By Aryaman Bhatnagar
Statements made during the recent Istanbul and SAARC conferences hint at the possibility of a peace process between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani who was entrusted with the task of negotiating with the Taliban had led Hamid Karzai to shift the focus of the peace process away from the Taliban to holding dialogue with Pakistan. Pakistan also welcomes the opportunity of playing a more direct and vital role as it would give them a chance to increase their influence in Afghanistan post 2014. Thus, the acknowledgment of the importance of Pakistan by Karzai is definitely a welcome sign and certain positive steps were taken at Istanbul. However, the active involvement of Pakistan in the peace process definitely carries certain implications that could act as an obstacle for peace. What are the factors that could act as spoilers for the peace process? What could stall the dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan? What impact could the Taliban have on this dialogue?
The circumstances and context in which the dialogue is going to take place is bound to create problems in the way of achieving anything significant. The decision to jointly investigate the assassination of Rabbani and the signing of the Islamabad Accord, which saw more than a dozen countries apart from Afghanistan and Pakistan join hands to ensure peace and security in Afghanistan, are definitely positive developments. However, Afghanistan continues to accuse Pakistan of playing a ‘double game’ in the war against terror by providing a safe haven to ‘terror groups’. The entire rationale for engaging with Pakistan directly is based on the belief that Afghanistan is confronted more by governments that support the militants rather than the militants themselves. Such a stream of allegations emanating from Kabul against Pakistan is extremely likely to stall any meaningful bilateral talks that take place between the two countries and also negate the achievements of Istanbul. Moreover, the recently concluded strategic pact between India and Afghanistan has increased tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are as it is mired in distrust due to the territorial disputes arising over the Durand Line, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, and the sponsoring of militant activities in each other other’s territories. In light of such historical discord, it is obvious that for any dialogue or engagement between the two countries to be successful it would have to start off on a better note than the current one.
The second reason that could lead to the failure of the peace process is the exclusion of the Taliban from the dialogue based on the assumption that Pakistan is capable of controlling the Taliban. It is thus believed that if a settlement is reached with Pakistan it would automatically signal an end to the feud with the Taliban as well. However, the Taliban, especially the faction led by Mullah Omar, have always resisted and resented the attempts by Pakistan to pull their strings. It has an agenda of its own and has always preferred to maintain a high degree of independence from Pakistan. This was true during the 1990s and even today, any control that Pakistan has over the Taliban is very tenuous at best. This ‘control’ may be determined largely by the fact that Pakistan is providing shelter to Mullah Omar and thus may vanish rapidly following the American withdrawal, should the Taliban become a free agent. Thus, even if a settlement is reached with Pakistan it does not in any way guarantee that the Taliban could be persuaded to call off its insurgency campaign.
Moreover, the exclusion of the Taliban from any dialogue that is meant to resolve the Afghan crisis will not go down well with them. While Pakistan’s military and the ISI would most likely push for the Taliban having a major stake in Afghanistan post 2014 in order to secure a friendly regime in Afghanistan, it would be extremely unwise to discount the Taliban and exclude them from the ambit of the Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral talks, since it may be interpreted as an attempt by the Afghan government to deny it a voice and an attempt to double cross by the Pakistan government. In such a scenario, it is plausible that the Taliban may not only reject any bilateral decision but significantly increase its violent activities against both governments, eroding any purported influence the ISI may have had on it.
While engaging Pakistan in this process is of utmost importance given its strategic interests in Afghanistan, it is unwise to exclude the Taliban from it. Although, the inclusion of the Taliban in the peace process may not make a difference to the final outcome of the peace process, their exclusion will prevent Afghanistan from having a successful dialogue with other countries as well.
Research Intern, IPCS