The South Asia Channel
The Camp David of Pakistan
Peace talks in Murree, Pakistan between Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban may be a first tentative step, but they are the only step that can lead towards peace in Afghanistan.
Camp David has hosted and resolved many crucial episodes of political and security significance. Pakistan may now have found its own equivalent in Murree, a hill station and summer retreat in Pakistan.
After a decade-long insurgency, dozens of back channel efforts, and informal meetings, Murree hosted the first formal meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban, which could actually prove to be the breakthrough this region desperately needs. After years of futile diplomatic efforts and wasted brute military force, militancy has mushroomed in Afghanistan and peace has become a dream. And Pakistan — shattered with its own militant dilemma — has often been blasted with allegations of supporting the very elements that have induced mayhem in Afghanistan.
In contrast to all the traditional cynicism, the meet up in Murree, if followed through carefully, has potential for paving a way for lasting peace in Afghanistan. There are four major factors for why this meeting was not just another shallow reunion, dipped in secrecy, but an actual breakthrough.
First, Pakistan and Afghanistan’s growing mutual realization of the persistent militant threat to their internal security have brought them (read: forced them) together — despite numerous looming odds. Changes in leadership and deteriorating security situations in both countries have also added to this convergence.
Moreover, with the Taliban stepping up their summer offensive — a major attack on the Afghan Parliament in June followed by two coordinated attacks on NATO forces only a few weeks later — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has grown desperate for peace. Ghani’s efforts to shore up Pakistan’s support to rein in the Afghan Taliban have largely been met with despair. Pakistan, on its part, has cautioned Afghanistan of its limited influence over the Afghan Taliban. Special assistant to Pakistan Prime Minister, Tariq Fatemi, was noted as saying: “We are not in a position to pick up people and take them to the conference table and say that ‘you sign the dotted line.’”
After years of fraught relations between both countries, Ghani’s reconciliation policy towards Pakistan has continually invited strong opposition from the Afghan bureaucracy, largely comprised of the Northern Alliance, which has historically remained critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. The Afghan unity government has failed to build any workable agreement on how to tackle serious issues related to terrorism and a defense minister has yet to be elected with Parliament rejecting two presidential nominees already. Moreover, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency openly accused its Pakistani counterpart of involvement in the Kabul parliament attack and in yet another cross-border firing incident, six Pakistani soldiers were injured while one Afghan policeman died.
Despite personal frustration and strong opposition, Ghani’s warn and charm policy towards Pakistan has remained unchanged. The current leadership of both countries recognizes that they cannot afford another breakdown of this slowly developing rapprochement and peace process. Pakistan may not have very significant influence on the entire Taliban leadership but in absence of Pakistan’s support, direct or indirect, any chance of peace in Afghanistan would simple diminish.
Second, the Northern Alliance’s seeming willingness to accept Pakistan’s facilitation is also encouraging. Hekmat Khalil Karzai, deputy minister of foreign affairs and a cousin of former President Hamid Karzai, led the Murree delegation while Mohammed Asem, the governor of Parwan province, participated as a representative of CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Furthermore, Hamid Karzai, who has traditionally objected to any of Pakistani facilitation regarding Afghanistan’s peace process, also welcomed the talks.
Historically, as far as the Afghan conflict is concerned, both Pakistan and the Northern Alliance have supported dissimilar domestic and international interests, which over the years have created a deep distrust between the both. This apparent acceptance of the Pakistani role has two possible dimensions: one, that the Northern Alliance believes (or at least is willing to give it a chance) that Pakistan’s current counterterrorism efforts, designed to tackle militancy not just in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan, are sincere and credible; and two, amidst convoluted terror threats from the Taliban and the Islamic State, there is an understanding that any sort of peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without Pakistan’s support.
Third, the presence of the Haqqani Network’s representative at the Murree talks is an optimistic sign. Haji Ibrahim, who participated on behalf of the group, is a senior member and brother of the group’s chief, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Haqqani Network, which is deemed one of the most sophisticated and deadliest insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan, has never been part of any major peace talks. Hajji Din Mohammad, a senior member of the Afghan delegation, after returning from the talks said: “It was important to talk to [the] Haqqani Network because they have actively been engaged in fighting our government too.” Moreover, the Haqqani Network’s presence adds further credibility and weight to the talks and also highlights Pakistan’s robust peace efforts, as Pakistan was known for having close relations with the group. (The group, based in North Waziristan, was one of the most commonly cited reasons for Pakistan’s delayed military operation in the North Waziristan which has since targeted the Haqqani Network.)
Fourth, the Islamic State’s reported inroads in Afghanistan have put everyone on alert, particularly the Afghan Taliban. Arguably, the threat posed by the Islamic State is one of the reasons the Taliban agreed to hold these talks without any major stipulations like they have made in the past.
With the more radical and largely sidelined Taliban (or other militants) elements joining the Islamic State, cracks among the Taliban ranks have become more evident. The relatively moderate Taliban leadership, while acutely concerned with the Islamic State’s growing influence, has remained divided on the question of authority. The Qatar political office is asserting its legitimacy and contesting the mandate of the Taliban present at Murree while the returning Afghan official delegation has stressed that the Taliban representative they met had complete mandate from the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar.
Perhaps with the emerging Islamic State threat, the Afghan and Pakistani policy is to draw lines between the moderate and radical elements of the Taliban and force the moderates towards accommodation. Hassan Askari Rizvi, a historian and security analyst has said: “Already the Taliban are divided between fighting and talking. Those who believe in fighting will defect, which may force some groups for talk and go for an accommodation.”
The Islamic State factor in Afghanistan may prove a regional cohesion factor in preparation of durable peace efforts. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Central Asian leaders during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last week spoke out in concern over the growing Islamic State presence in Afghanistan. Even China, which has its own militancy problem in Xinjiang province, has offered military assistance and training to Afghanistan.
All of the representatives who attended Murree have agreed to meet again in near future. It’s too early to speculate about the nature of any prospective peace plan. However, whatever any reconciliation agreement may look like, it will not transform Afghanistan into a fairyland. It’s going to be a tough, arduous, and long-term process. While this meeting may be a first tentative step, it’s the only step which can lead towards any peace in Afghanistan.
SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP/Getty Images