Wishing for peace: Afghan leadership adjusting to reality?

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Iqbal Khan

DR Abdullah Abdullah visited Pakistan for three days, it was his first visit to Pakistan in 12 years, earlier he had declined many invitations on clumsy grounds, ostensibly to appease India. Now as India is also showing overtures towards Taliban, likes of Abdullah hardly had any other option than to reconcile with the centrality of Pakistan’s role towards peace in Afghanistan. Yet, as old habits die hard, Abdullah was still stuck with some of dated phrases. While Abdullah was still in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was mollycoddling him for steering the intra-Afghan talks in the right direction, American chief negotiator Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad rushed to Doha to re-rail stalled intra-Afghan talks.
As President Donald Trump remained persistent in pulling out foreign occupation troops from Afghanistan leading to the US-Taliban Agreement signed on February 29, the centre of gravity of influence yielding politico-military power has quietly shifted from the US and its camp followers to Taliban. Seeing the writing on the wall, the likes of President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghan High Peace Council for National Reconciliation, are struggling to remain relevant. Abdullah’s visit came at a crucial time for Afghanistan as government and Taliban negotiators sit across the table in Doha “to plot a future course.” Abdullah oversees the government side in these negotiations. According to Ashraf Ghani: “Afghans and their international partners have paid the costs. Now we’re taking a risk for peace”.
Prime Minter Imran Khan in his September 26 Op-ed for Washington Post captioned: “Peace is within reach in Afghanistan, A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise”, wrote: “With the exception of the resilient Afghans themselves, no people have paid a higher price for the conflict in Afghanistan than the people of Pakistan”. Washington and Kabul have time and again commended Pakistan for its role in getting the Taliban to the peace table, first in direct talks with the United States, which resulted in an agreement that led to ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations.
Kathy Gannon summarized Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s visit to Pakistan for Associated Press in her piece “Envoy pushes Pakistan to press Taliban to lessen violence”. Quoting Abdullah’s interview on September 30, she is of the view that “Abdullah ended a three-day visit to Pakistan optimistic, the uneasy neighbours have turned a corner away from a relationship marked by suspicion and downright hostility toward one akin to a partnership for peace in the region”. Abdullah said he asked Pakistan’s powerful military to use its influence to press the Taliban into a reduction of violence, which could be seen as a first indication the two neighbours share the same goal of peace. Abdullah said he has asked not just Pakistan, but Washington and every other country that has a voice at the Afghan table, to press for a reduction of violence with the Taliban. “It’s in their best interest of peace to encourage the Taliban (but) if cease-fire today, for example, is too heavy a word for the Taliban let us talk together to find what can we do so that people see that there are changes in the security environment,” Abdullah added. Abdullah said he was encouraged by the tone of conversations in Pakistan.
In his meetings with Abdullah, Prime Minister Imran Khan clearly wished a peaceful end to Afghanistan’s unyielding conflict through a reduction in violence by all sides in the conflict. Prime Minter Imran Khan in his September 26 Op-ed for Washington Post captioned: “Peace is within reach in Afghanistan, A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise”, wrote, excerpts: “We have arrived at a rare moment of hope for Afghanistan and for our region. On Sept. 12, delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban finally sat down in Doha, Qatar, to begin negotiations toward a political settlement that would bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. With the exception of the resilient Afghans themselves, no people have paid a higher price for the conflict in Afghanistan than the people of Pakistan”.
Speaking at an Islamabad think tank, alongside Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Dr Abdullah Abdullah said “Pakistan has played an important role in the Afghan peace process and I thank you for that as I look forward to a joint peaceful future for our region. I am a firm believer of going beyond rhetoric and conspiracies. We need fresh approaches toward peace.” He went on to say that “using patience, compromise, dialogue and sacrifices made over the past 19 years, Afghanistan wishes for sustainable peace”. Abdullah asked Pakistan “to send the right message to all sides but mainly to the Taliban that this is the right time to make genuine efforts for achieving peace, to ‘be flexible’ be ready, be determined (and) know that there is no other way. … This will be the right thing at this stage.” One wonders how this runaway leadership of Afghanistan continues to speak a victor’s language
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi assured Pakistan’s complete support to the Afghan peace process. “Pakistan respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan,” he said, adding that Pakistan has no favourites and it does not want to meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. He emphasised the need for greater collaboration between the two countries in different fields to build a common future. The talks at the Foreign Ministry focused on intra-Afghan dialogue, the peace process and bilateral relationship, said Dr Abdullah in a tweet after the meeting. The Foreign Minister said that Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s visit will greatly help in forging a common understanding on the Afghan peace process. He commended Dr Abdullah for steering the peace negotiations to a successful outcome.
Pakistan attaches a lot of importance to its relations with Afghanistan. Recently, at the request of the Afghanistan government, Pakistan opened five border crossing-points to facilitate the transit trade, bilateral trade and pedestrian movement. Pakistan has also extended $1 billion development and capacity-building assistance to support the reconstruction and economic development in Afghanistan. Pakistan supports a peaceful, stable, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. It is important that mistakes of the past should not be repeated; nor past history should dictate the future course of action. There is a need to guard against the detrimental role of ‘spoilers’, both within and outside Afghanistan, who do not wish to see return of peace in the region. Pakistan has always maintained that there was no military solution to the Afghan conflict and encouraged all parties to reach a political solution through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process. With the commencement of intra-Afghan talks, it is now, largely, up to the Afghan leadership to seize this historic opportunity to bring an end to the decades’ long conflict and secure an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement. Abdullah’s visit amidst the backdrop of on-going intra-Afghan talks was the first high-level visit from Afghanistan in several months, highlighting increased interaction between the two neighbours.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.