The agreement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban has begun a process that can potentially bring peace to Afghanistan.
However, the agreement between the Taliban and the United States has already come under pressure from actors that feel sidelined or stand to lose politically from the intervention of external states in Afghanistan. In this regard, Pakistan’s role, which has remained crucial as far as the first phase of the peace talks is concerned, is being hailed by Afghan leaders as Islamabad positions itself for a more entrenched space in the negotiation process.
Since the agreement-signing ceremony, both Washington and the Taliban appear to have showcased an intent to uphold the deal, but at the same time are determined to use military power to defend their interests. Already, the Taliban have attacked the Afghan forces. In apparent retaliation, the United States has carried out airstrikes against the Taliban and urged the group to halt “needless attacks.”
The situation emerged when the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refused to endorse the Doha agreement’s clause that calls for the release of a substantial number of Afghan Taliban fighters before the intra-Afghan dialogue begins. President Ghani has asked the Taliban to leave Pakistan before he can consider their prisoner release demand: “If Taliban have set release of their prisoners as a condition for intra-Afghan talks, we also have conditions; they should tell me when are they going to leave Pakistan,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani while addressing rally in Nangarhar.
The presence of Pakistan’s foreign minister in Doha during the signing ceremony and engagement with the Taliban and the United States’ leadership at all critical gatherings underline the country’s relationship with the group. When asked by a journalist about Islamabad’s role in reaching the deal, Qureshi said this “wouldn’t have happened without Pakistan.”
However, for the majority of the mainstream political leaders and parties in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s role is being forced upon them against their will as is the case with the Afghan Taliban agreement. Ghani and other political leaders are not happy with the agreement as it gives everything to the Taliban and takes away almost all leverage which the Kabul regime may have against the group or legitimacy in the eyes of the international negotiators.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a recent interview criticized Ghani’s position over the Afghan Taliban prisoners release by saying that “There will be lots of noise. Everyone is competing for attention and time in the media.” Reportedly, on Wednesday, President Ghani refused to meet Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s chief negotiator with the Taliban. The next day, Khalilzad met with the Taliban leadership to discuss “next steps” of the agreement’s implementation. It’s important to note that these meetings and statements come in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s phone call to the head of the Taliban’s political office, Abdul Ghani Baradar. “We had a good conversation…the relationship is very good that I have with the mullah,” Trump said about his conversation with Baradar.
All these developments should be seen as a win in Islamabad, for it offers Pakistan everything that the country could have hoped from its Afghan policy. Frankly, Pakistan’s link with the Taliban and the Haqqani network has become its greatest asset as the ongoing negotiation phase that Islamabad completely approves, offers the country an ideal opportunity to isolate its state and non-state detractors in Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff once described the Haqqanis that work closely with Afghan Taliban as “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. A couple of weeks ago, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Haqqani network leader and an ally of Afghan Taliban penned an article in the New York Times calling for dialogue to resolve Afghanistan’s security woes. For Islamabad, it’s a remarkable turn of events: groups and leaders that America once targeted and asked Pakistan to take action against are being seen as reformers and offered opportunities to sit across diplomats and receiving calls from world leaders.
Over the last few months, several high ranking members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been killed in Afghanistan as the country’s counter-terrorism gains expand beyond its borders. “TTP doesn’t operate from our territories but from the Kabul held areas. This question should be put to them,” said Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban spokesperson, while answering a question on TTP’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Arguably, Pakistan and the Taliban have everything to gain by protecting the first phase of the peace deal and that is also something which Islamabad may have conveyed to the Taliban. The understanding between the Taliban and Pakistan has to be that the deal’s collapse should not come from the Taliban; rather, the responsibility of such an outcome has to rest with Afghanistan’s political leadership.
In the coming days and weeks, an outcome of this nature appears likely as political leaders and groups from all quarters of Afghanistan scramble to secure space with Taliban negotiators.
Policymakers in Islamabad realize the opposition they face in Afghanistan’s political landscape. Understandably, Islamabad’s response to this sheer rejection of Pakistan’s role is to further push for reconciliation with the Taliban argument as that retains Islamabad’s clout in Afghanistan. “Attitudes will have to be corrected along with deals … those who wanted to create obstacles were present before as well…we can create a favorable environment, cannot take a decision for you,” said Qureshi in an apparent response to Ghani’s comments relating to Taliban links with Pakistan.
Going forward, Islamabad’s role may not be as critical overtly in the intra-Afghan peace process as it was during the first phase of the process. However, the debate on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s future may become critical to the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In fact, it may be an issue that can make or break the most crucial phase of the peace talks.
President Ghani’s demand that the Taliban break their ties with Pakistan is not going to materialize any time soon. Ghani’s position is a manifestation of frustration and the growing isolation of the Afghan regime in the face of Islamabad’s importance over the issue. Moreover, Islamabad’s significance is being supported, intentionally or unintentionally, by the United States’ insistence to deal with the Taliban above everyone else in Afghanistan. It’s unclear what the Afghan government, whose own constitutional future is unclear, will gain by targeting Pakistan and the Taliban. For Ghani, the most feasible option could be to bring together political leadership of the country to form a united front to negotiate with the Taliban. However, that may require Ghani to step down from the presidency, a step that he is unwilling to take.
In any case, Pakistan would want to see the Afghan Taliban furthering its position in Afghanistan now that they have won much-needed legitimacy that previously was missing from their ranks. The ongoing squabbling among the Afghan political leadership is merely a concern for Islamabad. It’s something that won’t bother Pakistan as it only consolidates Islamabad’s position and the acceptability of its role internationally.