The summit earlier this month, hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron for Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, at Chequers, was the third since this trilateral process began in July last year in Kabul. The Kabul meeting was followed by a meeting last September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, when Cameron presented a roadmap to iron out differences between the two neighbours — Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some assessments of the meeting have been sceptical about the progress being made, given the characteristically mercurial behaviour of Karzai, whose main interest is to ensure that his relevance is retained in the run-up to the 2014 withdrawal of most US-Nato forces. There has also been speculation that Cameron is trying to build a conflict resolution legacy around these talks.
Such assessments miss not only whatever has been achieved so far, but also the underlying significance. At one level, it is a manifestation of British pragmatism born out of its colonial experience in South Asia and a bitter, unsuccessful involvement in Afghanistan. While Britain was the first to support the US with its troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, tactically, it has occasionally followed a different tack. In Afghanistan, for instance, British troops negotiated local arrangements with some hostile forces — as was done around Basra in Iraq. Britain had realised much earlier than the Americans the impossibility of subduing the Taliban and the subsequent prospect of chaos and Taliban revival.
Therefore, despite the negative American narrative of Pakistan “must do more” throughout almost all of Obama’s first term, Britain recognised that without Pakistan’s active support, the chances of stability in Afghanistan were extremely dim. The US was forced to draw the same conclusion last year and both countries began trilateral processes, which were mutually supportive but different. The objective of the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue is to further peace and the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan. British mediation primarily focuses on improving relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan as an essential precondition. Both dialogues demonstrate the western narrative on Pakistan shifting from negative to a positive mode. At the Chequers Summit, the results were mixed, though there was some sort of an advancement. On the downside, President Karzai continued to display unnecessary sensitivity on inter-Afghan talks outside Afghanistan. He reluctantly agreed that the Doha Office should be open for talks with the Taliban, though insisting that the Taliban should talk only to the Afghan High Peace Council. The Taliban response that they were willing to talk to all parties should hopefully provide a compromise.
Pakistan, despite not being taken completely into confidence when the Doha proposal was mooted, had gone out of its way to support peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Its Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, made a public appeal to the Taliban, the Afghan High Peace Council visited Pakistan and in line with its request, some 26 key Taliban detainees were released and provided safe passage for entering into talks inside or outside Afghanistan. Again, at Afghanistan’s request, Pakistan agreed to a joint Ulema Conference to take a call on extremism and suicide bombing.
All this was done despite continued foreign support through Afghan territory for dissident forces bent on destabilising Balochistan; and the always inimical National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, sheltering Taliban driven from Swat and now mounting terror attacks into Pakistani border areas.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to be negotiated for signature in 2013, was put on hold by Karzai, linking it to reconciliation.
Pakistan’s three key objectives at Chequers were: To set up mechanisms for border management; the return of more than three million Afghan refugees which, though vital for Pakistan, has never figured in the calculations of the western powers and that of Afghanistan; and closer military-to-military and intelligence-to-intelligence cooperation. With the active participation of the Afghan and Pakistani Chiefs-of-Defence Staff and Intelligence, maximum progress was made on the third issue — that of closer military-to-military and intelligence-to-intelligence cooperation. It was decided to hold working-level meetings monthly, and at a higher level every six months. Moreover, it was also decided that meetings between the chiefs of the army and the heads of intelligence would be held as and when necessary.
On border management and return of refugees, the initial mechanisms are for meetings between the foreign and interior ministers of the two neighbours, with the objectives of drawing up realistic roadmaps and facilitating peace and reconciliation. The commerce ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan would also meet to discuss trade and transit issues.
The prognosis for Afghanistan remains opaque and bleak. After 2014, intensified civil strife is a probability. Those who had assessed earlier that the Taliban would never be able to regain their previous position of dominance are no longer so certain. There is, however, increasing recognition that while the fundamental responsibility for an Afghanistan at peace with itself and with others rests with the Afghans themselves, Pakistan — which has paid so heavy a price for the turmoil in Afghanistan — can make a seminal contribution.
The trilateral initiative notwithstanding, Pakistan — with its long experience of dealing with Afghanistan — must interact directly with its neighbour, in keeping with its national interests and try and resolve all related issues without the involvement of third parties, who have their own agenda and who have failed with their policy of occupation of Afghanistan. This will also be in the sovereign interests of Afghanistan, which has suffered the most through foreign occupation.
Tariq Osman Hyder is a former Pakistani diplomat.