the Afghan peace process and turn the Afghan government and people against Pakistan. Besides, they believe this would embolden the Pakistani Taliban and bring them closer to the Afghan Taliban.
The peace talks have raised hopes on both sides of the Durand Line border and the inclusion of China and US in the process has ensured that Pakistan alone would not get the blame if the negotiations falter or a deal cannot be implemented. Still making Afghanistan peaceful and stable would remain an uphill task even though such a possibility is in everyone’s interest because shared projects like the $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline could be completed in time to serve as a strong incentive for peace.