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Karzai in DC

January 14, 2013

THE most important takeaway to emerge from President Karzai’s visit to Washington was not, in fact, what the American presence in Afghanistan will look like after 2014; that decision still appears to be under negotiation. Far clearer was the reaffirmation — and intensification — of America’s plans to wind down its presence in Afghanistan. Speeding up plans to hand over primary combat responsibility to Afghan troops, President Obama said this would be done by the spring, earlier than planned. By implication, that would allow for accelerating the pace at which American troops are withdrawn as the 2014 deadline approaches. But one thing should be clear to the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan: their interests will be under threat if the speedy transition is not accompanied by a solid effort to reach a political settlement for Afghanistan.

All three countries do seem to recognise this; Presidents Obama and Karzai stressed the reconciliation point and said the Doha talks with the Taliban would be revived, and Pakistan’s release of some Taliban fighters indicates a willingness to actively facilitate the process. But in Pakistan, at least, the security and foreign policy establishments still do not seem to share a common vision, strategy and goals for the Afghan peace process, one that has complex implications for this country. Bringing the Afghan Taliban into the political process could help prevent a return to civil war or to a Taliban-dominated government, either of which could destabilise not just Afghanistan, but the region. But any power-sharing for the Taliban should come with assurances that the Pakistani Taliban and other anti-Pakistan militants will not be given new safe havens across the border. Given the complexities of the issue, and the current US administration’s demonstrated desire for a rapid exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to quickly develop a coherent approach to Afghan reconciliation, one that focuses on ensuring our internal security rather than trying to be a player in post-2014 Afghanistan or fending off perceived external threats.

But Afghanistan’s history has proved that stability in the region is not about Pak-Afghan relations alone. No peace process will be viable unless Afghanistan’s other neighbours also refrain from using the country as a stage on which to further their own interests or project their power vis-à-vis other regional players. That, in turn, will be only possible if the post-2014 set-up has their buy-in. The core group of the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan is making the right move by emphasising Afghan reconciliation. As the end of 2014 approaches, though, that effort will must be widened to ensure a sustainable peace in the region.