THROUGH a pall of extreme violence, a glimmer of hope has appeared.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opened a peace conference in Kabul on Wednesday by offering the Afghan Taliban peace talks with no preconditions.

In a sweeping proposal, a first in over 17 years of war against the Taliban, the Afghan leader suggested a ceasefire, prisoner swaps and recognising the Taliban as a political party to facilitate a Kabul-based peace process.

The offer of dialogue itself is not new and many elements of Mr Ghani’s proposal are familiar, but taken together they offer a potentially comprehensive path to eventual peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Importantly, Mr Ghani spoke mainly about peace and reconciliation and eschewed bellicose rhetoric in his speech.

In a country where so many missed opportunities and poor choices by all sides in the war have blocked all avenues to peace so far, the tone in which positive, peaceful suggestions are made can be as relevant as the substance of the offer itself.

While the few, halting efforts at peace process so far have failed, it has long been clear that for peace and stability in Afghanistan, a successful dialogue can only be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.

Certainly, countries such as Pakistan, the US, Iran and others with influence in Afghanistan will have a role to play, but the dialogue must be primarily conducted among the various Afghan groups.

In the case of the US, the Taliban’s general insistence on bypassing Kabul and directly talking to Washington, the apparent unwillingness of the Trump administration to engage in dialogue with the Taliban, and the need for a decision on withdrawal of foreign troops from the US suggests that an intra-Afghan peace process will have significant hurdles to overcome.

Nevertheless, without a predominantly internally driven peace process, it is not clear how peace can ever be achieved in a war where neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban appear capable of winning a decisive military victory.

For Pakistan, the path ahead is relatively clear: do as much as possible to nudge along an intra-Afghan dialogue while seeking the cooperation of the government in Kabul against anti-Pakistan militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Certainly, given their long history of conflict and mistrust, Pakistan and Afghanistan will not easily be able to deliver the mutual cooperation that is needed to progressively eliminate militancy from the region.

Yet, that very history of conflict and mistrust should be reason enough to force new, positive change.

Neither have a succession of governments and military leaderships in Pakistan been able to vanquish militancy inside Pakistan, nor have three US presidencies and two very different attempts at a national government in Afghanistan delivered an acceptable level of security in Afghanistan.

There is an alternative to permanent war and conflict.

President Ghani has demonstrated boldness and vision; Pakistan should reciprocate for the region’s sake.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2018

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