Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Friday that Pakistan and India were not engaged in any "peace talks" and the United Arab Emirates was not facilitating anything.
In an interview with TRT World, Qureshi said he wanted to "correct" the host, Andrea Sanke, on her question that whether the "secret" round of peace talks between Pakistan and India being facilitated by the UAE were "showing more promise" than the peace talks in Afghanistan.
"We are not having any peace talks at the moment and the UAE is not facilitating anything," said the foreign minister. He had arrived in Istanbul on Friday for a two-day official visit to "participate in a trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan", according to a statement from the Foreign Office.
Qureshi said he had "seen stories about the 'role of mediation', [but] no".
“[The] UAE is a friend and it has good relations with Pakistan and India," said the foreign minister, adding that all friends had been consistently saying that the two were nuclear countries with outstanding issues who could not go to war, therefore, "the best way forward is dialogue."
"Pakistan has never shied away from dialogue. India had shied away, India took certain steps that vitiated the climate," Qureshi stated.
"Look at the statement Pakistan made, look at the statement Prime Minister Imran Khan made when he won the elections: 'You take one step towards peace, we will take two'.
"It was an olive branch because we as a government, we have a people-centric agenda. We want economic security, we want to concentrate on our economic stability and for that we need peace, we need peace with our eastern neighbour and we need peace on the western front. So talks make sense," said the foreign minister.
He stated that if India wanted to convince Pakistan that it was willing to talk then it would have to create a "conducive environment" — which it had originally vitiated by the actions taken on August 5, 2019, according to Qureshi.
He added that Kashmiris had been "snatched" of their statehood, alienated, deprived of their rights and were still in a "double lockdown". "We are facing a Covid lockdown, they are facing a Covid lockdown and they are facing a military siege."
"So how do we talk to people in that environment. Give them (Kashmiris) the relief, give them the statehood.
"Even the secular voices within India have said the Kashmir policy of the Indian government has failed, it has boomeranged [and] it has failed to achieve the objectives that were initiated when it was launched, so revisit [and] rethink," said FM Qureshi.
"If you are willing to engage, Pakistan will never shy away."
The UAE's envoy to Washington had previously confirmed that the Gulf state was mediating between India and Pakistan to help the nuclear-armed rivals reach a “healthy and functional” relationship.
Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba had said in a virtual discussion with Stanford University's Hoover Institution that the UAE had played a role “in bringing Kashmir escalation down and created a ceasefire, hopefully ultimately leading to restoring diplomats and getting the relationship back to a healthy level”.
“They might not sort of become best friends but at least we want to get it to a level where it's functional, where it's operational, where they are speaking to each other,” he had said.
Top intelligence officers from India and Pakistan held secret talks in Dubai in January in a new effort to calm military tension over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, people with knowledge of the matter had told Reuters.
Ties between India and Pakistan have been frozen since a suicide bombing of an Indian military convoy in occupied Kashmir in 2019 was blamed on Pakistan, leading to India sending warplanes to Pakistan.
Later that year, India's prime minister withdrew the occupied region's autonomy in order to tighten his grip over the territory, provoking outrage in Pakistan and the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade.
'All on the same page'
"The government, the military and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), they're all on the same page and they all believe a peaceful, stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan is in Pakistan's interests," responded the foreign minister to a question from Sanke on how much the Pakistani government and military could do in the Afghan peace process.
"We are all trying very hard to push the peace process forward. It wouldn't have reached to where it has without Pakistan's facilitating role," he said, citing the developments of the Doha peace talks, US-Taliban agreement for withdrawal of US troops, commencement of intra-Afghan peace talks on September 12 and the agreement on the rules of procedure.
"It wouldn't have happened without Pakistan's nudging. Now they are independent people, we can [only] take them so far, ultimately decisions have to be taken by Afghans."
Sanke questioned whether the talks with the Taliban could be called negotiations and that some people referred to them as "blackmail". The foreign minister responded: "I think, in the discussions I've had with them in Islamabad [...] I realised that they have also realised that they need to engage with the rest of the world if they want acceptability and violence is not an option."
"How can you have peace and violence at the same time? That is exactly what we have been telling them [that] reduction in violence is essential [for] leading to a ceasefire," he said, adding that the Taliban were willing to work and honour their commitments.
He also said that it was a "misnomer" when people said that violence in Afghanistan was linked to the Taliban, adding that they [Taliban] could not be blamed for "all the ills in Afghanistan" because there were other terrorist organisations operating in Afghanistan such as Daesh, the banned so-called Islamic State.
"There is an element in Afghanistan who has benefitted from [the] war economy and they are spoilers (of peace)," said Qureshi. He also stated that Pakistan's influence over the Taliban was "exaggerated" and they knew where their interests laid.
"We have been engaging with them because we felt they have a say in Afghanistan and the world has realised after two decades of fights that you cannot have peace until and unless you bring them into the mainstream."
Sanke asked the foreign minister whether he potentially saw a situation where terrorist organisations like Daesh and Al Qaeda stepped in to start working with the Taliban and it went from "bad to worse".
"We are no supporters of Daesh [and] we are no supporters of Al Qaeda. In fact we do not want any terrorist organisation to gain a foothold in the region to cause harm to neighbours and beyond," stated Qureshi. He pointed out that Pakistan had "cleansed" its own areas and started border fencing for more regulation and better border management.
"Have you cleansed your areas? You just had an attack on the most important luxury hotel in Quetta," Sanke pushed back, adding that the attack had been claimed by the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
"The point is, where are they located? where is the TTP located today?" responded Qureshi, adding that the border with Afghanistan was fluid and had been so for "centuries".
"We are now managing it and we have managed it a lot better. Hopefully once the fencing is complete — we are 90 per cent there — we will be able to moderate it in a better way."
'Incidents of terrorism have declined sharply'
When asked if allowing the Taliban back into power would "embolden existing extremist groups in Pakistan", The foreign minister said "terrorists are terrorists" and that applied everywhere. They would take advantage of the situation but "I think if you look at the incidents of terrorism, they have declined sharply".
Sanke pushed back that the decrease in the incidents of terrorism was seen in Pakistan but not in Afghanistan. Qureshi responded that they had not reduced to the extent they should have in Afghanistan and that is why Pakistan had been advocate of "sit and talk".
When questioned what kind of example did recognising the Taliban as a political party set and whether it amounted to rewarding extremism, the foreign minister responded: "How can we reward any terrorist element?"
He said Pakistan had lost 83,000 lives to terrorism and had paid a "huge economic price".
"Do you think we want 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan? [...] Do you think that we would want to impose a way of life which is not acceptable to us in Afghanistan? Do you think we would want to promote extremism and an extremist ideology in Afghanistan?
"Afghanistan is democratic today. Women in Afghanistan have a role and you cannot lock them in and cage them anymore. Girls want to go to school and that should be respected," he said, adding that the Taliban would have to accept the new reality of Afghanistan and "move from the bullet to the ballot".
"What happens when a democratic Afghanistan goes to elections and the voters choose not to recognise the Taliban in any government. Do you think they will respect that?" questioned Sanke.
"The Taliban claim they are popular in the people. Why don't they test their popularity at the ballot box and if the people of Afghanistan do not vote them in, we would respect that," responded the foreign minister, adding that they should be given the opportunity to change.
"Will they respect that?" Sanke asked again, to which Qureshi responded that the Taliban ought to.
"Even irrational elements have to respect public opinion. Don't you think there are irrational people all over the world, but the majority leads the way," Qureshi said.
"You are very much betting that this is a leopard that can change its spots," Sanke stated.
The foreign minister said according to him, there was no other way and the world was now tired, fatigued and suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic.
"They have said we have done our bit, now it's [time] for you Afghans to play your role [...] the rest the Afghans have to decide. What kind of government they want, what kind of political dispensation they want, who are we to tell them?"
He said the notion of Afghanistan descending back into civil war "concerns me and should concern Pakistan because we want a stable, peaceful Afghanistan". Qureshi said that Pakistan had also suffered and was supporting three million Afghan refugees.
"There could be spoilers outside Afghanistan who feel peace is not good for them. They have their own national objectives. They don't have regional objectives which is peace and tranquility," he retorted to a question about some people saying the Taliban didn't believe peace to be good for them.
Sanke also questioned the foreign minister on the role of Turkey in the Afghan peace process and whether it was "fundamental in moving this process forward".
"Turkey is an important player. Turkey has influence in the region and substantial influence in Afghanistan and we are thankful to Turkey for playing that role to begin with," responded Qureshi.
He said it was time for Afghans to decide whether "do they want to keep killing each other, do they want to remain untouchables vis a vis the rest of the world or do they want respectability. The world has done everything possible for them."
"Look at the donor conferences. Look at the money that has been pumped into Afghanistan and look at the way that money has been utilised and at times misutilised [and] gone into people's pockets.
"Let's be honest about it. I'm being very candid and I'm doing it because I'm a friend of Afghanistan. I believe in a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan," said the foreign minister.
He said he had well wishes for the country and emphasised that and not just the Taliban, but elements in the Afghan government would have to realise that engagements and negotiations across the table would be slow and a "bumpy ride".
"But you will have to persevere and you will have to be patient."