IN a long, bloody, seemingly endless war, there have been few moments of hope. The major protagonists, including perhaps a large section of the Afghan Taliban, acknowledge that a political settlement is the only realistic path to eventual peace. Yet, all nascent efforts at realising peace in Afghanistan have quickly floundered. The common good and common sense have not been able to prevail until now. But an unexpected announcement of a ceasefire by the Afghan government, followed by a similar ceasefire declaration, with some important caveats, by the Taliban, has once again opened a door to dialogue in the region. Certainly, there is reason to keep expectations in check. Following the Taliban’s declaration of a ceasefire over Eid specifically against Afghan forces, there have been a number of attacks. While it is unclear if the latest attacks are the work of the Taliban leadership, splinter factions or the militant Islamic State group, it is clear that the mere possibility of dialogue will not automatically curb violence in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, it is important that the overtures from both Kabul and the Taliban leadership be recognised as a real opportunity to initiate a peace dialogue. What is particularly important about Kabul’s declaration of a short ceasefire is that it appears to have been endorsed or encouraged by the US. With the Taliban having consistently held that dialogue with the US is necessary, but the administration of US President Donald Trump having seemingly rejected talks in favour of military pressure, the possibility of a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan had receded. But supportive comments by US officials regarding the ceasefire and intensive diplomacy with the Afghan government and Pakistan in recent weeks suggest that Kabul may have more space to engage the Taliban in dialogue going forward and the insurgent group’s leadership may be encouraged to seek political engagement rather than just wage war on the battlefield.

For Pakistan, the challenge remains the same: encouraging dialogue inside Afghanistan while having Kabul and the US respond to some of Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about violence inside Pakistan being planned and coordinated from Afghan soil. Thus far, those dual imperatives have not been managed satisfactorily, and Pakistan has rightly chafed at Afghan and US accusations and demands to do more without meaningful action being taken to address its legitimate security concerns. But it is highly encouraging that in the latest ceasefire announcements, the state here appears to have been proactive and seemingly used its influence in the service of positive diplomacy. That energy and purpose will help Pakistan because it demonstrates a willingness to participate in peaceful solutions in the region. Further intensive dialogue in the days ahead may help produce more positive developments in the region. A ceasefire, no matter how short to begin with, is an opportunity to achieve major diplomatic breakthroughs.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2018

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