Pakistan and Afghanistan: Way Forward
By Tahir Khan

The deadly Taliban attack in Kabul on April 19 caused a serious blow to renewed efforts for peace negotiations for a second time in less than a year. As key Taliban political negotiators from the Qatar office touched down in Pakistan recently to discuss prospects for peace negotiations, President Ashraf Ghani, in a major shift of his policy to pursue reconciliation, prioritised war with the Taliban in his emotional address to the joint session of the Afghan parliament on April 25.

The new policy of the beleaguered Afghan president, who is currently involved in political wrangling with his Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, was contradictory of his election pledge. He apparently surrendered to pressure by some of his top advisers, political opponents, former Mujahideen leaders and certain elements averse to reconciliation with the Taliban.

The Taliban’s Qatar office confirmed their political leaders’ visit to Pakistan, however, the political spokesman of the group did not mention what was on the agenda during talks with the Pakistani officials. Just for the sake of face-saving in the wake of President Ghani calling the Taliban “fools, illiterate and misguided puppets” in his parliamentary speech, the Taliban statement said that their representatives will discuss with the Pakistani government issues “regarding Afghan refugees, some problems about frontier areas” and the release of their prisoners, with there being no mention of the reconciliation process. The Taliban visit prompted strong condemnation in Afghanistan and a presidential spokesman questioned as to how Pakistan is hosting a “terrorist organisation” and discussing issues that are related to the two governments.

The Taliban political negotiators’ visit was important as the Qatar office, mandated for peace negotiations, had distanced itself from the Murree peace process. Kabul missed that chance for reconciliation and this time the spoilers are both the Taliban attack and warmongers in Afghanistan, whose mounting pressure influenced President Ghani to abandon the peace process. On its part, Pakistan’s top diplomat, Aizaz Chaudhry, did not confirm the Taliban visit when he was asked about it by journalists, apparently to avoid embarrassment in the wake of Kabul’s aggressive posture. The longstanding policy of denial and secrecy by Pakistani diplomats and all those who deal with Afghanistan must change. If the Taliban, who are masters of secrecy, can publicly confirm the visit, it is naive of Pakistan to deal with key issues in a non-serious manner. It seems that the foreign ministry has lost direction in respect to Afghanistan and the time is ripe to review its Afghan policy.

Pakistan’s other dilemma is the limited role of the political leadership over the Afghan policy. This needs to change, otherwise Pakistan will face embarrassment at international forums. Pakistan should also not insist on having a role in the reconciliation process with the Taliban if Afghan leaders do not want it to have one. We should respect President Ghani’s decision, who has publicly closed, at least for now, the chapter of Pakistan’s role in reconciliation in his war-shattered country. His frustration is genuine. The Taliban’s increased violence has led him to lose his appetite for peace talks. The recent attack has spoilt the environment for the talks, as no one would sit at the table with them at a time when nearly 70 families were mourning the deaths of their loved ones. But the Afghan leadership must also realise that they cannot win this senseless war which 160,000 US and Nato troops weren’t able to win in 14 years. At the same time, the Taliban must also understand the consequences of their senseless armed struggle as their attacks now mostly kill civilians.

Saner voices in Afghanistan and its Western allies may not agree with President Ghani’s aggressive approach. His tough stance was followed by a series of anti-Pakistan statements by senior government advisers. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, shortly after the Kabul attack, postponed his visit to Pakistan, scheduled for May 2-3 because of the “initial evidence” of the attack. Similarly, presidential spokesperson Dawa Khan Menapal’s statement that Kabul will launch a diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan at international and regional levels was also ill-advised. The blame game has badly affected bilateral relations. It is time now to bury the hatchet and address each other’s concerns.