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Melting of ice

Updated October 11, 2017


THE latest round of bilateral talks seems to have broken the ice and reopened a window of opportunity for Islamabad and Kabul to build an atmosphere of mutual trust and put mutual ties on a more stable footing. There is already de-escalation in tensions as both sides have recognised the need for close cooperation to deal with a common threat.

What is particularly encouraging is the lowering of hostile rhetoric thus paving the way for a conducive environment in which rational discussions on critical issues affecting the two countries can be held. There is, indeed, strong reason for optimism but it would require a greater effort by both sides to remove the major sources of tension and move towards a more constructive relationship — not an easy task given the huge baggage of mutual distrust and certain adverse internal and external factors.

The recent meeting between the Pakistani delegation led by army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is described as the most constructive since the breakdown of ties in 2015. Relations had hit a new low following a short period of bonhomie between the two countries in the early period of Ghani’s presidency.

The biggest opportunity to mend fences was completely lost. Since then, the two countries have been engaged in a bitter war of words accusing one another of providing sanctuaries to each other’s insurgents. President Ghani’s frequent outbursts and blaming Pakistan for each incident of violence in his country did not help.

The recent meeting in Kabul took forward the discussions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Besides other factors, President Donald Trump’s new Afghan policy that envisages a surge in US troops and his promise not to withdraw from the war-torn country seems to have given Afghan leaders the confidence to resume talks with Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the fractious Afghan government now feels much more assured with long-term American commitment to the country’s security.

Meanwhile, the toughening of US policy appears to have compelled Islamabad to pursue a more proactive approach to improve bilateral ties with Kabul. The thaw started appearing following the meeting in London in March between then adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz and Afghan officials.

It was followed by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s interaction with President Ghani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana in June. The discussion led to a major breakthrough as the two leaders agreed to use the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), mechanism as well as bilateral channels, to undertake specific actions against terrorist groups and to evolve, through mutual consultations, a mechanism to monitor and verify such actions.

The recent meeting in Kabul took the discussions forward with more concrete suggestions for evolving a common strategy to deal with cross-border sanctuaries that have been the biggest cause of tension between the two countries. The most important outcome of the meeting was the assurances given by Afghan leaders that the Afghan forces backed by additional American troops were now in a better position to tackle the Pakistani Taliban and other militant sanctuaries in their territory.

Indeed, it is going to be a big test for the Afghan forces. But it would be a much bigger challenge for the military leadership here to eliminate the alleged Afghan Taliban safe havens inside Pakistan, even though the latter continues to deny their presence here. It remains to be seen how Pakistani authorities deal with this sensitive issue that has been a source of tension not only with Afghanistan but also with Washington.

Both insist that sanctuaries on Pakistani soil have enabled the Afghan Taliban to sustain and expand insurgent operations in Afghanistan over the past 16 years. The pressure is increasing on Islamabad to take decisive action against the Taliban groups, particularly the Haqqani network.

It is apparent that this bilateral initiative has American support. US Defence Secretary James Mattis saw the Kabul meeting as presaging “a new chapter”. It may be too early to draw such optimism from the meeting, but it demonstrates America’s keen interest in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It remains to be seen, though, how the Trump administration can help bridge the gap between the two countries while getting India more deeply involved in Afghanistan.

Another sticking point is the issue of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. The Trump administration has often hinted that it would be willing to look for a political solution to the Afghan conflict. But there is no clear strategy or policy for negotiations with the insurgents. President Ghani, too, has called the Taliban to come to the negotiating table but there has not been any positive response.

However, there have been reports of regular contacts between Afghan government officials and Taliban commanders. Senior Pakistani official sources confirm that both sides often meet secretly in Pakistan’s border areas. There have also been some informal meetings in other countries. But there is no indication of the insurgents agreeing to formal negotiations yet.

Meanwhile, revival of the QCG forum comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China is also a positive development that raises hopes for a new joint initiative to take forward the Afghan peace process. The forum has been suspended for two years after the collapse of the second round of Murree talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The forum is meeting next week in Muscat rather than Pakistan. It seems difficult for the forum to get the talks back on track at least in the near future.

Pakistan has offered to facilitate the negotiations, while it is not clear whether it has any influence with the Taliban leadership that it often claims is not living on its soil. The best thing for Pakistan is to encourage the Afghan Taliban to directly negotiate with Kabul without Islamabad taking any responsibility.

Undoubtedly, improvement in bilateral relations between Kabul and Islamabad is a very encouraging development. But, given the existing wall of mutual distrust, there is still a long way to go for the relationship to become more meaningful.

The writer is an author and a journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017