The Afghanistan snare

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 15.09.17

In 1979, Pak-Afghan relations strengthened Pak-US relations by waging a conflict against
the invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan. However, in 2017, Pak-Afghan relations are
wearying Pak-US relations, when the US itself is embroiled in the Afghanistan quagmire.

Lately, what nudged Pakistan back into the Afghanistan snare was the attack of the Tehrik-i-
Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. The
TTP had taken refuge in Afghanistan and was attacking on soft targets in Pakistan.
Pakistan took two main steps. First, Pakistan asked Kabul earnestly to take action against
the TTP. This is where the bargaining position of the Kabul government improved. Second,
the then COAS General Raheel Sharif visited Kabul in February 2015 carrying along the
Afghan Taliban’s message for the President Ashraf Ghani that they were ready for
reconciliation (or at least talks for reconciliation) with his government. This is where, though
under duress, Pakistan exposed itself: Pakistan had links with the Afghan Taliban; Pakistan
could persuade the Afghan Taliban to reconciliation (or even negotiations) with the Kabul
government; and Pakistan’s COAS could become an emissary for messaging between the
Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government. Nevertheless, this is how the famous Murree
Peace Process started in 2015.

On July 7, 2015, the first round of the Murree talks, described as the 2+2+1 was
successfully held.  Those attended were the representatives of the warring parties (the
High Peace Council of the Afghan government led by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Hekmat
Khalil Karzai, and the representatives of the Taliban led by Mulla Abbas Durrani), the
representatives of observers (the US and China) and the representatives of the host and
broker (Pakistan). The objective was to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace
and reconciliation process. The mode adopted was to forge confidence-building measures
(CBM) to evoke mutual trust, reduction of violence, and ending the Afghan conflict. The
Afghan Taliban came with certain conditions (such as the complete departure of foreign
troops from the Afghan soil, lifting of the UN sanctions on their leaders and releasing
Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails), but the counter-offer made to them was also enticing.
It was the possibility of the inclusion of the Afghan Taliban in a broad-based Kabul
government, which was ready to offer governorships of certain eastern and southern
provinces to them. The Murree talks were appreciated by Taliban Chief, Mullah Omar in his
annual Eid message by using the word “legitimate”. In response, Afghan President Ghani
welcomed the appreciation and said that the talks were the only way to end the Afghan
conflict. Islamabad, Beijing and Washington also felt jubilated. The second round was
planned to be held on July 31 in Murree and it was expected that an initial break through
would take place. The next rounds of talks were planned for August 15 and 16 in Doha,
Qatar.

Interestingly, on July 29, 2015, the Kabul government announced that Mullah Omar had
died on April 23, 2013, from tuberculosis, in Pakistan. On July 30, the leadership of the
Afghan Taliban (perhaps Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who was the deputy to Mullah Omar) also
confirmed the news and acknowledged that Omar’s death was kept secret for two years.
The news was shocking for Beijing and Washington and embarrassing for Islamabad. The
apparent message was that Pakistan deliberately deceived Kabul, Beijing and Washington.
The underlying assumption to this assertion was that Pakistan knew about the death of
Mullah Omar but kept it undisclosed owing to certain reasons. The whole Murree peace
process got sabotaged, because the representatives of the Afghan Taliban who were
speaking at the behest of Mullah Omar were neither sent nor led by Mullah Omar. In
principle, by masquerading themselves as genuine the representatives of the Afghan
Taliban did a grave act of injustice to all participants, observers and the host of the Murree
talks. On the other hand, Pakistan claimed that, at the official level, it had no idea about
Mullah Omar’s death. This point led to the other assumption. That is, Pakistan’s intelligence
agencies and the army were not in the know about the Afghan Taliban, the message of
whom was delivered to Afghan President Ghani personally by the then COAS General
Raheel Sharif. In other words, if Pakistan was not in the loop, Pakistan was not justified in
facilitating the Murree talks. In either case of assumptions, the credibility of Pakistan hit
rock-bottom. It seemed apparent that there would take place no revival of Murree talks and
the issue of Afghanistan would be left to Afghanistan itself.

The policy speech delivered by US President Donald Trump on August 21 this year
indicated that the US government believed in the first assumption, overlooking the fact that
General Raheel Sharif got retired in November 2016 without fulfilling his pledge of bringing
to justice those who facilitated the attack on the Army Public School Peshawar.

In Afghanistan, one of the major impediments in the way of the Afghan Taliban to wield
power is the Afghan Constitution. In 2013-14, through the Doha office of the Taliban in
Qatar, the US asked the Taliban to participate in the 2014 Presidential elections and join
the ensuing Kabul government. The Taliban were devoid of any electoral or democratic
experience and they might be afraid of rejection through the electoral process. Resultantly,
the Taliban refused to participate in the elections, besides declaring it un-Islamic, and
thought that the turnover would be too low to afford any credibility to the elections. That did
not happen. The Taliban understood that either they would  have to get elected to come to
power or they should be ready to shrivel and wane.

The next Presidential elections will take place in July 2018, democracy will get entrenched
in Afghanistan further and the space for the Taliban will shrink further. This is the worry
which might have prompted the Afghan Taliban to increase attacks on Kabul to crumble it.
The Taliban have been looking for a bypass to have a say in Kabul to revive their pre-2001
monopoly on Afghanistan. This seems not possible, given the fact that; first, Pakistan may
not host any more talks for peace in Afghanistan; second, the Afghan Taliban cannot
participate in any kind of elections to earn positions in the Kabul government; third, US
President Trump has announced his policy to deal with the Afghan insurgency by sending
more forces; and fourth, the next Presidential elections in Afghanistan are approaching
fast. In short, a decisive battle is about to take place in Afghanistan especially in its eastern
and southern parts, whether Pakistan is a party to it or not.

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