The civil war in Afghanistan, which began with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah over four decades ago, is at last showing signs of reconciliation. February 19, 2015 may stand out as the day peace doves took wings. Earlier today, Reuters quoted unnamed “Pakistani army and diplomatic officials” confirming to that the Afghan Taliban have “signaled through the Pakistani military that they are willing to open peace talks, which could begin later in the day”.
Quite obviously, the visit on Tuesday by the Pakistan army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to Kabul was to give the green signal to the Afghan leadership. This time around, Gen. Sharif met not only President Ashraf Ghani but Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as well, which underscored that a defining moment in the accommodation of the Taliban in Afghan mainstream politics is approaching. Indeed, Voice of America quoted Abdullah standing alongside Gen Sharif and expressing satisfaction over the process of normalization of Afghan-Pakistan relations, stressing that “concrete steps” have been taken by both sides.
From the Pakistani viewpoint, evidently, it is crucial to have constructively engaged with Abdullah (whom Islamabad has been cultivating tenaciously, his past Northern Alliance background notwithstanding). The fact that Gen. Sharif regards Abdullah as a key interlocutor would suggest not only that a high degree of mutual trust has developed but also that the political alignments within Afghanistan itself have shifted phenomenally and an emergent national consensus within Afghanistan cutting across ethnic and regional divides regarding the imperative of reconciliation with the Taliban has appeared.
The dramatic developments signify that Pakistan is finally getting the Taliban leadership out of the attic to sit across the table with the Afghan government’s negotiators. In an extraordinary statement from Rawalpindi today, the Pakistani GHQ daringly put its imprimatur on the breakthrough in the Afghan peace process and has underlined that the process will be “absolutely transparent, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”, echoing closely the earlier remark by President Ghani that he “will not conduct any negotiation in secret from my people and they will be informed of any development.”
Clearly, the US is actively promoting the process. Indeed, the US-Pakistani high-level exchanges have become noticeably dense in the past few weeks – CENTCOM chief General Lloyd Austin paying return visit to Rawalpindi in mid-August within six weeks of Gen Sharif’s path-breaking visit to Tampa; visit by Gen John Campbell, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, to Rawalpindi in early February (his second visit in two months); President Barack Obama’s phone call to Prime Minister Nawz Sharif ten days later; and a 4-member delegation Congressional delegation led by the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee on Defense Rodney Frelinghyusen calling on Gen Sharif at Rawalpindi on Wednesday for a briefing on the latter’s visit to Kabul the previous day.
What emerges is that Pakistan is holding all the strings on the Afghan peace process and its full cooperation becomes the single most crucial factor for the success of any peace talks. It is Pakistan that is bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table as well as coordinating with the Afghan government the modalities and the dynamics of the peace talks. And it is also Pakistan through whose good offices the US (and China) would become a facilitator and it is, again, Pakistan which will ultimately have a say regarding the venue of the actual peace talks. To borrow the famous words from the English poet William Wordsworth, Pakistan has become the ‘nurse’, the ‘guide’ and the ‘guardian’ of the Afghan peace process.
All in all, the paradigm shift in Pakistan’s approach to terrorism is leading developments to their logical conclusion. On the other hand, all this would also become an impressive spectacle of Pakistani diplomacy at work. Needless to say, the Pakistani objective will be to develop synergy between the peace talks and a parallel track – or, more appropriately, two tracks – involving its strategic partnership with China and the US. The Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to visit Pakistn shortly. Obama has also expressed the desire to meet with Prime Minister Sharif.
To be sure, an unprecedented degree of coordination and harmony exists today between the elected civilian leadership (and the political class in general) in Pakistan and the military leadership. Prime Minister Sharif called attention to it today and in the ultimate analysis it becomes a tribute to his own leadership.