Afghanistan back in focus
Flurry of activities about Afghanistan over the last two weeks have, once again, brought this country under international focus. Former President Asif Zardari led his party delegation to Kabul, Commander United States Forces in Afghanistan General John F Campbell called on Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, President Ashraf Ghani undertook his visit to India; and there was a semblance of contacts between the Kabul government and Taliban in Doha, facilitated by a Canadian entity Pugwash. Officials from the US, China and Pakistan also attended the talks, with Pakistan officially announcing support for the peace talks. It was the third time the Taliban have sat with the representatives of Afghan government, earlier meetings were held in in France and Japan. However have been no formal talks between the two sides; at least there is no such acknowledgement from either side.
Delegation led by former president Zardari was part of outreach programme initiated by President Ashraf Ghani to reach out to Pakistan’s political leadership for consultation and for mobilizing their support for Afghan peace process. There is a bipartisan consensus among the political leadership of Pakistan for contributing towards peace and stability in Afghanistan; and point is home to all that apart from the Afghan people, it is the people of Pakistan who are to gain maximum benefits from a robust and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Zardari Delegation met with the Afghan President and Chief Executive. Leadership discussed bilateral relations, regional situation and the need for enhanced economic cooperation. Terming terrorism as the common enemy of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zaradri called for effective cooperation between the two neighbours. “The current environment requires new decisions. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the whole region face serious threats and these threats need new cooperation,” Dr Abdullah said. Zardari hailed the formation of unity government in Kabul. Welcoming the visit of the opposition leaders to Kabul, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson described the visit as a “good omen,” adding that the government encourages political contacts between the two countries since they promote bilateral ties.
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif discussed Pak-Afghan border coordination and the overall security situation in the region with General Campbell. Border management is the mother of most of the issues regarding Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Pakistan has since long been proposing installation of biometric system on formal crossing points between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bigger side of the issue is informal crossing points. While official crossing points are two, the informal crossings are numerous. Easement rights make the issue still more complicated. While such rights are the entitlement of the people residing within eight kilometers of the Pak-Afghan border, ways and means are not available to ensure that such rights are not misused by other people.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have become relatively better after a regime change in Afghanisan—though the spoilers are at work. As of now, intelligence sharing and coordinated efforts along both sides of the border are high on the agenda of both sides to counter terrorism. In April, Afghan army chief General Sher Muhammad Karimi was the first Afghan army chief to speak as chief guest at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul, where Afghan army cadets also receive training.
Afghan President’s visit to India reaffirmed that the new Afghan government is seriously pursuing its policy of re-balancing with respect to its relations with India and Pakistan, and one sided anti-Pakistan rhetoric of Karzai era may be over, at least for the time being. Ghani has made rapprochement with Pakistan a key policy since being elected as Afghanistan’s president. Despite facing criticism at home for his efforts, he defended this policy while addressing an audience in New York during his visit to the United States. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ve begun a process of fundamental transformation,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in response to a question about Afghan-Pakistani ties. On its part, Pakistan has made continuous efforts for facilitation of intra-Afghan peace process and smooth transit trade with Afghanistan. Effort is also being made for development of Web Based One Customs System which would help in bringing transparency in the system and enable the Afghan importers and Customs authorities in both countries to trace the cargo en-route to Afghanistan. “Pakistan wants to expect Afghanistan to be open as far as their access to Central Asia is concerned and it’s very natural for Afghanistan to expect from our Pakistani neighbours to open up,” Dr Abdullah said, while speaking to CNN-IBN. Afghanistan needs to appreciate Pakistan’s limitations with regard to extending such facilities to an out rightly hostile country who’s meddling in internal affairs of Pakistan is well known to the Afghan side. Keeping in view peculiar relations with India, Pakistan should not be expected to extend the Afghan transit trade beyond Pakistan-India borders on Wagah-Atari route; however, to facilitate Afghan people, Pakistan has permitted India to carry out trade via Karachi port.
And in Doha, two days of talks between Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians ended without any concrete development. Qatar’s official news agency described the meeting as ‘reconciliation’ talks; while the Taliban termed them as ‘research talks’ in which each delegate participated in individual capacity and presented views. Pakistan has invested heavily in Afghan peace process and is keen to see forward movement in the process. Nevertheless, there is huge gap between the points of view of the two sides. Afghan government as well as the Taliban continue to articulate their preconditions which should actually be the end objectives of the talks. Pakistan supports peaceful, stable Afghanistan; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif places great emphasis on strong, stable and cooperative ties with Afghanistan under his vision for a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood.
Doha talks coincided with the new fighting season in Afghanistan. Apparently a disagreement over the presence of US troops in the country was reinforced during these talks. Head of the eight-member Taliban delegation, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, read out a written statement at the conference. The statement said that Afghanistan could not have an independent government in the presence of foreign forces. Taliban side said the Afghan government had asked them to stop fighting and obey the Afghan constitution, but this was a non-starter since US troops are still present in Afghanistan. The Afghan government claimed that only foreign trainers were left, who would leave if the Taliban stopped fighting. Terming the UN sanctions on their leaders as “cruel”, the Taliban said such sanctions and decision were “hurdles in the way of the peace process.” The Taliban also dispelled the impression of exporting their ideology to other countries and said “Afghans have not been involved in terrorism against any country or the people but others have attacked their homeland.” A 20-member delegation from Afghan government, including members of the High Peace Council, attended the conference. A two-member team of Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan of Gulbaden Hekmatyar, the second largest resistance group after the Taliban, was also part of the Qatar talks. This was a significant development given the Taliban’s refusal to join the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Asked about any progress on Pakistan’s peace efforts in Afghanistan, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said: “We do not want to make comments in public but the people involved in the process are working hard and with responsibility…There is a need to push the reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan administration.”
For now, Afghan peace process seems to be moving in right direction, though at snails speed. A glaring discrepancy is absence of a credible guarantor to the final agreement. The UN Secretary General may like to induct P-5 in this role. The process would pick up pace as and Taliban are made stakeholders through power sharing; until then it will be akin to one step forward and two backwards.