Peace in Afghanistan: Will Pakistan Play Ball?

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Peace in Afghanistan: Will Pakistan Play Ball?

A leaked peace plan sees Pakistan replacing the United States as kingmaker. Can the different sides come together?

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, with the withdrawal of American combat troops scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014, there’s a modest ratcheting up of movement towards a reconciliation with the Taliban. Though many analysts are skeptical a deal can be reached within the limited amount of time before the withdrawal, and though the Taliban has plenty of incentives to forestall real talks and wait out the United States, many agree that Pakistan still holds the key to an accord.

In light of this, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council’s (HPC) leaked, five-step plan for reaching an accord, called the Peace Process Road Map to 2015, begins with “a focus on securing the cooperation of Pakistan.” The document says that was to have begun in earnest with a visit to Pakistan in November by Salahuddin Rabbani, the HPC’s chairman, who after meeting with high Pakistani officials, was to attempt to secure Islamabad’s agreement for the progressive release of imprisoned Taliban officials held in Pakistan.

The plan proposes that in the first half of 2013, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States work together “to agree on terms and conditions for delisting, safe passage, and other requirements of Taliban leaders willing to engage in peace talks.” Formal talks, beginning with efforts to proclaim a ceasefire, will take place in the second half of next year, and, according to the plan, will pave the way for the ”transformation of the Taliban and other armed groups from militant groups to political movements.” The goal of the five-step plan to have a final peace accord and expanded regional cooperation in place by 2014.

According to the McClatchy news service, which first reported the peace plan, Afghan leaders want Pakistan to play the leading role in the peace negotiations, supplanting that of the United States. Last week, meeting in Turkey, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to discuss the provisions of the accord that had been worked out last month by lower-ranking officials. High on the agenda of the meeting in Ankara was the December 6th assassination attempt against Afghanistan’s staunchly anti-Pakistan chief of intelligence, Asadullah Khalid. After the attack, Karzai blamed Pakistan for the attack, and it’s entirely possible that elements of Pakistan’s security establishment opposed to an accord may have ordered it in order to disrupt any reconciliation.

That’s why a peace plan’s success will be exceedingly difficult. Political factions on all sides bitterly oppose an agreement. In Afghanistan, forces associated with the old Northern Alliance don’t want the Taliban to have any role in a rebalanced government, and they’re reportedly rearming for a civil war after the United States departs. Hardliners in Pakistan don’t want to make any concessions that could undermine what they see as Islamabad’s necessary primacy in Afghanistan. The Taliban itself is divided over whether or not to take part in negotiations, and it chafes under what many Taliban leaders and foot soldiers see as the groups dependence on Pakistan’s ISI, the military’s powerful intelligence service.

In their talks in Ankara, however, Karzai and Zardari insisted that the peace process move forward and pledged to open a joint investigation of this month’s assassination attempt. “They (terrorists) don’t want us, the governments, to get together and to be able to lead the nations to peace,” said Zardari after the two men met.

Although leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan might want the United States to stay in the background as they pursue an accord, it’s unlikely that any agreement could be accomplished without the support of Washington and the international community. Still, perhaps to create additional political space at home, the leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have recently indicated increasing unhappiness with the American role in the region. Karzai, for instance, told NBC that the United States is greatly to blame for Afghanistan’s lack of security and Pakistan’s prime minister complained to the American ambassador that drone attacks are counterproductive. Terrorism, said Karzai, would not be defeated “by attacking Afghan villages and Afghan homes.” Karzai also suggested that unless the United States changed its ways in Afghanistan, he would refuse to cooperate on a long-term security accord that could allow U.S. counterterrorism forces and advisers to be stationed in the country long beyond 2014. In Washington, such talk is seen as bravado, but Obama administration officials recall that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a similar situation, ultimately shocked the United States by rejecting an extension of the American presence.

Even so, the United States is certain to play a leading role in reconciliation talks. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has “launched a post-election push to restart moribund peace talks with the Taliban,” despite skepticism that Pakistan will cooperate. One American official told the Post, “We’d like [Pakistan] to go to the Taliban and say, ‘Hey, you guys need to go back and get talks started again. But the question continues to be whether [Pakistan] has both the willingness and the ability to do so.” Toward that end, the United States is seeking to quietly rebuild ties with Pakistan, which were strained almost to the breaking point in 2011 after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and a subsequent border incident that left many Pakistan troops dead, after which Pakistan shut down transit routes for U.S. supplies into Afghanistan.

A hopeful sign that U.S.-Pakistan ties are improving is the Pentagon’s decision this month to release U.S. $688 million in military aid to Pakistan. And many in Washington hope that Senator John Kerry (D-MA), reportedly slated to become secretary of state next year, will use his close ties to Pakistan and President Karzai to nudge Islamabad and Kabul toward an Afghan accord.