A DELEGATION of Pakistani civilian and military officials, including Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, has renewed Islamabad’s commitment to work towards peace and economic development in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s annual spring offensive rages on.
Tuesday’s visit comes after a 20-person delegation including eight representatives from the Afghan Taliban gathered for unofficial talks in Qatar earlier this month.
It was during those 48 hours of talks at a seaside resort outside the Qatari capital that the Taliban tried once again to distance themselves from Pakistan.
“The Taliban were upset that the Afghan government approached the Pakistanis rather than reaching out to them directly,” Dr Qayyum Kochai, head of the Ahmadzai tribal council, who attended the talks, told this reporter.
To the Taliban, Ashraf Ghani’s decision to reach out to Pakistan was especially confounding as it is widely believed the president made it a clear priority for the group to have a direct role in the negotiations from the start.
If true, the Taliban’s position that they are an independent group with no ties to foreign governments, including Pakistan, could complicate Kabul’s initial strategy for peace, which relied heavily on Islamabad’s cooperation.
Speaking to this reporter ahead of the Pakistani delegation’s visit, Ajmal Obaid Abidy, Ghani’s spokesman, said: “The policy of Afghanistan is to reach peace with Pakistan.”
Among the encouraging factors that led the Afghans to believe their Pakistani counterparts would join them in the pursuit of peace was Islamabad’s own lack of protest when President Ghani said the relationship between the two nations was one of undeclared hostilities.
“The government of Pakistan did not disagree,” said Abidy.
However, the Afghan public seems less confident that Islamabad will follow through with their promises.
Earlier this week, the Taliban briefly took control of Jawand, the largest district in the northern province of Badghis. Though Afghan forces managed to retake the district after two days, it was another worrying sign that the armed opposition is gaining a foothold in the north.
Ahead of Tuesday’s visit, many in Kabul wondered why Sharif was making his second visit to the Afghan capital in just over seven months.
Adding to the people’s questions and confusion were the visits of several other Pakistani officials, both official and unofficial, in recent weeks.
Abdul Waheed Wafa, Executive Director of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, said many Afghans are left to wonder what has come from the increased ties between the two countries.
In an interview with this reporter, Wafa said initially the government of Afghanistan had “no other choice” than to turn to Pakistan, but that the people have been left to wonder when the fruits of that relationship will be made apparent.
Afghans, said Wafa, are especially troubled by the concessions Kabul had to make when they first turned to Pakistan shortly after President Ghani took office.
Among those concessions was the February agreement to send Afghan cadets to Pakistan for training. Ghani’s acceptance earned the ire of many Afghans who believe Pakistan is fuelling the armed opposition in Afghanistan. For years, Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president, rejected Islamabad’s calls to assist in the training of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Pakistan was also granted access to interrogate fighters captured on the Afghan side of the border.
“We had to accept so many of their demands and give in on many other fronts, but we have yet to see any positive results,” Wafa said.
Despite the misgivings and lingering questions, Tuesday’s visit seems to show that for the time being, Afghanistan has yet to abandon a Pakistan-centred plan for peace.
But statements made by the Taliban themselves could complicate that approach.
Though Abidy said all those in attendance at the Doha talks “went in their own capacity as individuals” and that anything discussed over the course of those two days was strictly between the attendees, some insinuations made by the Taliban could hamper the trust Ghani hopes to build with his Pakistani counterparts.
The eight Taliban representatives, said Kochai, expressed their frustration with Pakistan’s interactions with the group.
“Pakistan has inflicted many injustices on the Taliban,” Kochai said.
Kochai, who had previously met with the Taliban in Doha, said whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, the Afghan Taliban can never escape the spectre of the Inter-Services Intelligence.
“Even in Doha, where they were sent to negotiate a peace, the Taliban are being tracked by the ISI,” Kochai alleged.
Others familiar with the situation said over the years the Afghan Taliban have felt intimidated by Pakistan, especially as many of their families reside there.
Last May, Pakistani authorities detained two brothers of Tayyeb Agha, a former Taliban leader who was dispatched to lead the group’s delegation in Qatar in 2012.
Though no official reason was given at the time of their arrests in Karachi and Quetta, many saw the five-month detention of Younas and Tahir as a move to put pressure on Agha and others in Doha.
Even senior Taliban officials, said Kochai, were not exempt from Pakistani abuses and threats.
He pointed to the case of Mullah Obaidullah, who had served as defence minister under the Taliban government as an example.
In 2012, Pakistani officials informed Obaidullah’s family that he had died from heart complications in a Karachi prison two years earlier.
Accusing the Pakistanis of torturing Obaidullah, his family ordered an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Others, said Kochai, have not fared much better.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the four men believed to have initially formed the Taliban, was kept in Pakistani detention until his 2013 release despite reports of ailing health.
Following his release, Baradar was immediately placed under house arrest in a Karachi residence believed to have been run by the ISI, where he is reported to require permission from security officials for any movements or visitors.
Though they have both earned considerable media attention, so far, neither the Doha meeting nor Sharif’s latest visit has provided Afghans with the assurance that the country is moving closer to peace.
At a press conference last week, Ghani tried to address his people’s growing unease.
“A fundamental change of this kind requires some patience,” Ghani said. Kochai agreed, saying peace will not come without patience and understanding. “Sitting there this time I could see that they had changed. The way they spoke showed that are actually thinking of peace,” Kochai said of the eight Taliban representatives.
The writer is LA Times correspondent based in Kabul
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2015