Pakistan mediates between US and Taliban: Will the festering wound heal?

By Faryal Leghari

This article was first published in Gulf News

Pakistan is back on the negotiating table playing mediator between the United States and the Taliban.

And that too at the request of President Donald Trump who wrote to Prime Minister Imran Khan after weeks of severe castigation of Pakistan. It is also a great example of an American U turn, and should have resounded well with Khan who is a self-proclaimed expert in this area more astutely known as political expediency!

Not that Pakistan had ever exited the scenario but the way Washington had sidelined Islamabad’s efforts on the Afghan front, and more or less held it responsible for providing the insurgents vital support, a lot of bad blood has flown between the two. If it takes Afghanistan to mend the fence then so be it.

It is understood that negotiations require immense patience and a long-term commitment to obtain results, especially in conflicts involving nationalist insurgencies. But Afghanistan is the ultimate litmus test for all stakeholders. Moreover, the relations among the main players involved in the conflict directly or in proxy have been tested once too many times, often to their detriment.

Seventeen years on and Afghanistan continues to trouble, despite the semblance of an internationally propped democratic government in Kabul. Foreign forces continue to be stationed and the Taliban hold sway in the majority of the country.

The peace much sought and obtained is of a fragile, violent and self-imploding nature. Even as Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special reconciliation envoy on Afghanistan, embarks on his mammoth shuttle diplomacy rounds with all good intent, the stench of war weariness permeates the renewed international efforts to end the war.

It is a fact that the Taliban are well aware of. And thus, this umpteenth round also goes to the Taliban. Past attempts at political negotiations have resulted in debacles. Remember Karzai’s famous rehabilitation and reintegration policy aimed at including the Taliban in the peace process which fell on its face? But such is the art and craft of negotiations and one that requires an iron will to piece together, inch by inch.

And so, it is hoped that this time around the engagement might actually shift towards a positive direction. For one, the Taliban that refuse to engage with the Afghan government have not backed out knowing their representatives were in the UAE on Monday when they sat down to discuss preambles with officials from the US and the UAE in Pakistan organised peace talks.

Chinese and Russian independent efforts to engage the Afghan insurgents have also added to the sense of urgency that the war should end. Not to forget that these two behemoths have a significant interest in Afghanistan’s stability and their actions on this front is a reminder to the international community, especially the US of their growing international importance and of Washington’s dwindling powers.

The last few years saw Pakistan’s relations with the United States nosedive into a snarling morass. With the US halting military aid to Pakistan unless it delivered on the demands, especially in Afghanistan, relations reached a new low. It seemed that any hope in improvement of ties had fizzled out even as the PTI government took oath under Imran Khan, until recently.

Trump and Khan do make strange bedfellows on the US-Pakistan alliance couch. Mr Khan’s equivocal stance on America has hardened ever since Trump’s suspension of military aid to Pakistan and his angry protestations over the wasted $20 billion meted out to the country. A miniscule amount if one looks at Pakistan’s claim of $123 billion it has incurred while aiding US-led coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

There is no denying the reprisals Pakistan suffered in terms of human cost as it was pulled into the war in Afghanistan. A 2000-plus kilometer shared border added to the complexities – one of the most difficult terrains in the world to monitor – it was to be the security forces’ nightmare and an insurgent’s dream come true.

Pakistan’s own policy diktat was also not made transparent to their American counterparts. It’s military, a long-term proponent of strategic depth doctrine had to carve its own stake in the ensuing mess. And why would it not? After all other regional states had their own axe to grind and their interests to safeguard. Why would Pakistan be expected to do less? Why would it cut off ties with friendly insurgents in the first place, and to think of it, is maintaining contact the same as providing support?

Even if the alleged safe havens on this side of the Durand line and covert support by the military exist, does this translate into the lifeline for the Afghan insurgency? Could someone please do the math and apprise the Americans that even if the Taliban influence holds true for 50-75 per cent, it is their support base in the country that is the driving force behind their perpetuity. No external efforts to destabilise a country through an insurgency can be sustained for so long were it not for genuine support amongst the local population.

Break forever loose or drag along, grateful for any crumbs of military or development aid, never mind if it might be tainted red with blood money for the victims of its collateral appetite, insatiable and ever consuming?

Ah! such allies one can do without, or so one hopes but not in the case of Pakistan whose Faustian relationship with America over decades has coagulated into an ugly dependency, conditioned by the typical carrot and stick policy Uncle Sam has come to be known for. Washington has its own set of complaints against Pakistan trumpeting (literally) the billions in aid spent on an ungrateful, undeserving ally but a comprehensive study of the strategic alliance the two were bound in, speaks louder than the money trickling down as aid.

The protracted war continues to resist to desist with bullets and dollars. The billions spent on rebuilding Afghanistan, on reviving and strengthening extinct institutions, building leadership and a war-torn society from scratch might all be futile unless urgent measures are taken to end the conflict. All stakeholders must do their very best to support this. It is bound to bring up some unpalatable truths that must be accepted if genuine peace and stability are sought. It is vital that all regional states, especially the host country must resist turning Afghanistan into an eternal proxy battlefield. The colonial powers’ battlefield is no more the ideal playing field. Pakistan’s stability is inextricably tied to its western neighbor and Khan’s government must make that herculean effort to get everyone on board, face to face, with no maximalist positions.

Too much is at stake to let this festering wound on its own.

The opinions in this article are of the writer only and do not represent the views of The Weekly Pakistan.

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