WITH his experience as a banker, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would have done risk assessment of his rapprochement with Pakistan.

His first overture to Afghanistan’s southeastern neighbour in November, 2014 that saw a rare visit by any head of state to Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters — the GHQ — had earned him scorn and scepticism at home.

He took a calculated risk. Pakistan’s powerful military chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, had promised to deliver the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, whenever and wherever the Afghans wanted.

He waited patiently as the seemingly resurgent Taliban mounted one major attack after the other, avoiding to pointing the accusing finger at the usual suspect: Pakistan, long accused by Afghans of nurturing the Taliban.

In May, he braved scathing criticism for doing the unthinkable: getting the Afghan National Directorate of Intelligence to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Inter-Services Intelligence, to jointly fight terrorism.

In July, the long-awaited breakthrough came. An Afghan delegation arrived for the first face-to-face talks with the Taliban in Murree.

But the euphoria generated in the cool climes to the north of Islamabad quickly dissipated after a string of attacks in Kabul.

But if the unrelenting deadly Taliban attacks were not enough, coming on the eve of the second round of peace talks were the reports of Mullah Muhammad Omar’s death.

The Afghans felt betrayed. Pakistanis blamed the NDS for leaking Omar’s death reports to derail the nascent peace process.

Facing sharp criticism at home, Ghani hit back at Pakistan accusing the neighbour of waging an undeclared war against Afghanistan.

“If Pakistan isn’t able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, they can crack down on their terrorist activities,” a beleaguered Ghani told reporters in August.

That not only stalled the nascent peace process but also, once again, strained the relationship between the two countries.

The fall of Afghanistan’s strategic northern Kunduz province to the Taliban and a string of other insurgent victories in September, were a shocker, prompting fears among Afghanistan’s international backers if its security forces were strong enough to hold on their own.

Pressure mounted on Ghani as well as Pakistan when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the Capitol Hill, followed by a visit to Washington by the military chief, Raheel Sharif — to put relations back on track and kick-start the peace process.

In November, Ghani extended an invitation to Pashtun politicians from Pakistan ostensibly for consultations. But Pakistanis believe it was a face-saving actually to prepare ground for Ghani’s meeting with Prime Minister Sharif in Paris and later visit Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia conference.

But something more important and significant happened that day, on November 29. A call originated from Pakistan at 3.15 pm. On the line with Ashraf Ghani was Pakistan’s powerful military chief, Gen Raheel Sharif.

The video conference between the two leaders focused on restarting the “recon (reconciliation) process and the way forward”.

Raheel’s words carried weight. He is the first Pakistani military chief, who has undertaken five visits to the Afghan capital and the Afghans knew if there was one person who can deliver on the Afghan Taliban, it was Gen Raheel.

The day after the Pakistani delegation’s meeting with Ghani, a statement was released saying Ghani would travel to Paris, instead of his CEO, Abdullah Abdullah.

Details of the Ghani-Raheel video-conferencing are not known but something significant must have come out from their conversation to persuade and convinced the Afghan leader to change his mind and re-engage with Pakistan.

“Without positive support from Pakistan, won’t the war in Afghanistan keep dragging on? You answer me,” Ghani said at a press conference after returning home at the end of Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.

What is that the Afghans wanted and Pakistanis agreed? Those in the know say the first thing the Afghans wanted to hear from Pakistanis was that Pakistan respected its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Prime Minister Sharif in his speech delivered the promised statement in his inaugural speech at the Heart of Asia conference.

Ghani in his follow-up speech acknowledged that there had been “considerable uncertainty whether Pakistan would truly acknowledge a sovereign Afghan state with its legitimate government and constitution”.

Addressing PM Nawaz, he said, “Your words today have gone a very long way to assure us in this regard and that opens up the possibility for sustained dialogue among us.”

He also emphasised the need for a framework of “verifiable mechanism” as an instrument of cooperation between “state-to-state, political-to-political, military-to-military, economic-to-economic and intelligence-to-intelligence to avoid the blame-game.”

This appears to be the second most important element of renewed cooperation between the two countries.

But the third and by far the most important element is what Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani spelled out in his media interaction in Islamabad.

“At the trilateral and bilateral meetings, the main discussion item has been the peace process in Afghanistan,” he told reporters.

“Our allies agreed with us in this regard, to bring the reconcilable elements to the table,” Rabbani said.

The interpretation is that Pakistan would use its leverage with the Afghan Taliban to bring those agreeing to engage in talks for a political settlement and take action against those who continue to wage war inside Afghanistan, through a “verifiable regime” as Ghani had put it.

And for this to happen, the Afghans would expect “containment of violence”, according to multiple sources who have had political engagements with the Afghan leadership.

And this would be the toughest challenge for Pakistan, these sources say. The Taliban have known nothing but fighting for nearly 21 years.

Their seven-year rule in Afghanistan beginning with the seizure of Kandahar and ending with the US invasion in 2001 was at best rudimentary in nature.

As ANP’s Senator Afrasiab Khattak put it; the Afghan Taliban is like the Irish Republic Army (IRA) with its political arm, the Sinn Fein.

Getting the Taliban to spell out its political agenda within the framework of the Afghan Constitution would be an uphill task, he said.

From Pakistan’s perspective two things have happened. Afghanistan has named Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal as its new ambassador to Pakistan. He will also be Kabul’s special envoy for Pakistan, meaning he will have the authority to take important decisions.

Two, Ashraf Ghani has fired his NDS chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, the man Pakistan believed was one of the principal spoilers of the peace process with the Taliban, a pro-Indian hawk who stirred up troubles in Balochistan and Fata and staunchly opposed to rapprochement with Islamabad.

The cultivation of Latif Mahsud, a key lieutenant of TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, who was seized by the American Special Forces while being escorted to Kabul by an NDS convoy in November, 2013, and later turned over to Pakistan is being cited as one such case to make a point.

Ashraf Ghani has once again staked a huge political capital in reaching out to Pakistan.

Faced with a strong public sentiment at home and under pressure from former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who continues to wield considerable influence and still calls the shots and his CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, he might as well be playing his last card.

Much on what shape the Pak-Afghan relationship would take and the future of the intra-Afghan peace process would depend on how the meeting goes between Ghani and Gen Raheel, expected to take place in the future.

So, is this just another false start or is there something more to it this time than before, no one seems to know. It’s fragile.

Mindful of the public pressure on him, Ghani told the Pashtun delegates from Pakistan last month: “I am like a kite whose string is in the hands of the people. Being an elected president, the people can take me high but they might as well pull me down.”

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2015

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