The first officially acknowledged peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government concluded recently in Murree, Pakistan, with an agreement to meet again soon. The location of Murree as a venue for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government raised hopes for a political breakthrough. The United States and China also attended the talks and it was obvious that both countries were taking more than a passing interest in the whole process. Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, while on a visit to Norway at the time, said he hoped the talks would be helpful for peace and stability. Pakistan had hosted the meeting as a tentative step towards ending more than 13 years of war in Afghanistan and also as a peace move towards its own terrorism problems. It was being hoped that the budding peace process would end an escalating conflict that had killed thousands of people. For decades, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been marred by mutual mistrust and suspicion. But with the new administration of Ashraf Ghani in place in Kabul and a series of outreaches by Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, there were signs of major changes for the long-wary neighbors. Last November, President Ashraf Ghani visited Pakistan and opened a new chapter of mutual cooperation between the two countries. There was more military and intelligence sharing, with Afghanistan launching counterterrorism actions against fugitive Pakistani militants. Afghan officials also acknowledged that Pakistani counterterrorism measures were improving security along their border.
It augured well for everyone that Islamabad was abandoning its past interventionist policy in Afghanistan. Even then, Afghan and Pakistani troops continued to face off along a part of the mutual border and exchanges of fire caused casualties on both sides. As a result, it was being believed that the warming of bilateral relations Pakistan and Afghanistan would be undermined, much to the glee of Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah who does not hold the same views as Ashraf Ghani vis.-a- vis. Pakistan, as well as the Indians who never want the Afghans and Pakistanis to become friends. It is becoming clear now that the Afghan President is under immense pressure and that is why his approach to relations with Pakistan has become somewhat ambivalent. He did start making reconciliation overtures towards Pakistan from the time he came into power but it gave rise to bitter criticism from his own countrymen. Before Ghani became President, there was a long history of rocky relations between his country and Pakistan. Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai hardly did anything to improve these relations. In the beginning of his tenure, Ghani made a sincere effort to open a new chapter in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations but his initiative ran into all kinds of glitches. This was compounded by the fact that many of Kabul’s high-security zones witnessed a series of terrorist attacks. For instance, a car bomb was detonated outside the national assembly in Kabul when the newly appointed defence minister, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, was making a speech.
Until recently, both politically and strategically, Ghani could not have afforded to be complacent about the potentially negative ramifications of Pakistan’s inability to rein in the Taliban. But it is heartening to note that the Taliban seem to have agreed to a strategy of ‘talking while fighting.’ An important development that may have focused the Taliban mind is the reported rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Clashes between the Taliban and IS have been reported in the eastern part of the country. US drones have been making strikes on the IS in the area and have killed many of their key commanders, the most notable among them being Shahidullah Shahid who had defected to the IS from the Taliban. Now the Taliban seem to be calculating that they can do ‘business’ with President Ashraf Ghani’s government as one of their ‘own’. The IS is considered by them a foreign interloper trying to force its way into their space and it is obvious that neither the Afghan Taliban nor Kabul or Islamabad want the IS to enter the region. This is perhaps what has hastened the cobbling together of an understanding between the previously warring forces. That this would also lead to regional peace is a silver lining in the cloud.