An outbreak of activities about Afghanistan over the last two weeks have, once again, brought this country under international focus. Former President Asif Zardari led his party delegation to Kabul, Commander United States Forces in Afghanistan General John F Campbell called on Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, President Ashraf Ghani undertook his visit to India; and there has been an impression in the media that Kabul government and Taliban are in active bilateral contact at Doha , facilitated by a Canadian Non-Governmental Forum, Pugwash. Officials from the US, China and Pakistan also attended the talks, with Pakistan officially announcing support for the peace talks. It was the third time the Taliban sat with the representatives of Afghan government, earlier meetings were held in France and Japan.
Delegation led by former president Zardari was part of an outreach programme initiated by President Ashraf Ghani to get in touch with Pakistan’s political leadership for consultation and obtaining their support for the Afghan peace process. There is a bipartisan consensus among the political leadership of Pakistan for contributing towards peace and stability in Afghanistan; It is now evidently clear to each stakeholder that apart from the Afghan people, it is the people of Pakistan who are to gain maximum benefits from a sustainable peace in Afghanistan. the Zardari Delegation met with the Afghan President and Chief Executive. Leadership discussed bilateral relations, regional situation and the need for enhanced economic cooperation. Terming terrorism as the common enemy of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zaradri called for effective cooperation between the two neighbours. Zardari hailed the formation of unity government in Kabul. Welcoming the visit of the opposition leader to Kabul, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson described the visit as a “good omen,” adding that the government encourages political contacts between the two countries since they promote bilateral ties.
The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif discussed Pak-Afghan border coordination and the overall security situation in the region with General Campbell. Border management is the key to most of the issues regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan has since long been proposing installation of biometric system on formal crossing points at the border. The problem area however is informal crossing points. While there are two official crossing points, the informal crossings are plenty.
Easement rights make the issue still more complicated. While such rights are the entitlement of the people residing within eight kilometers of the Pak-Afghan border, ways and means are not available to ensure that such rights are not misused by the people from both sides.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have relatively improved since the regime change in Afghanistan. As of now, intelligence sharing and coordinated efforts along both sides of the border are high on the agenda of both sides to counter terrorism. In April, Afghan army chief General Sher Muhammad Karimi was the first Afghan army chief to speak as chief guest at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul, where Afghan army cadets were also receiving training.
The Afghan President’s visit to India reaffirmed that the new Afghan government was seriously pursuing its policy of balancing its relations with India and Pakistan, and the one sided anti-Pakistan expression of Karzai era was over, at least for the time being. Ghani has made rapprochement with Pakistan, a key policy since being elected as Afghanistan’s president. Despite facing criticism at home for his efforts, he defended this policy while addressing an audience in New York during his visit to the United States. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ve begun a process of fundamental transformation,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in response to a question about Afghan-Pakistani ties. On its part, Pakistan has made constant efforts to facilitate intra-Afghan peace process and smooth transit trade with Afghanistan.
Effort is also being made for development of web based one customs system which would help in bringing transparency and enable the Afghan importers and Customs authorities in both countries to trace the cargo en-route to Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs to appreciate Pakistan’s limitations with regard to extending such facilities to a hostile country whose meddling in internal affairs of Pakistan is well known to the Afghan side. Keeping in view peculiar relations with India, Pakistan should not be expected to extend the Afghan transit trade beyond Pakistan in near future; however, to facilitate Afghan people, Pakistan has allowed India to carry out trade via Karachi port.
As expected in such situations, the talks between Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians ended without any concrete development. Qatar’s official news agency described the meeting as ‘reconciliation’ talks. The Taliban termed them as ‘research talks’ in which each delegate participated in individual capacity and presented views. Pakistan has invested heavily in the Afghan peace process and is keen to see positive development in the process. Nevertheless, there is a huge gap between the viewpoints of the two sides. Afghan government as well as the Taliban continue to strictly adhere to their preconditions. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif places great emphasis on strong, stable and meaningful ties with Afghanistan under his vision for a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood.
Doha talks coincided with the seasonal upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan. Apparently a disagreement over the presence of US troops in the country was negatively reinforced in these talks. Head of the eight-member Taliban delegation, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, read out a written statement at the conference. The statement said that Afghanistan could not have an independent government in the presence of foreign forces. Taliban said the Afghan government had asked them to stop fighting and follow the Afghan constitution, but this was a non-starter since US troops are still present in Afghanistan. The Afghan government claimed that only foreign trainers were left, who would leave if the Taliban stopped fighting. Terming the UN sanctions on their leaders as “cruel”, the Taliban said such sanctions and decision were “hurdles in the way of the peace process.” The Taliban also dispelled the impression of exporting their ideology to other countries and said “Afghans have not been involved in terrorism against any country or the people but others have attacked their homeland.” A 20-member delegation from Afghan government, including members of the High Peace Council, attended the conference. A two-member team of Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan of Gulbaden Hekmatyar, the second largest resistance group after the Taliban, was also part of the Qatar talks. This was a significant development given the Taliban’s refusal to join the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Asked about any progress on Pakistan’s peace efforts in Afghanistan, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said: “We do not want to make comments in public but the people involved in the process are working hard and with responsibility… There is a need to push the reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan administration.”
For now, the Afghan peace process seems to be moving in right direction, though at snails pace. A glaring discrepancy is the absence of a credible guarantor to the final agreement. The UN Secretary General may like to assign this role to P-5. The process would pick up pace as the Taliban are made stakeholders through power sharing. Until then it will be akin to one step forward and two backwards.