AS the new year approaches, there is an unmistakable sense of urgency on Afghanistan. Gen Raheel Sharif’s visit to Kabul yesterday is in no way a make-or-break trip, but it is certainly significant in terms of expectations over the weeks and months ahead.

The central concern is well known: the Afghan Taliban are growing in strength and the Afghan government is losing ground, both politically and militarily. All sides — barring, critically, perhaps the Afghan Taliban themselves — appear to agree that a peaceful settlement is the only realistic hope for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

The key then for all outside powers and the Afghan state will be to first create the conditions for a political settlement and then do what is necessary to find a viable settlement that is long-lasting.

In the first stage of creating the conditions for a so-called Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, Pakistan’s role is undeniable, but so is the Afghan government’s willingness to address Pakistani concerns.

As highlighted by ISPR chief Gen Asim Bajwa yesterday, the twin concerns of the Pakistan Army on Afghanistan are better border management and the Afghan peace process.

In the military’s reckoning, there was a sincere effort made here to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table last summer — a sincerity that was not reciprocated across the board when it came to addressing Pakistani concerns about TTP militants who have found sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan.

Yet, the concerns run in the opposite direction too. Since the tumultuous elevation of Akhtar Mansour to the top of the Afghan Taliban leadership, there has been furious criticism of Pakistan by the security establishment in Afghanistan for allegedly aiding the Taliban in the wave of attacks across Afghanistan. Given the mistrust and suspicions, perhaps the best approach would be to move in lockstep: jointly addressing better border management, and individually, but simultaneously, acting to suppress Taliban and TTP activities on both sides of the border.

That would not only help address the trust deficit, but also help nudge the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

While the road to a peaceful settlement will inevitably be bumpy, there is an additional unpredictable element in the equation here: the US itself.

Bereft of any coherent strategy in Afghanistan and perhaps panicking at the thought of an imploding Afghanistan in the final year of the presidency of Barack Obama, the US administration could resort to putting pressure on Pakistan to abandon trying to patiently nudge the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and, instead, force a dangerous showdown.

There is a line between careful prodding and reckless pressure, and there is no sense in Pakistan crossing that line with the Taliban. With the domestic fight against militancy far from over, there is a need to move ahead wisely.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2015

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