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Improved prospects

December 19, 2012

DESPITE the difficulties created by the attack on the Afghan intelligence chief, the trilateral summit in Turkey was a step forward in the effort to reinforce an apparent agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to this, reconciliation in Afghanistan is a common goal and in the interest of both countries.

Some more Taliban held by Pakistan have been freed making, according to some reports, a total of 18 released since last month. Pakistan has also agreed to release some more mid-level Taliban in the coming months and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has hinted that if progress is made then the release of Ghani Baradar could also be considered.

Leading religious figures from Pakistan and Afghanistan will meet early next year presumably to jointly condemn terrorism and call upon the people to eschew violence. They will probably be persuaded to also call on the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Karzai administration.

This would be a minor step in the implementation of the ‘road map’ for peace drawn up by the Afghans and which was presented by Salahuddin Rabbani to his Pakistani interlocutors during his visit to Pakistan last month (some reports suggest that the road map was a joint Pak-Afghan draft that was subsequently presented to the Americans).

The most important elements of this road map, revealed by an American news agency, were that in a series of five steps up to 2015 the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire and renounce ties with Al Qaeda. In return, they would be given power in the areas in which they were dominant and a share of power in Kabul. Pakistan, the document makes clear, would have the key role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table to work out this arrangement.

Preliminary steps would include meetings in Saudi Arabia, preceded by a delisting of potential Taliban negotiators currently under UN sanctions and the arranging of safe passage so that terms and conditions could be worked out with the cooperation of all parties i.e. the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan for the talks that would commence in the second half of 2013.

The ‘peace process road map’ expresses the certitude that by 2015, the Taliban and other armed groups would have given up armed opposition, and would have been transformed into political groups under the present constitution.

There is much in the road map that can be regarded with scepticism or even dismissed as fantasy. There are a number of imponderables including the measure of support the road map enjoys in Afghanistan, the spoiler role of powerful drug traffickers and warlords who flourish while instability pervades the region, the political differences between President Karzai and the loyal opposition.

At the other end there exist differences within Taliban ranks, with many factions believing that having fought for a decade against a superpower they are within sight of total victory.

Such questioning is valid but given the irreversibility of the American decision to withdraw and the signs, albeit faint, that the majority of the Taliban too realise that it would be impossible to return to the Taliban era in today’s Afghanistan, this does seem to offer some hope of a negotiated settlement — provided a measure of trust can be created and Pakistan plays the limited cards it has with skill.

From Pakistan’s perspective, there should be no doubt that even while Karzai will agree to grant immunity to American forces that remain in Afghanistan after 2014 the number of such forces will not be more than 6,000 to 9,000 and their principal focus will be counterterrorism, including drone attacks, in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

There should be no doubt that, absent reconciliation, the Afghan National Security Forces will be ill-prepared to combat the Taliban and without American logistical and air support they will disintegrate, leaving the field open for the ethnic militias which are already assuming dangerous proportions in the north of the country.

There should be no doubt that in these circumstances the expected economic slump and the flight of capital that is already under way will be exacerbated and Pakistan will be hit with a fresh influx of refugees across the only border open to the Afghans fleeing the country. There should be no doubt that the illusory distinction between the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan will then disappear and the Pakistani state will have to contend with their combined might.

The obstacles are formidable. The first opportunity for the Taliban to meet Karzai administration representatives and loyal opposition members will come this week when they send a two-man delegation to a conference arranged by the French think tank, the Foundation for Strategic Research.

The official spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, has said that they will not be talking about peace at this conference but merely putting forward their point of view. This clearly reflects the Taliban fear that their hardliners would view peace talks with the Karzai administration and the loyal opposition as treason. But the very fact that the Taliban will be there and will be represented by the team already based in Qatar would indicate that such preliminary talks have the blessing of Mullah Omar.

It is also likely that despite Russian misgivings the Afghan move with full American support will succeed in securing the delisting from the UN sanctions list of the Taliban who could be potential negotiators.

It is also likely that once the preoccupation with the ‘fiscal cliff’ ends, President Obama will demand and secure congressional approval for the transfer of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo to Qatar. That is recognised as a key step in building confidence and may reduce the scepticism among Taliban hardliners. It may let them publicly announce a readiness to talk to Karzai, perhaps even to publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda. Pakistan will have an important role to play in achieving these two goals.

Much else will need to be done not only in New York and Washington or London but also in Kabul by a Pakistan that has finally made up its mind that Afghan stability is as much a priority for Pakistanis as it is for the Afghans.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.