Striking a deal

Updated July 28, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE Afghan peace process has entered a crucial phase, making it even trickier for Pakistan. As many had anticipated, Afghanistan remained the main point of deliberations held between the Pakistani and US leaderships in Washington, D.C. last week. Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to pursue the Afghan Taliban leadership to initiate talks with the Afghan government.

Read: PM thanks Trump for hospitality, says Pakistan 'will do everything' to facilitate Afghan peace

During the prime minister’s visit, most US leaders and officials acknowledged and appreciated Pakistan’s role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table for talks. The US administration didn’t use the mantra of ‘do more’ this time, but politely requested Pakistan to continue playing a constructive role in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan’s leadership categorically agreed to take up the task. On the other hand, the Taliban have also indicated that they will accept the invitation of meeting the Pakistani prime minister. The meeting will indicate how much influence Pakistan still has over the Taliban.

So far, the Taliban’s position on the option of direct talks with the government of President Ashraf Ghani has remained stiff. However, they had indicated that if their negotiations with the US succeed, they would then initiate negotiations with other Afghan stakeholders including the Afghan government. Yet it remains to be seen whether or not they change their position on initiating a separate talks channel with Kabul. In the event they show reluctance and deny Pakistan’s request, will Pakistan adopt a coercive approach? If so, it will be interesting to see how it affects the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan.

For Pakistan, restoring its relationship with the US is important not only for speeding up economic recovery but also for rebalancing its regional geostrategic position. The country had been suffering because of its dissimilar approaches towards the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups. In recent years, it has tried to diversify its strategic partnerships, ranging from Moscow to Beijing, and Istanbul to Riyadh, which also entailed some valuable defence partnerships. But it appears as though the policymakers did not see these partnerships as a counterbalance to growing US unfriendliness. The strengthening strategic partnership between India and the US also affected the Pakistani establishment’s policy choices, forcing it to review its approaches towards Afghanistan and the Taliban.

For Pakistan, the Taliban will remain a challenge at both stages of the peace process.

Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships had divergent views on Afghanistan and militant groups, which had also caused serious tensions within the both sides. What Pakistan has pledged this time was also demanded of previous civilian governments. During the presser with Prime Minister Khan, President Donald Trump noted that Pakistan could have done a lot in the past with respect to Afghanistan. Had that happened, Pakistan’s economy and geostrategic position would have been much better.

Pakistan, however, has reviewed its approaches before taking more losses. The country is set to gain in the whole process as India has failed to develop its relevance in the Afghan peace process. On this ground alone, Pakistan’s establishment considers it a major achievement. Similarly, the US offer of mediation over the Kashmir issue has put pressure on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It has happened at a time when the Trump administration was not comfortable with India’s recent multibillion-dollar deals with Russia, and trade tensions between the two nations were rising.

Mr Khan’s visit to the US is bringing the country back onto the regular diplomacy tracks. To keep this momentum, the government has to deliver on Afghanistan. The probability of direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul would be one challenge, but influencing the former to commit to a lasting ceasefire could prove another daunting task.

So far, the Taliban have proved to be hard negotiators. Their talks with the US would focus on the broader framework of the withdrawal plan and interim setup, but committing to a permanent ceasefire would be a hard point for the Taliban leadership. Many field commanders are under the illusion that they are winning the war, and would not easily agree on anything less than their rule over the entire country. This delusion of victory has reached such a level that it would be an enormous challenge for the negotiating Taliban leadership to overcome. They know that convincing the field commanders on power-sharing with other Afghan stakeholders is a difficult task. The chances of low-level revolts against the leadership cannot be overruled.

Such revolts may not be difficult to handle for the Taliban, but can provide them an excuse for prolonging the negotiation process. This scenario cannot be ignored in the second phase of the reconciliation process. The first stage, consisting of direct negotiations between the US and Taliban, may go through all the bumpy patches. It would give a sense of victory to the Taliban, but the second stage would be more turbulent when power-sharing and constitutional issues would be discussed.

For Pakistan, the Taliban will remain a challenge at both stages. The US and other major global actors, including China and Russia, are relying on Pakistan — and if the Taliban refuses to listen to Pakistan, it would be a disaster for the establishment. It is a known fact that many Taliban field commanders are not happy with Pakistan, and the Taliban leadership resists Pakistani pressure citing this as their argument. What can Pakistan do in such a worst-case scenario? Arrests of dissenting elements when they enter Pakistan would be an option, which has been used in the past. Many commanders apparently still have families inside Pakistan, and the government can use this factor as a tool.

Pakistan might also have other options to pressurise the Taliban leadership. The Haqqanis could be effective in the Taliban decision-making process, but they have a limit to their influence. Can Pakistan envision a complete disconnect with the Taliban? This is a tough question, but the Taliban too cannot afford to say goodbye to Pakistan.

It will be a test case for the prime minister and military leadership to fulfil the international community’s expectations — ie to make a deal possible between the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2019