WASHINGTON: Pakistan is actively supporting peace moves in Afghanistan because it feels that a Taliban-occupied Kabul will threaten its security as well, write two former US officials.
The two officials, who played a key role in implementing Washington’s Afghan policy, note that Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, initiated the latest peace move with China’s active encouragement.
James Dobbins and Carter Malkasian note that over the past few months, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban “have made unexpected strides towards talks”.
Mr Dobbins was US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from May 2013 to July 2014 and Mr Malkasian was political adviser to General Joseph Dunford, commander of US forces in Afghanistan from May 2013 to August 2014.
Both argue that the chances of success are greater this time for various reasons: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has placed peace talks at the centre of his agenda. Pakistan and China both appear willing to help jump-start the process. And the Taliban too are willing to support an end to violence.
Urging the United States to “seize the moment”, the two officials stressed the need to keep US forces in Afghanistan till “2017 and beyond”.
In a piece they wrote for the Foreign Affairs magazine, the two former US officials note that former Afghan President Hamid Karzai “did his best to obstruct a process he feared would marginalise him” but the new Afghan government did not have these fears.
According to them, the opportunity for peace talks re-emerged suddenly in February when Gen. Sharif, went to Kabul and told President Ghani that the Taliban were willing to meet Afghan officials “as early as the next month”.
Pakistani officials also told the Taliban that it was no longer acceptable to carry on the war. In early May, ranking members of the Taliban met openly and unofficially with members of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council in Qatar.
The two officials note that President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive officer, also “appear willing to make concessions and work with other governments to get there”.
Unlike Mr Karzai, who tried to keep others out, President Ghani discussed the peace process with representatives from China, Pakistan, and the United States.
“The second promising development is Pakistan’s positive attitude towards negotiations.”
The two officials note that since 2002, Pakistan has provided sanctuary to the Taliban “in order to secure (its) interests in Afghanistan and counter Indian influence in the region”.
“That seems to be changing. True to Gen Sharif’s word, since February, Pakistani officials have been meeting Taliban leaders and encouraging negotiations.”
They note that while Pakistan’s leadership is divided over “how hard to pressure” the Taliban to seek peace, “Islamabad appears to feel that it has more of a stake in a peaceful Afghanistan than originally thought”.
The Pakistanis realise that “without a plan for a negotiated peace, the departure of US troops cannot end well for Pakistan”.
They fear that the drawdown might give the Taliban the opportunity to seize more ground, which would increase Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.
“But the Afghan government would then almost certainly turn to India for money and arms, leaving Pakistan to fight a long-term proxy war against its rival—or, worse, accede to an Indian protectorate over northern Afghanis-tan,” write the two US officials.
“For Pakistan, this is debatably a worse outcome than a neutral Afghanistan committed to staying out of the Indian-Pakistani rivalry.”
The authors warn that Taliban battlefield successes might have other drawbacks as well. The extremist threat to Pakistan could grow. Emboldened by such successes, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban might start collaborating more, and safe havens for Pakistani terrorists could emerge on the Afghan side of the border, a long-standing fear of the Pakistani government.
That risk was underscored on Dec 16 last year, when the Pakistani Taliban attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, killing over 140 schoolchildren and staff members.
Underlining the difference between the present and previous Afghan governments, the US officials write: “Whereas Mr Karzai let the Afghan-Pakistani relationship sour -- in 2011, he even signed a strategic partnership agreement with India – Mr Ghani has made an effort to reassure Islamabad, going so far as to take military action against the Pakistani Taliban and cancel a weapons deal with India.”
The authors say that China has also played a role in galvanising Pakistani support for peace talks. After President Ghani’s visit to Beijing, the Chinese government hosted Taliban delegations and offered Pakistan additional aid to encourage the Taliban to join the peace process.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015