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Hardly a new chapter

July 24, 2013

IF Mr Sartaj Aziz visited Afghanistan to convince Hamid Karzai of Pakistan’s sincere desire to improve relations and to work in tandem with Kabul to promote an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led reconciliation process, reports so far suggest that the mission was at best of limited value.

His Afghan counterpart had no hesitation in stating that efforts to improve relations and “ignite peace talks” had not been successful even while expressing the hope that a new chapter would be opened with the advent of the new government in Islamabad.

President Karzai accepted the invitation to visit Pakistan “in principle” but insisted that before “a high-level delegation” visited Pakistan preparations be made and an agenda drawn up with the “top” items being the “serious and effective struggle against terrorism and the peace process”.

As was expected, the Foreign Office has termed the visit productive. This positive spin on the visit is a commendable effort to prevent the further deterioration of relations but we must recognise that Afghanistan appears to be taking the stance that in talking to Pakistan it will be doing Pakistan a favour. It is the same attitude that Karzai has taken in his discussions with the US.

American commentators have often unfairly accused Pakistan of negotiating by “putting a gun to its own head and threatening to shoot if its demands were not met”. Now with far more justification President Karzai and his aides can be accused of having adopted this tactic.

It is delusional to believe that it is the US and not Afghanistan that needs a bilateral security arrangement or that Pakistan needs Afghan cooperation rather than the other way round. But that is what seems to be emerging from Kabul.

This is not, however, the time to lose one’s cool. Within the ruling circles in Kabul as in the loyal opposition many Afghans are wary of what they see as an overplaying of the nationalist card by Karzai. His quarrel with the Americans has been condemned, as has been, perhaps less stridently, the attitude he has adopted towards Pakistan. So there will be changes forced upon him, but it would be best if they came as a result of internal rather than external pressures.

In the meanwhile, the new government which has already recognised the paramount importance of the Afghanistan issue for our internal and external security must reflect on the following questions relating to reconciliation in that country:-

First, the Afghan Taliban say they will not talk to the “puppet” Karzai government. On this we cannot agree with the Taliban since Karzai is the elected president and must be a lead participant in the intra-Afghan talks. What we can suggest is that when Karzai talks he should do so after building civil society and opposition consensus that Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council, said he was working towards. Will Karzai do this?

Second, even if there was a “road map for 2015” (requiring Pakistan to play a role in persuading the Taliban to negotiate an agreement for a share of power for the Taliban at the centre and some posts in areas where their influence was strong) that was proposed by the Afghan High Peace Council last November, it has now been disowned by Karzai.

Should Pakistan then use whatever influence it has with the Taliban to agree to talks without any assurance of what the outcome will be? If we are going to stand by our present stance that this is an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation this is what we may have to do. Will the Taliban agree?

Third, Mr Aziz said in Kabul that if requested and at the proper time and in consultation with other interested parties we would release other Taliban we are holding. We must decide on the appropriate time and also whether it would not be in the fitness of things for Afghanistan to release into our custody Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader they are holding.

Fourth, Karzai says that there cannot be talks between the Americans and the Taliban. Yet it is Karzai who has said all along that he wants the release of Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo and the delisting of the Taliban leaders currently on the UN sanctions list since this would facilitate reconciliation.

Surely he must accept that such a release can only come through the envisaged exchange of the Taliban from Guantanamo for the one American prisoner that the Taliban are holding. This will not only be a confidence-building measure but would also ensure that the Americans can secure a commitment from the Taliban to publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda and even to promise that in the intra-Afghan talks they will not seek constitutional changes that would affect women’s rights, etc. How can Karzai be persuaded?

Fifth, we have to be clear on whether it is in our interest that the Americans retain a residual presence in Afghanistan. I believe it is because such a presence would ensure that the Afghans receive the annual $8.5 billion the international community has pledged.

Without such assistance the Afghan security forces would have to be disbanded and the economy would collapse with disastrous consequences for Pakistan. The problem here is not only the declared Taliban opposition but also that the Karzai administration has fulfilled only three of the 17 conditions by way of reforms and elimination of corruption laid down in the Mutual Accountability Framework in Tokyo last year. How can this dual problem be resolved?

Sixth, should we take military action against the TTP elements that are now operating against us from Afghan territory and risk further exacerbation of relations with Afghanistan or should we use other means to tackle this menace?

There are of course numerous other related questions. The government needs to constitute a task force under Mr Aziz to identify all the issues and to make recommendations that would facilitate the formulation of a coherent policy.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.