Pakistan’s role in US-Afghanistan talks

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Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi

The presence of official delegations of the United States and Afghan Taliban at the same time in Islamabad earlier this month was a historical development. They met to explore the prospects of reviving bilateral talks suspended last month by President Donald Trump, after the completion of the 9th round of talks in Doha. The interaction in Islamabad underlined their cautious desire to resume the dialogue. The host, Pakistan, arranged this meeting because its leadership is convinced that a dialogue between the Taliban and the US can contribute to creating conditions for internal peace and stability in Afghanistan.       
This was a major turn of events because, until last year, the US accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban who killed American soldiers in Afghanistan. American official circles blamed Pakistan for pursuing a dual track policy of friendship with the US, while regularly helping the insurgent group. On these grounds last year, President Trump suspended all military sales and economic assistance to Pakistan.
But while denouncing Islamabad’s Afghanistan policy, the US was attempting to engage the Taliban through the Kabul government and India’s diplomatic circles, in a failed bid.  Meanwhile, Pakistan was successful in facilitating interactions between the Taliban, China and Russia. It was then that the US returned to Pakistan to seek its help in persuading the Taliban to hold talks with US officials.
This reflected a change in US’ Afghanistan policy. After pursuing the military option in Afghanistan for over 18 years, Washington seemed to have realized that it could not obliterate the insurgent group — a realization that looked a lot like its experience in Vietnam.
President Trump is convinced that full or partial withdrawal from Afghanistan will strengthen his position in the November 2020 Presidential elections.  The Doha dialogue brought the US and Afghan Taliban very close to an understanding on the issues pertaining to American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Trump’s whimsical impulse suspended the entire dialogue process.  The latest Islamabad interaction now indicates that the US wants to revive the dialogue in a manner that President Trump does not face any embarrassment.  If Trump does want to project American withdrawal as a plus point in his election campaign in 2020, the US will have to return to the dialogue process for a finalization of the agreement.

Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban has changed from tacit sympathy to pragmatic considerations for controlling militant activities by all groups on Pakistani territory. This policy can be traced back to June 2014 when Pakistan’s security forces launched an operation in North Waziristan to dislodge the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates who enjoyed the support of the Afghan Taliban.
The pace of this security operation increased after an attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar, by the Pakistani Taliban in December 2014 where 149 people died, including 132 school children. The army officers’ first-hand experience of brutalities by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies turned many of them entirely against such groups.  By the end of 2017, militant activities in Pakistan were largely contained and most Afghan Taliban fighters were also dislodged from Pakistan, although some of their leaders moved between Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling Islamabad to engage them in a dialogue with the US. Some of them were in Pakistan’s security custody and freed for facilitating the dialogue.
Pakistan’s positive contribution to the dialogue represents Pakistan’s policy of seeking a political settlement for the Afghanistan problem. However, it does not have enough clout over the leaders of the Afghan Taliban to compel them to enter into a political settlement with the US. Much depends on the terms and conditions of the peace.
Such an agreement can initiate the process for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and will set the stage for dialogue between the Kabul government and the Afghan Taliban. The two sides will have to accommodate each other in future political arrangements in Afghanistan.  The Taliban expect that the current political structure in Kabul will be changed to accommodate some of their demands. If no agreement is reached, Afghanistan will continue to suffer from internal strife.  
Pakistan will face difficult choices in the post US drawdown period.  If internal strife persists in Afghanistan, Afghan Taliban are likely to seek support from Pakistani religious circles, including madrassas, that share a religious denominational identity with them. This can cause a spillover of Afghan civil strife in Pakistan and adversely affect on-going efforts to control extremism inside the country.
Pakistan should treat Afghanistan only as a neighbor and work with any government based in Kabul, and make sure that the Afghan Taliban do not invoke societal linkages in Pakistan for strengthening their position in Afghanistan. The Pakistani state should not view them as an asset, but can build good will for itself by expanding bilateral and transit trade with Afghanistan as well as by facilitating the visits of Afghans to Pakistan for business, medical treatment and ethnic and family interactions.
Pakistan’s interests are served by internal peace and stability in Afghanistan, and Islamabad should work toward that end in cooperation with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, especially China and Russia.
(Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst.​ Twitter: @har132har)