January issue 2016
Heart of Darkness
The fifth Heart of Asia conference, held in Islamabad from December 8-9, focused as planned on Afghanistan, as renewed efforts were initiated to try and make it peaceful, stable and viable.
The two most important developments were President Ashraf Ghani’s willingness to again seek Pakistan’s support to facilitate peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif’s visit to Afghanistan on December 27. The two developments are linked as one followed the other.
However, the challenge now is to overcome the distrust that has characterised relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the latter’s independence 68 years ago. It won’t be easy considering the fact that many Afghans, including some in the so-called unity government headed by President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah Abdullah, believe Pakistan is responsible for all the troubles Afghanistan is facing and is therefore an enemy. Also, many Pakistanis believe that the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), has teamed up with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to destabilise Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
The Heart of Asia conference, part of the Istanbul Process that began in 2011, brought together 14 countries and several organisations committed to Afghanistan’s stability, reconstruction and wellbeing. Pakistan played the perfect host by making it possible for even President Ghani, who had been very critical of Islamabad these past months for allowing the Afghan Taliban leadership to use Pakistan’s soil to wage war in Afghanistan, to attend the conference. His strong condemnation had upset Pakistan as it too had a genuine complaint that the Pakistani Taliban had got refuge in Afghanistan and were launching cross-border attacks in their territory.
US pressure and Chinese cajoling also played a role in persuading Ghani to come to Pakistan. Besides, Ghani didn’t have much of a choice except seeking Pakistan’s help to persuade the inflexible Afghan Taliban to join the peace and reconciliation process. To deflect the pressure of his opponents in Afghanistan who objected to his Pakistan visit, Ghani made the argument that he needed to go because the Heart of Asia conference was dedicated to Afghanistan.
After an anxious wait, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also made it to Islamabad for the conference despite her country’s tense and unfriendly relations with Pakistan. She justified her presence in Pakistan, the first visit by any Indian foreign minister since 2012, by arguing that she had come for the sake of Afghanistan. Her presence, as well as that of President Ghani, not only enhanced the importance of the conference but also saved Pakistan from the embarrassment that their absence would have caused.
The groundwork for normalising Pak-Afghan and Indo-Pakistan relations had already been done though Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meetings with President Ghani and Premier Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Climate Change conference in Paris. The Heart of Asia conference gave the needed impetus to the effort and raised hopes for a breakthrough in the on-again, off-again relationship between Islamabad-Kabul and Islamabad-New Delhi. Though the two tracks will be pursued separately and have different dynamics, there will be some overlapping as lately Afghanistan and India have teamed up to exert pressure on Pakistan to include New Delhi in its transit trade agreement with Kabul and allow Afghan trucks to pick Indian products from the Attari border town for transportation to Afghanistan overland via Pakistan. Moreover, Islamabad has serious concerns about the use of Afghan territory by India to destabilise Pakistan through Baloch separatists and TTP militants. It also views with worry the growing defence and security cooperation between Afghanistan and India due to its implications for Pakistan.
All this has prompted Pakistan to make extra efforts to promote reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Pakistan Army chief made it a point to visit Kabul as soon as possible and he made it to the Afghan capital before the year was out. Ghani had reportedly been pressing for the visit to take place before the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, but the Pakistan government decided against it. This was not the first time that the Afghan government insisted on holding talks with the army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chiefs as it believes they are the architects of Pakistan’s Afghan policy and have more power than the country’s elected civilian rulers. By agreeing to the Afghan demand, Pakistani authorities also reinforced this impression. The Pakistani military will now be given credit in the unlikely event of pulling off a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, it will also get the blame if peace talks falter or a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement cannot be implemented.
As a result of the army chief’s one-day visit to Kabul, both sides agreed to work for reviving the peace talks with the Taliban. They also reiterated their earlier resolve not to allow their territory to be used against the other. This didn’t happen the last time they made this resolve in early 2015, but there are indications they intend to make a bigger effort this time to achieve the objective.
A so-called ‘steering committee’ of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China is being formed to facilitate and oversee the Afghan peace process and it has already held consultations to prepare the roadmap for the purpose. It will become more active in case the Taliban agree to talk peace with the Afghan government. This is something Pakistan has offered to do as it did earlier when it brought the Taliban to the
negotiations table in Murree on July 7. The second round of the peace talks were scheduled to take place on July 31 but the belated disclosure of the news about the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar led to the breakdown of the dialogue and triggered dispute in the Taliban’s ranks over the issue of succession.
Understandably, the Taliban leadership had kept the news about Mullah Omar’s death secret for more than two years due to concern that his successor, lacking his status, would not be able to overcome the differences that would inevitably crop up in the process of choosing a new leader. This is precisely what happened as the selection of Mullah Omar’s long-time deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, as his successor was rejected by a group of Taliban figures and a rival faction led by “Rahbari Shura” (Leadership Council) member Mullah Mohammad Rasool came into being. They two groups even came to blows with Mullah Mansoor’s mainstream faction emerging the victor in the internecine fighting in Zabul and Herat provinces. The Mullah Rasool faction lost its two top military commanders, Mansoor Dadullah, who was also its deputy leader, and his elder brother, Maula Dad alias Haji Lala. Their more well-known brother, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, arguably among the leading Taliban military commanders, was killed several years ago and on that occasion too Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and his aides were blamed by the family for hatching the plot to assassinate him. This has now become a dangerous blood feud that will keep Mullah Mansoor on guard all the time as the surviving members of the Dadullah family won’t spare him whenever the opportunity arises. The recently reported attack on Mullah Mansoor, which was later denied and was apparently untrue, should also be seen in this context as the Dadullah group had immediately claimed responsibility for the assault.
Pakistan is now trying to accomplish the difficult task of persuading the two Taliban factions to agree to peace talks with Kabul. It is obvious the priority is to get the more powerful Mullah Mansoor faction on board. Neither of the two factions has assented yet and both are waiting for the other to make the move out of concern that Taliban members, primarily the fighters opposed to the peace talks with the ‘enemy’, would ally with the faction refusing to join the peace process. The message being conveyed by the Taliban presently is that they first want to put their own house in order before making up their mind to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government.
It doesn’t help that, like the Taliban, the Afghan ‘unity’ government too is facing disunity on the issue of the peace talks as even senior officials such as President Ghani’s adviser, Ahmad Zia Masood, consider dialogue a waste of time, the heads of the Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly) and Misharano Jirga (Senate) have declared Pakistan as an enemy, and former interior minister Omar Daudzai, who was an ally of the previous Afghan President Hamid Karzai argued that Pakistan cannot be trusted with the leading role for restoring peace in Afghanistan. The recent resignation of the Afghan intelligence head, General Rahmatullah Nabeel, and his strong criticism of President Ghani as a parting shot also showed how divided the unity government is in talking to the Taliban via Pakistan and offering them any concessions.
With such hard views prevailing on both sides of the divide among the warring Afghan groups and in the presence of many spoilers, including certain regional governments and non-Afghan, non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, it will be an uphill task to make the Afghan peace talks a success. Peace in Afghanistan would immensely benefit Pakistan, but it cannot make it happen alone. The Afghan government has the primary responsibility on this score as it also needs to tackle corruption, generate jobs and improve good governance to prevent more Afghans joining the ranks of the Taliban or fleeing in their thousands illegally to Europe due to the hopelessness of the situation in Afghanistan.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2016 issue.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.