The air in Kabul is filled with acute scepticism, fearful uncertainty and a bit of optimism pinned on the inauguration of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and the expected visit by Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif.
Most Kabulites, both ordinary citizens as well as the ruling elites, remain extremely sceptical of Pakistan’s commitment to counterterrorism. They continue to be wary of Pakistan’s ‘nexus’ with the Taliban and the Haqqanis. They also point to the existence of jihadi groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, as something contrary to Islamabad’s claim that “Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy”. They still insist that Operation Zarb-e-Azb excluded the Afghan Taliban from action on the ground.
Accompanying this scepticism is the fearful uncertainty that the relentless Taliban attacks and advances — Kunduz, Helmand, Ningarhar and the suicide bombing on a Nato base near Bagram on December 21 — are generating. Most Afghans view this terror campaign as a ploy to bring the Taliban back. This situation makes the majority of Afghans uncertain about the future of the current National Unity Government (NUG) and is instilling fear in them. The situation is also marked by impatience vis-a-vis Pakistan, as well as disagreements within the NUG over whether to talk to the Taliban or to take them on as terrorists who are killing Afghan women and children indiscriminately. If Afghans agree on this, Pakistan should respond accordingly and not spare anybody who is using its soil for planning terror inside Afghanistan.
Amidst this uncertainty, the government has announced that the TAPI pipeline would create about 7,000 jobs — a promise that has rekindled some hope. This optimism has received further impetus by the news of General Raheel Sharif’s impending visit. Some in Kabul are hoping this visit might inject new confidence in the bilateral relationship.
This is how one could sum up the Afghan reservations and observations at a recent huddle of leading Pakistani and Afghan security experts and parliamentarians held this week in Kabul. Led by the Center for Research and Security Studies, the dialogue couldn’t have come at a better time. Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, told the participants to appreciate that the “threat to Pakistan (at the hands of terrorists and militants) is not as existential as it is to Afghanistan”. She underscored the need for resumption of peace talks as soon as possible because the past decade or so proves that the “military solution is no option”. What is going on in Afghanistan is threatening Afghans as well as extended communities, and hence the need for a coordinated, honest attempt to take the road to reconciliation through negotiations. Drawing on the British experience in fighting the Irish insurgency, Pierce pointed out that it took the IRA two years to learn to negotiate and this is what all Afghan stakeholders need to do as the international community stands by to support them in finding peace and reconciliation.
Some of the participants spoke of the urgency for a candid dialogue among the military and intelligence apparatus as key to durable negotiations. The major stumbling block, most observed, was the trust deficit, which could be narrowed only through talks. Participants also urged both governments to urgently agree on standard operating procedures for better border management. This, they said, was key to stemming cross-border movement of terrorists. This would also improve the operational difficulties and facilitate state-to-state dialogue on counterterrorism. A second crucial element of the Pak-Afghan counterterrorism strategy, Pakistani delegates suggested, would be to put in place a joint verification mechanism to deal with the issue of terrorist and militant sanctuaries in both countries. The Quetta and Peshawar Taliban shuras were specifically referenced in this context. Most participants agreed that both countries must commit to protecting every inch of the border.
Participants from both sides agreed on the urgency of a bilateral dialogue in addition to the resumption of the reconciliation process. They agreed that the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad on December 9 offered a new window of opportunity for engagement among all key stakeholders for a strategy on dealing with the issue of ‘legitimate interlocutors’ and the ‘red lines’ that are still a source of contention. The Taliban reject the Afghan Constitution while the majority, including Pakistan and the international community, consider this as the foundation for any dialogue on the political future of the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2015.
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