IN a welcome development, Pakistan and Afghanistan have resumed high-level contacts, radiating a hope for resumption of sustainable working relationship. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Ashgabat on November 26 on the sidelines of the Global Conference on Sustainable Transport. Pakistan has once again stepped up efforts to encourage the Taliban to join the peace process. The Taliban’s Qatar office is now considering a strategy for possible political negotiations. Two leaders reviewed peace prospects. Nawaz Sharif hailed Afghan President’s efforts for peace. “[He] also expressed support to the peace deal between Afghan government and Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan. “Pakistan will continue its serious efforts for facilitating the peace process, including through the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG)”, Nawaz assured Ghani. All sides are converging on the point of view that a politically negotiated settlement is the most viable option for lasting peace in Afghanistan.
The meeting in Ashgabat has assumed importance because of the current tense relationship which has also affected bilateral contacts. Earlier on India’s prompting, Afghanistan had announced to stay away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad. Ashgabat encounter, however, does not mean that all is well on bilateral plane, just a day earlier, Afghanistan had protested against Pakistan’s decision to introduce the flag-lowering ceremony on Chaman, the second major border crossing. Pakistani leadership has clearly told the Taliban negotiators to join the peace process and bring to an end the longest war in Afghanistan. A Taliban delegation from Qatar office comprising Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, Maulvi Salam Hanafi and Jan Muhammad was in Pakistan for two weeks; they held multi-dimensional discussions focused on prospects for peace process.
Russia, China and Pakistan are contemplating a trilateral on Afghanistan in December. This will be another addition, but with a difference, to an already existing multitude of bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and multilateral clusters ostensibly looking for peace in Afghanistan while ensuring, through their cross-purposed actions, that peace does not return to Afghanistan. Common fixture of all existing arrangements is an over bearing American presence in all such entities. And anything that bears an American signature-tune doesn’t sell well amongst the leadership and the rank and file of Taliban—the real holders of politico-military power in Afghanistan. Although there have been indications that Trump is not in favour of peace talks with the Taliban, there is little other public information about Trump’s Afghanistan policy. Trump’s ignorance of the Taliban could feed the “deep state” in Afghanistan—the illicit parallel economy and security architecture run by warlords, drug-lords, and the Taliban.
America’s leadership role in general, or its abdication of this role in particular, remains pivotal to mitigate, if not end, violent Afghan conflict. America is embroiled in plentiful foreign crises and Afghanistan is certainly not a high priority item.
Efforts in the forms of Troop surges, troop reductions, negotiations, and consultations have all failed to set a direction for resolution of Afghan conflict. October was the deadliest month in the past two years with at least 500 security forces and 700 civilians killed or injured. In November too, major attacks were carried out by the Taliban on Bagram Air Base and the German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban have persistently continued to gain ground, and now control more than one-third of the country. Their capability to carry out attacks in the areas which have traditionally been non-Taliban zones is expanding at a phenomenal pace. Even then, Afghan Taliban had been involved in ‘intense discussions’ on crafting a way forward for the possible resumption of peace negotiations. While following a consensus approach, field commanders have also been taken into confidence. Taliban have welcomed the growing Russian role in the Afghan peace process, in all likelihood, Taliban could accept the guarantee of Russia, China and other countries.
Trump has expressed reluctance to continue spending in Afghanistan, which could negatively impact the crucial influx of funding from outside donors. For example, during the Wales Conference, NATO allies pledged almost $1 billion per year until 2020 for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) while the United States has budgeted $3.45 billion annually for the ANSF. If Trump calls for large spending cuts in Afghanistan, it could undermine allied spending as well. This would have severe consequences with regard to the ANSF and the security apparatus of Afghanistan. At Munich Security Conference in 2015, Afghan President Ghani had said, “Afghanistan is meeting ground of th[e] global ecology [of terrorism].”
Trump’s public scepticism about NATO, specifically his opinion that the United States should be reimbursed for providing protection to NATO allies, could inhibit much needed cooperation. For example, financial disagreements could hamper NATO deployments at major bases in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, which are controlled by Italian and German troops, respectively. NATO countries have played a crucial role in Afghanistan by providing collective security, and isolating these allies would be detrimental to US efforts and interests. Russia will host first-ever trilateral talks involving Pakistan and China next month in an effort to tackle the Afghan conundrum.” This is a watershed moment,” said a senior Pakistani official, who believes the development is part of the realignment taking place in this part of the world. Two of former Presidents, General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari visited Moscow for rapprochement. Putin twice announced a visit to Pakistan; which were unluckily cancelled at the last minute.
But that did not dim the desire for building ties afresh on either side. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also visited Russia and had a meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of SCO summit. Russia has been engaged in a $2 billion Gas Pipeline projects and wishes to come to energy sector and road building. Last month, Pakistan and Russia held their first-ever joint military exercise, which is a landmark development showing gradual improvement in their ties. The three-way talks will discuss how to bring an end to the long running conflict in Afghanistan and prevent groups such as Daesh, from gaining a foothold in the war-torn country.
An interesting peace initiative for Afghanistan could be in the making, if it clicks, new American administration would be more than happy to wash its hands off this open ended ‘wrong war’. Dialogue is only way out of this longest war of contemporary international order; inclusion of Russia and Iran in the process alongside China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Taliban would phenomenally enhance the chances of sustainability of any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. United States should seize the moment and benefit from goodwill between Putin and Trump.
—The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and Strategic Response.