Newspaper Article 16/03/2016
Relatively little is being said about it in the French media because Afghanistan has been forgotten due to the crisis in Syria, and because Westerners are not, this time, on the frontline, but the inter-Afghan peace process is striving, with difficulty, to emerge. The first meeting on this subject took place on January 11, 2016, in Islamabad. The second took place on January 18 in Kabul. The Americans were present, of course. But the three other key players in what, is in fact, a quadrilateral dialogue, are all from the region: the Afghans of course, but also China and Pakistan.
It is primarily the latter two countries that were active in the early stages of the peace process in 2015. And it is clear that it was Pakistan, strongly encouraged by Beijing, which pushed major Taliban figures to come to the negotiating table in early July 2015. It was only due to the confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar, on July 29, 2015, that the first attempt was derailed. At the beginning of 2016, the peace process was revived. This is good news indeed for Afghans and the international community. Good news that is the result of the combined efforts of the China-Pakistan duo.
The prophets of doom were quick to announce that the negotiations would collapse once again -predicting the worst is in fact a very easy position to adopt. A peace process is, by definition, a bold gamble that may not succeed. Yet the fact that Pakistan and China continue to engage themselves to bring about dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government after the failure of the talks in the summer of 2015 should be a source of optimism. The highly positive involvement of Beijing has already been explained. We will focus here on Pakistan. This regional power is important for Afghanistan, whatever happens, since the two countries share a 2,640 km-Iong border that is difficult to control, a tense bilateral history, indisputable economic and human ties (the Pashtun population is divided between the two countries; the 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan). In short, peace in Afghanistan cannot be envisioned without Pakistan.
And indeed, for Islamabad, continuing to engage in the peace process makes particular good sense. We have seen, especially since democracy returned to this country, a gradual change in its Afghan policy. What is the purpose of this development? To have as stabilising an influence as possible on its neighbour, and to be associated to solutions for Afghanistan rather than to its problems by the international community. On this point, there seems to be unanimity among the civilians and the military. The latter have been at the forefront in the fight against terrorists seeking to destabilise their country from their base in the tribal areas. This led to a renewed geopolitical vision among a significant number of officers.
This new approach is globally linked to good geopolitical sense: until Afghanistan does not experience some degree of stability! the Afghan-Pakistani border will always remain porous, and consequently, the Pakistan border areas will always be in danger of destabilisation, and the whole country at risk from terrorist attacks. By continuing to support the peace process, Islamabad also wants to show President Ghani that he Was right to reach out to his neighbour, Pakistan. The mutual distrust between Kabul and Islamabad will not be easy to overcome, especially since is long-standing. But by continuing to support the peace process, the Pakistani leadership is demonstrating that it is prepared to go beyond old rivalries.
Of course, Pakistanis are seeking to defend their interests. Seen from Islamabad, this means ensuring that Kabul cannot revert into being the historical enemy that it was from 1947 to the late 1980s. One cannot blame the legal government of Pakistan for protecting its national interests, like any other state. And under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif, it seems to be doing this in a moderate and reasonable way. It is clearly avoiding what had been a trademark of diplomatic relations between the two countries, at their worst: unfair accusations against the neighbouring state, which was necessarily held responsible for all security ills. However, it does not deny that from the perspective of Islamabad, Afghan territory is still considered the base of sometimes hostile actions. Thus, according to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Kabul and his country are honest in their fight against terrorists who are seeking to destabilise the two states. But he also said, on January 24, 2016, that the political-military actors in Afghanistan itself are continuing their nationalist vendetta against Pakistan without the involvement of the legal government. The Afghan Ministry of Defence mocked that statement. Yet it will have to be taken into account by the Afghans. Pakistanis are engaged in the peace process not only for Afghan stability, but first and foremost, for that of their own country. In fact, the recent position taken by Nawaz Sharif illustrates that the inter-Afghan peace process is also a process to appease Afghan-Pakistan relations: the pacification of Afghanistan will be all the more possible if the security concerns of Islamabad are taken into account.
Finally, it is generally accepted that the Pakistanis are the only ones with the necessary contacts to bring important rebel commanders to the negotiations. This leads analysts, who are more armchair experts than field specialists, to say they believe that the Taliban are ‘controlled’ by the Pakistani secret services. This approach is crude, and especially shows that some intellectuals, more or less in the limelight of the media, watch too many James Bond films as if they were documentaries. It only takes a minimum of research to find out that the majority of the Taliban. like other Afghan nationalists, are quite hostile towards Pakistan. Having opportunities for dialogue with non-state groups does not, to any degree, mean controlling them. The Taliban are militarily and financially independent enough to be the only ones responsible for their choices in this potential peace process. Pakistan can only help in bringing about dialogue, it cannot ensure a quickly successful peace process. The responsibility for Afghanistan’s pacification is up to the Afghans themselves. And up to the international community. Europeans should fully throw their support behind the peace process led by the regional powers and by Afghanistan itself.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.