As rumours of secret contacts between Washington and ‘representatives’ of the Taliban floated around during the last two years, Turkey was often mentioned where the process would eventually become ‘visible’ in the shape of a liaison Taliban office. In the end, it was the fabulously rich Qatar, that became the favoured site for it.
Some instant commentaries in the west pointed out that, apart from being a trusted ally of the United States in Arab affairs, Qatar would also make it easier for the Americans to insulate the Doha Taliban office against undue influence of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai.
As the dust settles on the Salala attack and Pakistan’s closure of Nato supply routes, we are beginning to see a grudging realisation that Islamabad cannot be completely marginalised. Should this thinking become the latest point of inflection in Washington, Pakistan should be ready with a set of flexible responses, unified by its overriding need for a stable, united, friendly and prosperous Afghanistan. Neighbouring India would, for some time more, walk the tight rope between opportunistic acceptance of the changing American thinking and its original effort to deny the Taliban a share in Afghanistan’s future.
Pakistan’s diplomacy has to operate at several levels. First and foremost, there is the need to narrow differences with the United States. Basically Pakistan‘s problem with Washington has been a lack of American clarity on a number of issues about the run-up to 2014 and Afghanistan’s future beyond 2014; the problem, unfortunately, still persists. American intentions about Afghanistan’s regional relations are ambivalent. Preoccupation with India has become an essential part of Washington’s China policy. In Bonn, Karzai’s men informed the international community that Kabul expects $10 billion per annum through 2025 for the western project to succeed. Experts have calculated that it would translate into an American commitment of at least, $140 billion over a decade.
Secondly, Pakistan must deepen its current conversation with Karzai despite the known pitfalls. Karzai should bow out in 2014, according to the Afghan Constitution but, he may seek to circumvent this provision. Be it as it may, he will have to struggle hard to demonstrate to his people that the phrase ‘Afghan-led peace process’ means that it is led by him along with his High Peace Council. By accident or design, the ethnic competition in Afghanistan has sharpened, not diminished, during the period of centralisation provided by an occupation force and Karzai’s preference for only limited devolution to regions — and even the national parliament. Even if the Qatar process aims at bringing the Taliban in on a restrictive basis, they may still make a bid to control Kabul either because of their own hidden agenda or because other ethnic militias either try to dominate Kabul, or failing that, push regional autonomy too far.
Pakistan will be affected by any of these scenarios. The real issue is no longer Pakistan pursuing ‘strategic depth’, a dead concept that Pakistani liberals and retired diplomats cannot get over; it is adjusting Pakistan diplomacy, trade and security, especially in the tribal belt to the dialectics of the Afghan situation. It warrants that Pakistan greatly improves its conversations with the non-Pushtun power brokers as well. It is unlikely that Nato-Isaf would leave Afghanistan in a state of inviolable coherence.
Third, Pakistan must intensify or initiate conversations with all the neighbours and near neighbours of Afghanistan in its future and the parameters in which they all, including Pakistan, should operate. Iran, Turkey, China and Russia are accessible straightaway; for India, the Pakistan foreign office must develop a viable approach. The Qatar process cannot blossom in isolation even if the Americans and the well-meaning rulers of Qatar may think otherwise; it has to be part of a robust bilateral and multilateral diplomacy amongst all the stakeholders.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2012.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ