Ramifications of Imran Khan’s Kabul visit

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

Pakistan’s Prime Minister paid a day long visit– his first as Prime Minister– to Kabul on Thursday. He held wide ranging talks with his Afghan counterpart, President Ashraf Ghani, against the backdrop of increased violence along the border between the two countries and increased attacks inside Afghanistan by both the Taliban and Daesh.

A further element of uncertainty has been added to the rapidly deteriorating security environment in the country by President Trump’s announcement he will withdraw more forces from the war-ravaged country by January 15. 

This will leave only 2,500 American troops in the country in addition to some contractors’ forces already deployed. The most ominous development however, is the continuing deadlock in talks between the representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha.  

The visit was intended to reduce the trust deficit that continues to haunt and inhibit the growth of cordial relations between the two countries. It was also meant to seek common ground on the most contentious issues that block progress towards reconciliation in the Doha peace talks.  

Obviously, the interaction has benefits in that it helps promote mutual understanding so that the two countries can begin to appreciate each other’s stance on vital issues. But such high-level contacts have been the hallmark of troubled relations between the two countries before.

Former Afghan President Karzai carried out as many as 21 state visits to Pakistan in his tenure of 12 years. But did these really break the ice in ushering in a new era of mutual cooperation or respect for the positions each country takes on important issues? 

The symbolism of the visit is important and could lead to a gradual reduction in the deep distrust that currently affects relations. But without progress on real issues, the apparent warmth and cordiality soon fades out. 

KABUL: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani discussing bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern during a meeting in Kabul on Thursday.

As expected, the Afghan President urged Imran Khan to bring pressure to bear upon the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire– a longstanding focus of the Afghan government. Khan offered to do whatever he could to persuade the Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire. In other words, he assured Ghani of Islamabad’s influence to help bring about a cessation in hostilities so that peace talks could make progress.  

This really does not mean much in actual terms because the Taliban position has been consistent and unambiguous. The reality is that Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban has its limits. The group does listen to Islamabad’s advice because many of its leaders’ families continue to reside in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province. But on an issue critical to the entire Taliban movement, i.e ceasefire, the Taliban will take their own decisions. 

Simply put, the Taliban argue that any ceasefire– if it does not deliver– will prove costly because once the cadres stop fighting, they lose motivation and making them fight again is nearly impossible.

Secondly, they realize that any acceptance of a ceasefire could imperil the unity of the movement. It could lead to divisions that may be potentially suicidal for the group. Talking then of ‘urging both sides to reduce violence’ may sound rational and logical but there are grave implications for the Taliban which are often overlooked.  

The Afghan government is in a desperate situation. It realizes that any rapprochement with the Taliban will inevitably cause those currently at the helm to cede space and control. In other words, any durable settlement will require Ashraf Ghani and his coterie of ministers and advisers to make room for a new transitional government. They are not prepared to accept that eventuality. And this explains why the Kabul government have been creating one obstacle after another to prolong talks. 

The deadlock suits the Afghan government as long as the US and international community continues with their financial assistance –the backbone of a regime that only controls less than half of the country’s territory. Continuance of the status quo ensures government leaders remain in the saddle no matter the cost.  

From this perspective the visit has achieved little. There has been no tangible outcome as far as the most critical issue is concerned.

Meanwhile, the Doha peace talks have virtually come to a standstill, and the stalemate can only be broken if there is real and solid pressure by the US administration on the Ghani government to accept ground realities and agree to the formation of a broad-based, multi-ethnic government of which the Taliban will be an important component. 

Some other issues came up during Khan’s visit like the extension of the railway line to Afghanistan, the removal of hurdles in the way of trade, the attacks from across the border. But the crucial issue of sharing the waters of Kabul River was not raised. Both countries are severely water stressed and they need to develop mechanisms to ensure the waste of water is handled firmly and both the upper and downstream riparians get their shares.

That can only happen when the two countries reach an agreement on water sharing.  On issues of diminishing trade, Afghans face serious problems crossing over into Pakistan for meeting relatives, education, medical treatment or business. This must be addressed and resolved before it causes a further rupture in ties between the two countries.

Khan’s visit must be followed by a deeper and constructive engagement that stresses the value of recognizing and addressing the core issues –mainly in the realm of peace making.

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)