IT was the sign that perhaps all those on the side of peaceful conflict-resolution were looking for: the Pakistani state getting directly involved in bringing together representatives of the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban to effectively discuss the possibility of a peace and reconciliation process. That the US and China also had observers present at the Murree meeting suggests that it was a concerted, international effort — exactly what Afghanistan needs. To be sure, a peace process needs to be Afghan-owned — without the government and the Taliban leadership fully on board, there is no possibility of stability in Afghanistan — and final terms will have to be negotiated directly between the state and the insurgents. But regional and international support for a peace process is also key. Perhaps until there is a full-fledged peace process, the outside powers can nudge efforts along to produce an Afghan-owned peace process.

Clearly, were it not for Pakistan’s willingness to use its influence over the Afghan Taliban, the Murree meeting would not have taken place. Until now, the degree of influence the state here has over the Taliban has been disputed by Pakistan. The claim was that Pakistan’s influence has diminished and it never was the master-subordinate relationship that many in the West allege the Pakistan-Taliban relationship to have been. What was perplexing though was quite why Pakistan had not made an obvious effort to reciprocate Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s determined outreach to it. Now, perhaps some of those doubts will dissipate. As the Foreign Office spokesperson indicated yesterday, the Murree meeting is not expected to be a one-off and that post-Eid another round of dialogue may be hosted by Pakistan. There truly has not been a better moment for Pakistan to take the diplomatic lead on Afghanistan. The American determination to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, China’s willingness to engage more on Afghanistan and Pakistani military operations in Fata having won back a great deal of space for the state here all mean that now is the time to encourage the Afghan Taliban to seek a peaceful compromise that brings stability to the region.

Yet, welcome as it is to see the Pakistani state play a frontline role in a possible peace process, there is still a long, long way to go and much can go wrong. The most obvious challenge is that past apparent breakthroughs have gone nowhere and this time round, a talks process would play out with the Afghan Taliban having the momentum on the battlefield. Much as the world may want a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, does the Taliban’s leadership share that vision? And even if it does, can the leadership convince the rank and file to lay down their arms, especially when the new generation has known nothing but war? There are, as ever, many unanswered questions in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2015

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