Did the Afghan-Pakistani peace talks in Islamabad over the past two days yield results to speak of? There were surprisingly positive moments – moments that justified the hope pinned on this trip. Then again, listening in closer to the concluding statements of the Pakistani Prime Minister and the Afghan President, both leaders seemed to be “on different pages.” AAN has asked a Pakistani and an Afghan analyst to cast an eye at the meeting in Islamabad and read between the lines about both countries' interests and future relations. Raza Rumi, an analyst and journalist from Islamabad, looks at it from the Pakistani perspective and explains the new Prime Minister's approach to Afghanistan. AAN’s Borhan Osman and Christine Roehrs ponder if Afghanistan’s expectations were met.
AN AFGHAN VIEW
Still on Two Pages: The less-than-expected outcome of Karzai’s 20th Pakistan visit
President Karzai twentieth trip to Pakistan, although some hopeful looking moments occurred, seems to have turned out to be not much different from the previous ones: it failed to yield the concrete results expected by Kabul. The President and the Afghan ambassador to Islamabad, prior to and during the visit, put heavy emphasis on what the Afghans were seeking to achieve: peace talks with the Taleban und Pakistan taking "practical steps" to make that possible. Pakistan, however, seemed more focused on the topic of bilateral trade and offered more "reassurance" than real support. Borhan Osman (with input by Christine Roehrs) summarizes the journey and comes to the conclusion that the question about Pakistan’s willingness to help might be the wrong one – that the problem could rather lie in Pakistan’s capability to do so.
There was this moment when things seemed to look good during Karzai’s visit to Islamabad. It was when the Afghan president, on Monday (26 August) night, spontaneously extended his one-day stay, spending a night in the mountain resort of Murree for another round of talks with Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the next morning. His spokesman Aimal Faizy told the BBC that "negotiations were still ongoing" and that the two parties were "due to decide upon an action plan" for the peace process in Afghanistan and for "bringing the Taleban to the negotiation table."
On the next day, however, on 27 August, the website of the Afghan President informed rather curtly that the president was back to Kabul and that, in the morning of the second day of his visit, "Karzai and his delegation met Sharif and civilian and military officials." The message said that they had discussed "peace talks, security issues and providing an opportunity of negotiations between the HPC and the Taleban," that the atmosphere had been "friendly" and that Afghanistan was "hopeful that Pakistan would take specific and practical steps to implement the decision of the meetings."
Of what nature these decisions were and how "hard" they are, is not known yet. One of the Palace’s media officers said that “for now" they did not plan a press conference. This does not immediately indicate success. There might be an interest to keep sensitive things unfolding out of the media – on the other hand, the Kabul government has always been keen to announce promising signs in order to appear abreast and in charge of developments. There is, for example, no news on the insurgent prisoners issue – one of the most important ones for the Afghan delegation. These prisoners, the most prominent of whom is Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar, second in command after Mulla Omar, are held by Pakistan after they reportedly supported, or even held, negotiations with Kabul representatives (in Baradar’s case, with the President’s brother and 2014 presidential hopeful Qayyum Karzai) and seeking more independence from Pakistan’s influence.
On two pages
Listening in closer to the press conference Karzai and Sharif gave after the first day of their talks, it was conspicuous that both were stressing different issues as most important for bilateral relations. “The first item with Pakistan will be the peace negotiations,” Karzai had said at a press conference in Kabul before departing to Pakistan (see here). During the press conference in Islamabad, Karzai emphasized this again, saying:
"We discussed in this regard primarily and with emphasis the issue of [the] joint fight against extremism and reconciliation and peace building in Afghanistan with the expectation that the government of Pakistan will facilitate and help in manners it can [in] the peace process in Afghanistan and in providing opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement."
He briefly addressed other matters discussed such as economic and cultural cooperation, but then came back to the security issue, saying:
"…but for the two countries, the primary concern is lack of security for its citizens and the continued menace of terrorism attacking both our populations, our governments, our soldiers and our security forces. It is this area that needs to have primary and focused attention by both governments and it is with hope on this that I have come to Pakistan Mr. Prime Minister to meet with you and to advance the course of action together, so we can not only have peace in Afghanistan and in Pakistan but also by having a common campaign against extremism we make sure that the two countries are safer and prosperous towards a secure future."
Nawaz on the other hand, after using the usual diplomatic phrases on an Afghan-led peace process ("continue to extend all possible facilitation to the international community’s efforts for the realization of this noble goal"), spoke longer about economic opportunities for both countries, for example emphasizing: "I believe the central focus of this relationship has to be a strong trade and economic partnership that serves the common interests of our peoples." This is probably understandable from his point of view. Nawaz Sharif is a business man who put the promise to further Pakistan’s economy front and center in his election campaign. On the other hand, his specific political preferences will make it harder for the Afghanistan government to come through with an agenda more to its liking.
Apart from the different takes on the focus of future relations, the startling take-away of these two speeches must be that, after years and years of negotiations, statements from the leaders of both countries still hover around rather initial steps to making peace – such as creating a platform for talks or demanding proof for the other side’s serious commitment.
Pakistan’s will – and capability
Because of the tensions between the countries, Karzai had not visited Pakistan since February 2012, an unusually long pause looking back at his history of visiting Pakistan at least twice a year since 2002. He had rebuffed invitations by Nawaz Sharif twice. The trip finally happened because Karzai seemed to have regained some hope in Pakistan taking practical steps to bolster the peace efforts with the Taleban. One reason might have been that, for once, the Pakistani and Afghan government, at least before the meeting, were united in opting for a relocation of the Qatar office. Another reason could have been that Nawaz Sharif, although too new to wrestle the Afghan issue out of the military’s hands, might also represent a chance to start over. That the two politicians met for more talks than originally planned, could be a good sign for sympathies on the personal level.
The Afghan ambassador to Islamabad, Omar Daudzai, who accompanied the president, put it that way before the journey: "Pakistan has admitted facilitating the talks between the Taliban and the Americans and the Taliban in Qatar," said Mr. Daudzai. "If they can do it for them, why not for us, too?" He might have been referring to information like in this report, speculating about Pakistan’s role setting up Doha as Taleban representation (what exactly Pakistan has supposedly done to support the Qatar process remains unclear; the article only refers to “some direct dialing between Pakistan and John Kerry”). However, as AAN reported earlier, Pakistan was actually not all too happy about the “Qatar process” as it moved the Taleban out of the regime’s reach. Mawlana Fazlur Rehman, leader of a Pakistani Islamist party, Jamiat-e Ulama-e Islam, who is considered to have immense influence on the Afghan Taleban, accordingly commented, on the day after the Doha office had been opened, that the Qatar process „lacked depth without Pakistan’s active involvement“.
Looking at Pakistan’s history of keeping commitments vague, the question remains if the Afghan government is not only overestimating Pakistan’s will to bring the Taleban to the table, but also its power to do so – its actual capability. Pakistan has been sounding – or trying to sound? – as if it owned a large piece of the (scarce) peace dealings going on since the first direct US-Taleban meetings in Qatar in late 2011 and early 2012, for example when it announced a month ago that the Taleban Qatar office would reopen soon and then, rather contradicting, that it would be relocated (indicating that there is a joint US-Pakistani initiative or at least understanding).
The Qatar office, however, never reopened. The Taleban actually mocked the idea and the man who promoted it, Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs (1). And the relocation of the office to another country might be tricky, too, as a place needs to be found that would be acceptable for the Taleban – a Muslim country, not a neighbour to Afghanistan and Pakistan, no troops in Afghanistan – and at the same time for the Afghan government, too (that, with its rejection, made Qatar collapse). Afghanistan, however, for now, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, proposes locations that do not conform with the Taleban’s ideas (see AAN analysis here). (The issue seemed to have been addressed, though, in the private, second round of talks, according to the Pakistani Express Tribune.)
Ambivalence towards Taleban
Another concern is that Pakistan, as ambivalent as its policy towards the Afghan Taleban might be, is suffering from its own, fierce Taleban insurgency that has morphed from a secondary phenomenon – emerging from a support structure for the primary Afghan Taleban – into a full-blown insurgency in its own right, trying to overthrow the government in Islamabad (on which their Afghan brethren are dependent). As a result, the Pakistani establishment might not want to bring more of this wrath down on its head by forcing their Afghan "guests" into negotiations these do not want (see for example here). This might not only turn the Afghan Taleban against their former supporter, but would also anger the Pakistani Taleban who feel sympathies for the Afghan insurgency. Both could, consequently, move the two Taleban movements closer to each other again. Coming down too hard on the Afghan Taleban would also deprive Pakistan of its so far satisfactory relationship with a potential key partner in future Afghan governments.
Continuing to host the Afghan Taleban might be Pakistan’s most powerful card to play out with both Kabul and Washington, but harbouring them does not amount to full control like a "puppet and puppeteer relationship", nor is there automatically much love lost on each other. Among the Taleban, there are still bitter feelings about Islamabad’s partnership with the US administration to topple their regime in Kabul in 2001 and about Pakistan handing over some of its leaders to the Americans and into custody in Bagram, Guantanamo and similar places.
The Afghan-Pakistani relationship remains as complicated as it was before the Karzai visit, with Pakistan apparently still hesitant to finally become concrete and with Afghanistan frustratedly trying to gain back some control over the peace process, including its powerful players – currently all more powerful than the Afghan government itself. Karzai was right when he said before this journey that he was hopeful for but not convinced of a good outcome.
(1) While the Taleban did not bother to officially comment on Pakistani and Afghan officials discussing the relocation of their office by, a pro-Taleban (read unofficial Taleban) website repeatedly mocked the suggestion (see also here), lashing out particularly at Sartaj Aziz: “You, on the contrary, detained Mulla Baradar and his like-minded to make sure no negotiation takes place among Afghans … Your era of hypocrisy has ended and every Afghan, be he a Taleban or non-Taleban, has realized your double-standard policies. You have said that Pakistan played a role in opening the Qatar office and would continue to play such a role. Lying is a big sin … You have tried to block the Qatar process … but your efforts bore no results."
A PAKISTANI VIEW
Still On Two Pages: Internal stability first
Our guest author Reza Rumi agrees with AAN’s Borhan Osman that the outcome of the Af-Pak meeting in Islamabad remained unconcrete. He explains that Pakistan’s Prime Minister is just at the beginning of his daunting task – taking charge of the country’s security policies, away from the security forces, and turning around its economic down spin. Therefore, his focus is rather on economic cooperation then talks with the Taleban.
Afghan President Hamed Karzai’s visit to Pakistan has ended without concrete outcomes. However, in terms of building trust with Pakistan and negotiating the future of Afghanistan this was a significant development. The impending pullout of NATO/ISAF combat troops from Afghanistan and forthcoming presidential elections in April 2014 require the nebulous peace process to be accelerated. The Afghan government accuses Pakistan of letting the Taleban use its soil for attacks against the country and Pakistan denies this charge adding that its leverage with the Afghan Taleban is limited and exaggerated by all concerned parties.
During the parleys between Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Karzai the issue of the Afghan Taleban’s former second-in-command Mulla Baradar and facilitating a direct contact between the Afghan Taleban and the Afghan High Peace Council must have been discussed. The press conference held by both leaders comprised statements of good intentions but avoided specific references to the issues discussed and agreements made.
Predictably, Nawaz Sharif mentioned trade and energy related matters and was upbeat about the completion of ongoing projects. The real issue – getting the Taleban on the negotiating table – was missing in the public statement. Historically, Pakistan’s regional security policy is an exclusive domain of its powerful military and premier intelligence outfit, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. While Karzai is close to completing his term and is concerned about his legacy and holding a peaceful transition, Sharif is gradually moving towards setting the institutional frameworks right. The national security committee is being revamped and Sharif is keen to take charge of the complex policy environment.
Paranoia about India's goals in Afghanistan
During his first address to the region, Sharif had indicated his desire to build peace with India and respect the right of Afghan people to decide on their future course after 2014. His national security adviser had given similar signals and assured of Pakistan’s maximum cooperation in facilitating a dialogue. How far the civilian government can play its role depends on the internal power dynamics and how well Sharif and his cabinet assume powers within the tricky complex civil-military relationship that has informed Pakistan’s foreign policy since 1980s.
Nawaz Sharif won the 2013 elections as he promised a better economy, jobs and handling of the energy crisis. As a businessman he realises that without regional peace these objectives are simply not achievable. This is why his approach to India and to a great extent Afghanistan is driven by the quest for stability. Pakistan’s military also wants a settlement that will give its exhausted forces a breather from the ongoing insurgencies in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions as well as Balochistan province. The relentless attacks of the Pakistani faction of Taleban, the Tahrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), have led to thousands of deaths as well embarrassing attacks on key security installations.
At the same time the paranoia about India’s goals in Afghanistan causes much anguish in the policy circles, especially the military. Much has been said on how the India-Pakistan rivalry dogs the peace process in Afghanistan and this factor cannot be wished away. For this purpose, Pakistan and India have to talk to each other rather than escalating the conflict. It remains to be seen how future events unfold but Pakistan’s concerns about alleged Indian cross border support to Baloch insurgents and the TTP via Afghanistan, regardless of their validity, are real and need to be addressed.
The cynics are wrong
In the short term, the Karzai administration and the High Peace Council will get Pakistan’s support contrary to the cynical views on this subject. Pakistan cannot afford more instability after twelve years of war in its neighbourhood, which has spilled over into its tribal and settled regions. If the peace process fails Pakistan will suffer as much as the Afghan people who must not be allowed to become victims of another prolonged conflict, and as some fear, a civil war.
The Sharif-Karzai meetings must be followed up with concrete measures and policy shifts. Pakistan should use whatever influence it has to ensure that a dialogue between Karzai and the Afghan Taleban takes place. At the same time, India and Pakistan need to engage with each other. Sharif’s insistence on the continuation of a bilateral India-Pak dialogue therefore is crucial and the Indian policymakers must also weigh in the costs of prolonged conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Most importantly, the proverbial elephant in the room – i.e. the US – needs to come up with a clearer withdrawal plan and how it views the post-2014 arrangements. Many observers in Pakistan hold the view that US interests in the region may just be continued to be projected through other means and in the post-war power-matrix Pakistan may just enter into another phase of instability. The presence of Western troops beyond 2014 is going to be a strategic red alert for Pakistan, Iran and China and will not contribute to the quest for sustained peace.
One thing is clear though: Pakistan's political parties and its civil society stand with the Afghans in this crucial phase and are most vocal that the military’s strategic paradigm should change for good. Given the energy deficits in the region, Afghanistan’s stability is only going to benefit its neighbours, allowing for Pakistan to emerge as an energy trade hub with pipelines, railroads and highways.
For this to happen, a regional settlement following an Pakistani-Afghan dialogue is the only way forward.
Raza Rumi is a policy analyst, writer and editor based in Islamabad. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020