Sil­ver Lin­ing

Southasia - - COMMENT - Syed Jawaid Iqbal

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.

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