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Some forward movement

October 03, 2012

IT seems that the theme of reconciliation within Afghanistan has by and large dominated the many discussions held on that country in New York over the last fortnight.

President Hamid Karzai did reiterate the charge made first by his foreign minister in the UN Security Council, perhaps with his domestic audience in mind, that the bombing of Afghan villages by Pakistan risked undermining the efforts of the two governments to work together.

The greater emphasis, however, appeared to be on the critical role Pakistan had to play in bringing peace to Afghanistan. He added as was to be expected that this was critical for “Pakistan’s own security, and of the security of the wider region and beyond”. He also called upon the UN Security Council to aid efforts at reconciliation and urged the sanctions committee to take more active measures towards delisting Taliban leaders to facilitate direct negotiations.

Some ‘understandings’ reached at the trilateral meeting of American, Afghan and Pakistani officials were also discussed and their implementation was also agreed upon when Presidents Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari met separately and then in a trilateral summit with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

From the relatively sparse reporting, it seems that the Afghans made it clear that they were looking for ways to bring the Taliban into the mainstream, that they were looking for Pakistan’s assistance in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with Karzai, rather than insisting, as they have been doing so far, that they will talk only to the Americans. Implicit it seems is the ‘understanding’ now that Pakistan will have a seat at the table when these negotiations do start and that in the meanwhile both sides will work at eliminating or at least reducing the trust deficit that has bedevilled relations between the two countries.

One important step in this direction may be the announcement that the two sides have agreed on signing a strategic partnership agreement. No further details have been made available at this time but it would seem that Pakistan must have insisted that Afghanistan sign such an agreement given that it has concluded such agreements with a host of countries including, most importantly from Pakistan’s perspective, India.

What this agreement will contain may well determine the extent to which trust is created and the extent to which Pakistan is able to extend assistance in the reconciliation process which may well require it to engage in ‘tough talk’ with the Taliban on its soil and risk the ire of some of the Taliban supporters in the Pakistani body politic.

Perhaps the most significant meeting in terms of moving reconciliation forward was the one that President Zardari and his aides had with a US team led by Marc Grossman, the point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.

According to a report in the Washington Post based on briefings from American participants in the “nearly five-hour meeting” the focus was on planning a joint US-Pakistan effort “to draw the Taliban towards peace talks in Afghanistan, an initiative that could help reconcile some militants and give Pakistan a say in the political future of its larger [sic] neighbour”.

The report goes on to suggest that, while not yet agreed upon, there would be a sort of joint vetting process to determine who the ‘reconcilables’ are among the Taliban using Pakistan’s extensive intelligence on this subject and also working out modalities for providing ‘safe passage’ for such Taliban to participate in peace talks.

This report concludes that “Any deal is likely to take years, far outlasting the current plans to end formal combat against the Taliban in 2014”.

So far of course the American idea has not been to end formal combat against the Taliban in 2014 but only that such combat will be conducted by the Afghan National Security Forces and the American or Nato forces will only be in a supportive role as training advisers and providers of intelligence and air support.

One assumes that this phrasing was sloppy reporting but it could perhaps also mean that those talking to the reporter entertained the forlorn hope that some sort of ceasefire would be in place by the time the major part of the American and Nato forces had withdrawn.

By and large despite the many hurdles that remain these agreements or understandings represent a step forward and offer some hope that reconciliation will move forward.

Certainly there have been indications from some prominent Taliban that they cannot expect to prevail on the battlefield and are prepared to move towards some form of reconciliation to spare the country further destruction. If the reading of these meetings is correct, Pakistan’s negotiators appear also to have won the long-desired right to have a seat at the negotiating table.

What Pakistan will do with this right is not clear. Perhaps it will seek a guarantee that the new regime that emerges in Afghanistan will not seek to play India off against Pakistan. Perhaps such a guarantee will even be forthcoming but one can be sure that this will not be durable. Perhaps it will also seek an Afghan acknowledgment that the Durand Line is the international border between the two countries. This too appears problematic. For any Afghan Pakhtun, Talib or moderate, this would be hard if not impossible to concede.

What is perhaps more important is that once the seat at the table is conceded there will be legitimate expectations that Pakistan will genuinely exert itself to participate in the vetting ‘process’ and will deliver the reconcilables to the negotiating table. There is no doubt that this in itself will be a significant gain for Pakistan because it is Pakistan more than any other country that will suffer if reconciliation does not come and Afghanistan descends, as it is bound to do, into civil war.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.