For the second time, there is a glimmer of hope that peace can be restored in Afghanistan as Pakistan has finally pushed the Afghan-Taliban leaders to negotiate directly with the US. Negotiations between the US special representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Afghan-Taliban leaders was held in Abu Dhabi, UAE on December 18.
The venue was changed from Doha to Abu Dhabi because of a sore relationship between Qatar and the Gulf States. Pakistan wanted to include the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the talks because they enjoy good relations with the Taliban and some of the finances to the Afghan-Taliban go from both these countries.
This was the first time that the US has entered into face-to-face talks with the Haqqani group although they have been declared terrorists by the UN.
The talks were termed “productive” by Khalilzad. However, no specific time frame of the next round of talks or details on what agreements were reached was given by either party. Both parties spoke about the release of prisoners with Khalilzad calling for the release of two professors of the American University of Afghanistan who were kidnapped by Taliban in August 2016. In turn, Haqqani group had asked for the release of Anas Haqqani, a brother of its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Anas was captured by Afghan intelligence in 2014.
Perhaps the real test of the success of the talks would be signaled by the release of these US and Haqqani group prisoners by both sides. Reportedly there has been progress in this direction. The major good news for the Afghan-Taliban is that President Trump is going to recall 7000 US forces from Afghanistan. This means a cut of 50% in the US presence in Afghanistan, at the cost of losing his Defence Secretary Mattis.
Earlier, Pakistan’s attempt to arrange quadrilateral talks between Afghan-Taliban, the US, China and Russia had failed because the Afghan intelligence leaked the story that Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of Taliban, had died months ago in a Pakistan hospital while a fake letter of Mullah Omar in favour of the talks was circulated anonymously. This forced the Afghan-Taliban to announce the new Ameer of their movement, Akhtar Mansour who was killed in May, 2016 by an American drone attack in Pakistan after crossing the border from Iran. It was generally believed that he was not in favour of peace talks with the US and that was the reason that Americans bumped him out.
Consequently, the Taliban selected Hibatullah Akhundzada as the Ameer of Afghan Taliban. He was running a madrassah in a village in Pakistan near the Afghan border. The fact that Mullah Omar died in a Pakistan hospital, his successor Mullah Mansour was killed in a drone attack in a border city in Pakistan and was also carrying a Pakistani passport on which he had travelled to UAE several times and that the new leader of Afghan-Taliban was presiding in Pakistan and running a camp, all gave credence to accusations by the US and the Afghan government that Pakistan is giving shelter to the leaders of the Afghan-Taliban. This was always denied by the Pakistan Foreign Office.
On the other side, the presence of the Haqqani group leaders in the tribal areas was also denied by the Pakistani establishment, knowing full well that Afghan and the US do not believe in our denials.
So whenever the US and the Afghan government insisted that Pakistan should do more, the Pakistani government detracted the whole discussion to the operation against Pakistani-Taliban and maintained that Pakistan had suffered the killing of 70,000 people, including members of the armed forces personnel and innocent civilians, in the war against terrorism. It may be noted that the Pakistan-Taliban were initially the creation of our own establishment. However, the establishment only went against them when they revolted against their masters and became Frankenstein.
Another reason for Pakistan’s shift in policy is that Afghanistan has given shelter to Pakistani terrorists who ran away after the operation against them. The Afghan intelligence is using Pakistani-Taliban to pressurise the Pakistani establishment to push Pakistan to tame the Afghan-Taliban, who have been actively attacking Afghan and US forces’ camps
We have also been claiming that Pakistan has suffered a financial loss of US$123 billion because of the war against terrorism. The US and the rest of the world were not impressed by the sacrifice Pakistan has given in this civil war in the country because while they were talking about Pakistan giving sanctuaries to the Afghan-Taliban and Haqqani group, we were talking about a different set of terrorists who are Pakistani by origin and had challenged the writ of the government.
These Pakistani terrorist groups impressed by the Osama doctrine believed that they have to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan through the barrel of the gun. Thus, it is also wrong when Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly says that we have been fighting other people’s war in Pakistan. As stated above, we only fought those who challenged the writ of the Pakistani establishment so much so that they attacked GHQ and other military installations.
So this time around, Pakistan has brought the Afghan-Taliban leaders to the negotiating table in Abu Dhabi. It seems that they have really changed the policy to keep supporting the Afghan-Taliban and Haqqani group insurgency in Afghanistan and stopped believing that they can install a Taliban-led government in Kabul like in the 90s.Besides Pakistan, only KSA and the UAE had recognised the Taliban government in the 90s.
A significant role in this change of heart seemingly has been played by China and Russia, which have been also telling Pakistan to stop relying on the non-state actors to further its national security policy.
Another reason for Pakistan’s shift in policy is that Afghanistan has given shelter to Pakistani terrorists who ran away after the operation against them. The Afghan intelligence is using Pakistani-Taliban to pressurise the Pakistani establishment to push Pakistan to tame the Afghan-Taliban, who have been actively attacking Afghan and US forces’ camps.
Pakistan is also worried about the frequent ceasefire violations by India on the LoC and cannot afford to keep both the Eastern and Western frontshot at the same time.
However, the Imran Khan government can claim two consecutive foreign successes with the Western and Eastern neighbours. Although it is apparent that he could only do it with the blessings of the milt-establishment, the Americans are seemingly clear on who calls the shots on these issues of foreign policy as Khalilzad’s first port of call after the Abu Dhabi talks was a meeting with COAS General Bajwa and not Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
The writer is the author of What’s wrong with Pakistan? And can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Daily Times, December 24th 2018.