Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was in Islamabad on December 9 to discuss the revival of peace talks in the ‘Heart of Asia Conference’, when Taliban gunmen wearing uniforms stormed the Kandahar airport. At least 37 people were killed in pitched gun battles that followed. On December 7, the Taliban had carried out a brazen coordinated attack on the police station in the city.
The apparent attempt to sabotage the conference in Pakistan – which shows that Pakistan does not have complete control over the insurgent group – did not stop Islamabad and Kabul from agreeing on making efforts to revive the reconciliation process in Afghanistan as early as possible, under international watch. According to Pakistani officials, this comes out of the unusually long consultations of Army Chief General Raheel Sharif in Washington last month. Insiders say he told the US interlocutors that Pakistan could take lead in the negotiations if:
- Afghan leaders would publicly ask Pakistan to do it, or at least publicly welcome “any Pakistani effort that could help promote the intra-Afghan dialogue”, and
- The reconciliation process takes place under the watch of mediators – such as the United States, the UK and China – because of the acute mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has reiterated its resolve of a reenergized action against terrorist sanctuaries in the border regions. Demands from Pakistan to do more on the Taliban front kept resonating in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral meetings. Pakistan was told to draw lines between terrorists and nationalist insurgents. Ghani questioned the leverage Pakistan has with the Afghan Taliban. “Is it an insurgency or something else?” he asked.
Pakistan and India will resume the composite dialogue
But the most important outcome was the presence of the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, and the accompanying signaling that she had come to Islamabad to promote the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. She met Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz, and later Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, before the two countries announced they would resume the composite dialogue process and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Pakistan for the SAARC summit in September 2016. The Afghanistan conference provided India with a face-saving entry into the possible resumption of dialogue – a definite back-down from the belligerent posturing from New Delhi in the recent months.
In this context, Afghanistan’s demand for transit rights to and from India also figured repeatedly in the conversation. Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani said the issue was as important for Kabul as transit through Afghanistan to Central Asia was for Islamabad. Sartaj Aziz said the two countries’ finance ministers were working together on the issue, which also resonated in Swaraj’s conversations.
Pakistan spoke about its leverage and limitations
Reconciliation with the “reconcilable” Taliban factions and border management remained a central theme during the Pakistan-Afghanistan bilaterals, and in many multilaterals as well. Both Nawaz Sharif and Ashraf Ghani underscored that the security and surveillance gaps on the border provided space to militants and criminals.
Messages by the European Union and the US were equally clear, centered on the “urgent need for and the inevitability of resuming the reconciliation talks”. They pointed to violence by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network once again, as a “threat to the entire region”, and called for unified action against all those outfits that were seen as common threats to most of the regional countries.
This reference to the alleged nexus between LeT, the Haqqanis and the (deceased) Mullah Omar’s Taliban is a monumental challenge to Pakistan’s claims that it is doing all it can to counter terrorism.
The points 21 and 22 of what was released as the Islamabad communique reflected this international desire:
“We also agree on the need, and commit to put in place, specific measures and take necessary actions to deny terrorists’ access to financial and material resources, to dismantle their sanctuaries and training facilities, and to curtail their ability to recruit and train new terrorists. Measures to curb terrorists’ movements should also be established without prejudice to trade and legal movement of citizens and goods.
“We give credence to the idea of resolving conflicts through peaceful negotiations and urge full support by HOA-IP countries to the Government of Afghanistan in implementing Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation initiatives, and realizing its peace objectives. We urge all Afghan Taliban groups and all other armed opposition groups to enter into peace talks with the Afghan Government.”
Rabbani told reporters that the adoption of the communique reflected aspirations and commitments of all the countries. The conference comes at a time when there is growing realization that security threats are not confined to national borders, and are increasingly becoming transnational.
Pakistani officials privy to the string of meetings on the sidelines said Islamabad laid out both its leverage with the Taliban and its limitations vis a vis the field commanders currently engaged in fighting inside Afghanistan.
Nawaz Sharif and his team assured the participants that Islamabad “will do whatever it can to bring at least those to the table who are under its influence and are amenable to talks”, an official said.