LAST week I had identified some steps that Pakistan had taken to promote reconciliation in Afghanistan.
I had suggested that there were further measures that Pakistan should also take, urgently, since no other country has as much of an interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Pakistan would have to bear the brunt of the fallout of the turbulence that would, absent reconciliation, engulf Afghanistan following the completion of the Nato/Isaf withdrawal in 2014.
One of the steps I had intended suggesting was a genuine effort to convince the world that the era of ambivalence in Pakistan’s policy was over. We had stated repeatedly in recent months that we supported an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation. This was greeted with scepticism. It was assumed that we were not prepared to walk the walk.
A recent military-organised visit by Reuters correspondents to South Waziristan appeared designed to allay such suspicions and to emphasise that the field commanders to whom the correspondents were given access were acutely aware that such a ‘walking the walk’ was essential for Pakistan’s own security and that this is what the Pakistan Army wanted.
One commander was quoted as saying that “Pakistan has the power to create the environment in which a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan can take place … we have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible”. Another claimed that at a Dec 7 meeting in GHQ, Gen Kayani had said that Afghan reconciliation was “our top priority”. A third commander, speaking of the insurgents in the area provided the rationale saying, “After 2014, when the US leaves, what will these guys do? You think they’ll suddenly become traders and responsible citizens of society? We have to make sure of a post-2014 framework that can accommodate these elements. There is no other way.”
The Reuters report, carried by some of our papers, also quoted Western diplomats and Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, as recognising that Pakistan’s policy had changed.
Clearly this is a good development. It has had its costs. We should be in no doubt that the recent increase in Taliban attacks, including the most recent tragedy of the killing of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa senior minister, Bashir Bilour, has been triggered in part by the prospect of Pakistan-supported reconciliation in Afghanistan and the loss of leverage this would mean for the section of the Afghan Taliban operating in Pakistan.
Pakistan nevertheless has to persevere. The contacts that Foreign Minister Khar has established with the members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance must be further consolidated. We must seek assurances as far as they are available that these political leaders will be on board for the blueprint that the Afghan High Peace Council shared with us. We must also work on encouraging further contacts — even though many already exist between this far from united group and the Taliban.
There are reports that the Afghan government has said that it wants to talk to the Haqqani network. We must do what we can to encourage such a step with the full realisation that even while the Haqqanis pledge loyalty to the Taliban they will want to ensure that any peace settlement allows them to retain their influence in the Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan. For ourselves, we must seek assurances that the Haqqanis will abandon the positions they now occupy in our tribal areas.
We must also consider seriously the Afghan demand for the release of Abdul Ghani Baradar. Admittedly the revelation of his secret meeting with the Afghan ambassador brought no joy to the Karzai administration and instead had the effect of increasing the threat to Baradar’s life from Taliban hardliners. If, however, Baradar has influence with mid-level Taliban commanders, and many in Kabul believe he does, and if the influence of hardliners is declining in the Taliban shura, his active participation in negotiations may well tip the scales in favour of a speedy reconciliation along the lines of the blueprint.
Pakistan’s permission or facilitation was not required for the Qatar-based Taliban representatives, Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak, to participate in the intra-Afghan dialogue hosted in Chantilly by a French think tank last week. But one can assume that our people encouraged it and helped to quell the misgivings of the opponents of such talks.
Given the importance of the Afghan issue for Pakistan it is surprising that no Pakistani correspondent was sent out to cover this meeting or to interview the participants. One has to rely therefore on the coverage in the western and Afghan media of this meeting and particularly of what Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak said.
The full transcript of their remarks has not yet become available but according to the reports they repeated what Mullah Omar had said earlier — about not seeking an exclusive right to power and wanting instead “an all-Afghan, inclusive government”. They offered a general amnesty to those who had fought against them, seemed to accept that the present Afghanistan National Security Forces should continue as should the many new Afghan institutions created under Nato tutelage.
They did denounce the present Afghan constitution as something imposed and proposed that a new constitution be drawn up based on “Islamic principles, national interests, social justice and historical gains”, which would “guarantee, without prejudice, equal rights for all ethnic groups”. This seemed to ignore the provisions of the present constitution which requires that Islamic principles be the basis for all laws and which provides for equal rights for all ethnic groups. This would suggest that some things were being said more for appearance’s sake and as opening gambits in the negotiation process rather than as immutable demands.
Many of good faith in Afghanistan are sceptical. Many who profit from instability will reinforce these doubts. I am, however, convinced that the Taliban realise that there has to be a negotiated settlement in which they will enjoy only a share of power and that the Chantilly conference was a step in that direction which we must find ways to support.
The situation within Afghanistan is of course going to be a key factor and one must acknowledge that on that score things are not going well.
President Hamid Karzai remains at loggerheads with the loyal opposition with respect to the election laws and perhaps as significantly on the law he is proposing with regard to who would be eligible to contest the presidential election.
While it may appear foolish to suggest that distrusted Pakistan should try and help work out a compromise, it may become necessary for us to attempt it or persuade others to do so if reconciliation is to be achieved quickly.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.