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Back to the Afghan peace table

Updated October 18, 2017

The revival of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and a near-simultaneous flurry of drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have underlined the complexity of peace and security in Afghanistan.

The QCG meeting in Muscat, Oman, is a positive step because it suggests that the American and Afghan governments may have relented on their respective reasons for not seeking a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban.

The elimination of the group’s chief, Akhtar Mansour, in a US drone strike in Balochistan in May 2016 had effectively signalled the end of the Obama administration’s interest in dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. And, until the QCG meeting in Muscat, the administration of US President Donald Trump had indicated that it was not ready to invest in a dialogue process with the Afghan Taliban.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government in Afghanistan, for reasons of domestic politics and factional squabbling, has appeared uncertain about whether it can or should engage with the insurgent group. The QCG’s core purpose being to facilitate an intra-Afghan dialogue, it is a welcome sign that the process has been restarted.

Clearly, with the Afghan Taliban declining to attend the meeting in Muscat, expectations need to be tempered at this early stage. The Trump administration’s inconsistency on a range of global issues, along with the political uncertainty in Afghanistan, also adds to the complexity of the QCG’s possibility of success.

But the high-level military and diplomatic efforts at engagement by Pakistan with a number of countries on Afghanistan and a gradual increase in China’s role in the region suggest that at least one half of the QCG may be able to nudge the process along.

Much, however, may also depend on the parallel military war that is being intensified inside Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. The drone strikes and aerial bombing of what are reported to be Haqqani network strongholds in eastern Afghanistan and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border suggest that new, looser rules of engagement that the Trump administration has granted US forces in Afghanistan are being implemented.

What the current American action means for greater intelligence-sharing and cooperation between Pakistan and the US will become clearer in the days to come. The parallel, intense diplomatic engagement between the two countries, after a protracted period of tension, and the drone strikes, so far in Afghan territory, might be indicative of Pakistan’s support for the US action that could put pressure on the Afghan Taliban, to a point where the latter agree to come to the negotiating table.

Among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US, the issues that impinge on good, stable relations are well known at this stage; an open, honest and pragmatic dialogue among them is not only necessary but is surely in the realm of the possible.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2017