Afghanistan: Peace processes picking pace

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Iqbal Khan
IN an interesting development, the four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) has come into action, yet once again. The QCG members—Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States— have met in Oman, and discussed ways and means of reviving direct peace talks between Afghan government and Afghan Taliban. Group has been trying to pave the way for such talks, though with little success. Every time the prospects of such talks became bright, the process came to a halt, once due to outbreak of news about death of Mullah Omar and later due to killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack by the US. Then on, Taliban showed little faith in the process. During the latest round Afghanistan was represented by High Peace Council (HPC) and government representatives in anticipation of attendance by the Taliban delegates.
Revival of QCG process indicates that despite the ongoing rhetoric at public level, undue high heat in the US-Pakistan relations has vented off through safety valves, without causing a serious rupture. As China is part of QCG, America’s recent anti-CPEC stand will also tone down in due course. By now it is amply clear that India is not deploying any troops in Afghanistan. Moreover, addition of few thousand foreign troops is not likely to tip the strategic balance in America’s favour. With no additional dynamics factoring in, President Trump may be all set to quietly adopt major action points of his predecessor’s Afghan policy.
While refusing to do as a scapegoat for collective failure of international community in Afghanistan, Pakistan has reiterated its support for making serious efforts for negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban for achieving lasting peace. In keeping with his chaotic style, while churning out its untenable wish list about Afghanistan in August, Trump may have not anticipated that Pakistan would dig its heels; and that if it did so, the US would not have much of leverage over Pakistan. It is America that critically depends on Pakistan for sustainability of its military operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan does not have much to lose in case of further American squeeze.
It was felt during the meeting that there is need for serious efforts for a negotiated settlement between Afghan government and the Taliban for achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan. And conditions conducive to respectful return of Afghan refugees are also essential for sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Needless to say that only a stable Afghan government could lead towards combating the challenges of drug production and human trafficking.
Members of SCO Contact Group pondered over ways and means “to support peace and stability in Afghanistan through facilitating Afghan-led peace process, assisting the Afghan government in dealing with security and counter-terrorism challenges and promoting regional economic integration and connectivity”. They unanimously supported measures for strengthening interaction between Afghanistan and the SCO countries, and “welcomed Chinese proposal for hosting the next meeting of the SCO Contact Group on Afghanistan in Beijing in early 2018”.
In the meanwhile, President Trump plans to dispatch his top diplomatic and military advisers to Pakistan in the coming weeks. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to depart for Pakistan late this month. He will be followed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Pakistan’s foreign and interior ministers have already been to the US. The two-two punch is desperately exploring the likely way ahead through the trash thrown around by Trump’s potentially implosive Afghanistan policy and self-destruct button embedded South Asia policy. American ministerial visits are likely to focus at damage control in the wake of Trump’s policy while radiating the impression that visits are designed to drill home Trump’s tough message that the alleged Pakistani state support for militant groups has to end. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump had said in an August address. Independent American analysts opine that Taliban control nearly 65 percent of Afghan territory, it makes one wonder about Taliban’s necessity to have sanctuaries in Pakistan.
US Defence Secretary Mattis recently told Congress, about his upcoming visit to Pakistan, that he will try “one more time” to “see if we can make this work.” “To this point, we have not seen any impact on military-to-military relations,” said one Pentagon official, suggesting any change would not happen after Mattis’s visit. While touring Washington, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif appeared unwavering. He lashed out at “hollow allegations” about Pakistan harbouring terrorists as “not acceptable”. “That is not the way you talk to 70-year-old friends,” Asif said bitterly. “Instead of accusations and threats we should cooperate with each other for peace in the region,” he added.
Earlier, in September, a meeting in New York on UNGA sidelines between Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was reported as cordial. “It was a very good meeting with the vice president,” said Asif. And after that, Pakistani side was surprised at a tougher tone, outlined in public by Mattis and in private by National Security Advisor HR McMaster. American policymakers have also considered revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, but found that it would cause only symbolic set back but limited practical impact. Whether Trump likes it or not, Pakistan remains vital for the United States as a route to supply American and Afghan war effort.
In a related development, President Ghani is likely to visit Pakistan in near future. He was invited by Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa during his recent meeting with the Afghan leader in Kabul. President Ghani had declared the meeting as a beginning of “new season of relationships”. He may have realized that blaming Pakistan for security failures in Afghanistan is unhelpful and offensive to the people of Pakistan, if so it is a good omen. Pakistan shares international community’s concerns about instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan is ready to work with every one and any one as a partner for achieving peace and security in the region. However, arm twisting and bad mouthing will not lead any party anywhere.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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