Finally the stage has been set for the long-awaited Afghan peace talks. Preliminary work has been completed and now the modalities of how these talks will be held are being worked out. Pakistan will be part of these talks despite worsening relations between the US and Pakistan, which suggest that either Pakistan is being denied a major role in the talks or that the Americans are increasing pressure to force us to toe their line during the talks. In the past, Nato did try to talk to the Taliban without involving Islamabad, an attempt which was thwarted by Pakistan. During a visit to Kabul in March 2011 with a delegation of the Senate of Pakistan, I got the impression that it has been realised that no peace talks can be successful without Pakistan’s consent.
The three-day visit included meetings with the Afghan Peace Council. From these talks it was obvious that serious efforts are underway to bring peace to Afghanistan by engaging the Taliban in negotiations, though from what I could gather of the plan, it has many snags in it.
Afghanistan High Peace Council chairman Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani said that the Afghan Taliban held by Pakistan should be released. America will release some of the Taliban leaders it has as captives. Simultaneously, the United Nations will be asked to ease sanctions on certain Taliban leaders, which has already been done. These released leaders will be taken to another country which, in my understanding, is Turkey. Information available suggests that a Taliban office has already been established there.
A closer look at the developments of the past few weeks puts all the pieces together. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran. On the eve of his visit to Iran, the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan called on him. Prior to going to Iran, President Zardari visited Kabul, apparently to condole the death of President Karzai’s brother. Now he is in Saudi Arabia, probably to discuss his Iran visit.
On the other hand, if we look at the ground situation, it is still volatile. In july, Nato handed over parts of Helmand to Afghan forces. This is a test case with Isaf forces present to oversee it. The real problem will be in Pashtun dominated areas from where Taliban draw their strength. The killing of Karzai’s brother and his close adviser must have sent shudders across pro-government elements. Does this suggest that the Taliban are also divided on the issue of talks with Karzai government?
The Pashtun, non-Pashtun divide was clearly visible amongst the Afghans at the top level. This divide if not sorted out will have grave consequences for Afghanistan as well as Pakistan.
The major issues at hand are how to include the Taliban in the government and making them accept the constitution of Afghanistan. They are likely to demand major changes in the constitution. As they do not have representation in the parliament due to boycott of elections, how will existing parliament members respond to their demands?
Secondly, leaving out certain hard-core Taliban will result in a division of the Taliban. They will still fight and the problems will remain unsolved.
For Pakistan, it is time to take stock of its own position and take decisions accordingly, because the US may leave Afghanistan as announced, and we will face the after-effects of the fallout. A united stable Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan. The failure of these talks or escalation of hostilities among Afghans factions may ultimately result in a division of Afghanistan on ethnic lines. A Pashtun Afghanistan on our borders will be a disaster.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2011.