September 2, 2020
The road to peace in Afghanistan, whether anyone likes it or not, runs through Kashmir, Rawalpindi and Islamabad – and in that order. However, there are recent signs that elements within this chain may be willing to contribute to the advancement of reconciliation in Afghanistan. But are these signs legitimate or simply Michael Jordan head fakes designed to distract as the prime movers simply await the full exit of American troops?
So long as there are tensions over Kashmir, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, per its “strategic depth” doctrine, will feel the need to control Afghanistan at all cost in anticipation of a full blown war with India. Some observers are hopeful, however, that recent developments may portend good news.
On August 25, Pakistan held talks with a Taliban delegation over the situation in Afghanistan, but what made the meeting more interesting than usual was the conspicuous presence of Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It is uncertain if Hameed’s public appearance is meaningful or purely cosmetic.
Former Indian ambassador MK Bhadrakumar, a very informed and enlightened observer of the region’s politics, expressed a surprising level of optimism. He noted the reality that Pakistan is pivotal to the success of any peace process but also suggested that New Delhi, perhaps, would be willing to see the bigger picture and act appropriately.
“Pakistan’s role becomes crucial. India has done the right thing by moving into the shade. The India-Pakistan tensions need not cast a shadow on the Afghan peace process. The two evergreen adversaries should agree that regional peace and stability can be in their mutual interest,” Bhadrakumar said in a piece for The Tribune.
The former envoy, however, could possibly be asking too much of the ordinary human imagination when it comes to the Taliban movement’s willingness and ability to keep certain terrorist elements at a distance.
“The choice for the international community is to accept the Taliban’s word and suspend disbelief,” he added.
India, meanwhile, unfortunately does not appear to be “moving into the shade.” On September 1, New Delhi called for the UN to permanently list Jammu and Kashmir as an “outdated agenda item.” The “India-Pakistan question,” it is worth mentioning, was first considered by the UN Security Council in 1948 and was last discussed in 1965.
However, even if these roads can be traveled successfully, the next question is whether or not Pakistan – or anyone – can prevent “spoilers” from derailing the entire peace process. Even Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi, after the recent talks, called out for such elements to refrain from ruining the peace initiative.
Be it the responsibility of the Taliban, rouge actors, or state-sponsored agents, a recent spate of violence calls into question the very viability of any intra-Afghan talks. On August 30, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s senior adviser on public affairs, Hasan Hotak, was apparently assassinated in Kabul although no party has accepted the blame.
The New York Times reported that at least 287 pro-government forces and 144 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the month of August. This comes as the government and Taliban are supposed to be on the verge of opening historic intra-Afghan talks as stipulated in the U.S. peace deal, contingent on the final release of highly dangerous insurgent prisoners.
U.S. troops have been high-tailing it out of Afghanistan in order to ensure President Donald Trump can make good on a campaign promise. They have looked the other way at Taliban transgressions including the recent shelling of American bases and continue to press Kabul to begin talks post-haste. White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has escalated the pressure even more.
“NSA O’Brien had a great phone call with President @ashrafghani today to discuss the need for intra-Afghan talks to start without delay,” the White House security council tweeted on August 31.
The architect of the great peace deal, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, has also decried that spoilers are going to ruin this historic moment.
“Afghanistan lost Dr. Abdul Baqi Amin, a scholar with immense insights and an activist with an unshakable commitment to peace. His death at the hands of spoilers who seek to delay and derail Afghan peace is tragic,” Khalilzad said in a tweet on August 20.
Of course, the U.S. ambassador’s remedy to such a tragic event is to continue to push to make sure Mr. Trump meets his objective.
“The right tribute to Dr Amin is for all sides to reduce violence and immediately start intra-Afghan negotiations. There is no legitimate reason for delay,” Khalilzad said.
Given the earnestness with which the Americans are exiting, the likeliest scenario is that both Pakistan and India are simply going to bide time and “run out the clock.”