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Failed initiatives

August 16, 2012

DIFFERENCES over cross-border incursions in eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan have led to the postponement of the crucial visit of Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, to Islamabad. Reports suggest the visit has been put off indefinitely.

On the request of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, President Karzai’s chief negotiator was scheduled to visit Islamabad in the second week of August to market what can be dubbed as a repackaged proposal of formulating the Pak-Afghan Joint Peace Council in order to approach the Taliban for peace talks.

Reports from Kabul suggest members of the Afghan High Peace Council from Kunar and Nuristan — two provinces allegedly subjected to severe bombing and artillery shelling by Pakistan — refused to accompany the younger Rabbani till total cessation of suspected hostilities by Pakistani forces from across the border on the provocation of militants.

A similar proposal was earlier presented by late Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani; Pakistan rejected it on the grounds that both countries are facing different security situations.

However, this time the Afghan government and its American backers seem serious about pursuing the project with the apparent motive of making Pakistan a part of the negotiating team to exploit, what they believe, are Islamabad’s contacts with the Afghan Taliban to force the latter to negotiate with the Karzai government.

There are other reasons too that are put forward by independent Afghan observers and commonly heard in Kabul. Kabul and Washington are receiving positive signals from the Taliban indicating their willingness to negotiate, and both feel Pakistan must not be left out of the game. At the same time, neither capital trusts Pakistan and hence does not want to keep it out of the loop. Both believe that if Pakistan is kept out, it might play the role of spoiler by encouraging factions within the Taliban such as the dreaded Haqqani group.

For the proponents of the joint peace commission, the time is ripe to throw such an initiative at an already pressured Pakistan and let the younger Rabbani achieve what his father failed to do. Some believe that by delaying the visit of Rabbani on various pretexts, Kabul continues to build more pressure on Islamabad to accept the joint commission and make his maiden visit a success.

The proposed joint peace commission is a step ahead of what Burhanuddin Rabbani proposed. According to the late Prof Rabbani’s plan, Pakistan will constitute its own peace council on the lines of the Afghan High Peace Council and negotiate with insurgents on its side of the Durand Line. Later, a joint body for peace would be formed comprising members of both the peace councils for joint talks with insurgents of the two countries.

The senior politician was basing his plan on a popular but correct impression that the Afghan insurgency has extended its roots across the border and needs to be addressed simultaneously. Prof Rabbani wanted Islamabad to orchestrate a peace deal with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan through a body of peacemakers, while Afghanistan would carry out its own plan.

Pakistan rejected this proposal and, adopting an ostrich-like approach, concluded there was no insurgency or militancy in Pakistan and it could handle the few terrorists in the border areas by force instead of making any deal with them.

The proposal of separate peace bodies for reaching out to militants on both sides of the border had more chances of success than the joint committees/councils which have never worked in the Pakistan-Afghanistan context. But rejecting the proposal of separate peace commissions, Islamabad and Kabul then formed the Pak-Afghan Joint Peace and Development Commission (PAJPDC) on April 16, 2011, headed by the chief executives of both countries and tasked to work on all issues confronting them. This was meant to be a more broad-based set-up dealing with overall Pak-Afghan relations.

The PAJPDC has so far held only one meeting since its constitution while the assassination of Prof Rabbani in a suicide attack in Kabul in September 2011 made it a redundant entity.

Similarly in August 2007, with US support, a joint loya jirga was convened where 700 delegates — 350 from each side — participated, including the prime minister of Pakistan and president of Afghanistan. Making grand pledges, the total outcome of the loya jirga was the formation of two small jirgas known as jirga gai (Pushto for ‘small jirga’) in both countries. Unfortunately, these jirgas died a silent death, without managing even a single meeting to date.

The huge trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan is considered the major reason behind the failure of joint enterprises. Hence, one can predict the future of the proposed joint peace commission on the basis of past experience.

Keeping in view the deeply entrenched narrative in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the Taliban are under the Pakistan military’s control, Pakistan needs to be mindful of any failure of the joint commission and its subsequent exploitation by Kabul and Washington as an opportunity to present Pakistan as a spoiler.

This narrative has already been used by the US and Afghan governments for concealing failures against the Taliban and might be used again if the joint commission fails.

Pakistan’s major failure on the Afghan front is not presenting its case properly to the world. It failed to convince the international community that the Taliban are not in its control, a fact which is also supported by independent Afghan analysts, political thinkers and even leading politicians.

Pakistan needs to evaluate its strengths regarding the resolution of the Afghan conflict objectively and honestly, and convince the international community, including the Afghan regime, of the help it can extend in reaching out to Taliban insurgents instead of becoming a party to any joint venture destined to fail.

The writer is director news, Khyber Television.