In the new push for creating some sort of a workable peace arrangement in Afghanistan, Pakistan is striving hard to ensure that this does not end up as another failed venture.
The Biden Administration has laid its interests bare by telling the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani that they will have to play ball with the idea that the Taliban are to be included in any successful plan to help Afghanistan transit from bedlam and violence to some measure of stability.
After initial reluctance, Kabul has finally agreed to participate in two Washington-Moscow-backed and all-stake holders endorsed conferences to be held in Russia and Turkey. Pakistan’s burden of responsibility lies in keeping the Taliban positively engaged in the process and somehow ensuring that the ongoing violence is kept in check.
Islamabad has not done badly so far on both the counts considering how limited its diplomatic resources are in effecting change in ground realities where the Taliban have become a force to reckon with — something that the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken has no qualms in acknowledging.
Keeping the momentum going
Pakistan’s policymakers have been shuttling between Islamabad and different world capital to keep the momentum going. They have their work cut out. To begin with, the new Administration’s review of the Afghan policy has disrupted Islamabad’s aims to close the deal that Washington had with the Taliban under which, among other things, the US was to pull out all its troops by May 1.
Even though this was too good to be true even it was agreed upon, the change of Administration in Washington has now made it well-nigh impossible that this deadline will be met. Clearly, a new agreement or understanding has to be developed for a pathway to open up for foreign troops to leave the Afghan land.
This means that much of the work that was done to underwrite the first agreement has to be done all over again. This is painful and time-consuming.
Afghanistan is a melting pot of colliding interests. One man’s honey is another’s poison. To make a potion out of this witches’ brew that everyone can hold up as a drink to peace is a nightmare.
The second challenge is to keep itself above the fray of criticism that it is not doing enough to convince the Taliban that this is their best bet for stabilising the country that has seen too much death and destruction. Pakistan’s policymakers believe that they are the real victims of the “do more” demand that is thrown their way every-time peace moves slip and get derailed.
"Do more mantra"
In background briefings by key policymakers, the one point that repeatedly gets mentioned is the worry that any deadlock that might ensue on account of say obduracy of any of the parties in the conflict will be squarely blamed on Pakistan’s doorstep. “We have had enough of the do more mantra”, said one policymaker deeply involved in the new peace initiative.
An extended part of the same challenge is to keep its vital national security interested balanced with the competing demands from the international community. As the same source explained: “We don’t want to deal with a dangerous vacuum in Afghanistan (created by a hasty withdrawal of the US and international support) and prolonged involvement of the foreign forces (which is a sure way of perpetuating mayhem here).
Ideally, we want to have a peace regime that is sanctioned and supported by world powers and signed on by Afghanistan’s stakeholders — one that is allowed to take root before everyone goes back to their barracks and bury their guns forever.”
But the problem is that we don’t live in an ideal world and there are too many loose ends that can cause rupture in an already fraught situation. The Taliban think that they have an advantage on the ground. Kabul thinks that the Taliban’s advantage does not translate into a full victory and as long as it has the US and other powers on its back, the Taliban will not be able to run a solo show on ground.
The US thinks that the time has come for them to define what matters the most to their interests and that is anything but a prolonged, expensive stay in a war-torn and afflicted country. China and Russia have their own interests in ensuring that more hardline and religion-based resistance is not strengthened in the area because this would jeopardise their core financial and national interests.
The world at large wants to end to the festering trouble because there isn’t enough money floating around to help sustain a state building process in the country.
This summary tells you how different are the timelines and even the basic goals that Afghanistan’s peace managers are pursing at present. These have to be factored in to meet the urgent needs of the people of the country who cannot wait for months for their lives to become normal again.
There is too much violence that has begot more violence for decades ruining two generations of the Afghans. Can the ongoing process produce a result that is acceptable to all and be of solace to the Afghan people? “Difficult”, says a top Pakistani member of the country’s powerful establishment. “But it is not impossible.”
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12