Afghanistan: War to diplomacy – what next?

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By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

Leaders who make unpopular decisions at the right time are better than those who make hasty decisions only to end up taking U-turns because of immense damage to the country they lead. It is too early to predict what tidings the year 2019 would bring to us as a nation irrespective of the fact that songs for ‘tabdeeli’ (change) are being sung 24/7, foreign loans are flooding in, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s begging bowl is getting filled by the hour, and opinion is building up that he has staged a foreign policy coup, roping in Pakistan’s worst adversary, American President Donald Trump. By cutting the Afghan Gordian knot, he has loosened the stranglehold of Taliban and brought them on the table with the Americans for ending 17-year old war. According to Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, these positive developments have been responsible for ‘resetting’ Pakistan-American ties afresh.

For many years, the Prime Minister as a leader seeking power by all means, went around with the title of Taliban Khan. He wanted an open door policy towards them to negotiate with them at a time when their favourite past time was terrorism, and playing football with chopped heads of Pakistani soldiers. His support for the militia did not falter even when they attacked Army Public School and killed more than 150 children and others. As President Trump now lately recognised that Prime Minister Khan understands Taliban and their psyche better than experts in Pentagon and Pakistan’s establishment.

It is said there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Taliban are still taking their time to reach some sort of complete peace agreement including a timeframe for the withdrawal of foreign troops in the face of a warning by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Afghanistan would still need sizeable number of Nato troops. It is a serious bone of contention between the two. However, much would depend on the outcome of Afghan presidential elections. More so, Ashraf Ghani would also like to see some sizeable role in Afghanistan for India.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Rep for Afghanistan, calls on Prime Minister Imran Khan at PM Office Islamabad on 18th January, 2019

That being that, Prime Minister Khan in anticipation of his pipedream becoming a reality in a knee jerk decision has directed Pakistani officials to make necessary arrangements for keeping the Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan operational round the clock in a bid to boost bilateral ties. He thinks that such a step would be instrumental in boosting bilateral trade ties between the ‘two brotherly’ countries; it would also enhance people to people contact between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Opening of Torkham border would be instrumental in boosting bilateral trade and enhancing people to people contact between the two brotherly countries, says Khan’s tweet. Torkham is a major border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan connecting Nangarhar province with Pakistan’s erstwhile FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-and a major source of smuggling especially of drugs– for the benefit of Taliban who have sustained their 17 years of war through drug money. Keeping in view the trajectory of our “brotherly” relations with Afghanistan from the day when they were the only country that opposed Pakistan’s entry as a member of UN to the roller coaster existence to this day-we need to be cautious in the pathway to peace.

Prime Minister Khan would do well to revisit history. Despite the fact that Pakistan has sustained Afghanistan in its most difficult times with all the assistance including succour, unfortunately it is viewed by many Afghans – irrespective of their affiliation with Taliban -with contempt, and much hatred. Once upon a time, the Afghans considered themselves victims of General Aslam Beg’s and Gen Hameed Gul’s doctrine of strategic depth that aimed at extending Pakistan’s borders to the banks of River Oxus and ever since they have a latent fear that Pakistan has not given up the idea of converting it into its fifth province.

PTI government must be over the moon for extracting huge loans of US dollars 12 billion from Saudi Arabia and UAE approved by Washington for bringing Taliban on the negotiating table. No doubt all is not yet over. What price Pakistan shall have to pay for roping in the Taliban to talk to the Americans is yet to be seen. Does Pakistan have that much of clout with Taliban to bring them ultimately to sit down with the Afghan government?

So far Taliban are reluctant and Afghan government too is furious on being kept out of the main talks despite the fact that it is Afghan government that still has the trump card. American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was lately in Kabul to bring around President Ashraf Ghani’s government that remains adamant, and the implication is that it remains for Ghani to agree to the American-Taliban peace deal or not, although the fact that Afghan presidential elections are around the corner would be a decisive factor.

One must not dismiss lightly President Ghani’s strong protest wailings from Davos over his government being left out of the American-Taliban negotiation loop. He has all the reasons to protest that any agreement, deal or even proposition to that effect that did not take the sitting Afghan government on board during the negotiations just did not make anything credible and practical. And, when one looks at the most important part of the Taliban proposal regarding the dissolution of the Kabul government to make way for an interim setup, of which Taliban representatives will be very much a part. How would Khalilzad steer his deal with Taliban to safer shores without having President Ashraf Ghani on board?

Notwithstanding the euphoria in Pakistan meekly shared by the Taliban, there is still a long way to go to achieve a breakthrough. Taliban are sticking to their guns -no concessions to Kabul till the Americans have packed their tents and gone back home. The issue of interim government and the fate of the Afghan constitution remain in doldrums, I fear Pakistan shall have to face the brunt once the Americans leave in 18 months, as is conjectured by the media. Someone rightly put it-‘It seems that no matter how close, or far, we are from a ceasefire, and an eventual end to this long, ugly war, it is the Taliban now who are increasingly dictating the turn of events.’

(The author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)