The main takeaway from the Heart of Asia conference, which concluded in Islamabad on Thursday, has been the renewed effort to rekindle a Pakistan-Afghanistan détente that might help the resumption of the stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
The atmospherics in Islamabad have been extraordinarily good and Pakistan went to great length to extend a warm welcome to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Indeed, Ghani himself belatedly decided to attend the conference despite the feverish rumor mongering regarding the death of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in factional fighting.
What might have been the basis of these feverish rumors originating from Kabul in the immediate run-up to the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad still remains a matter of conjecture but they probably aimed at undercutting the fresh attempt that was expected at the sidelines of the conference aimed at resumption of peace talks.
The situation is indeed murky in Kabul. The overall picture is one of great fluidity. Clearly, Ghani is wading into resumed peace talks while his army is reeling under bloody hits from the Taliban.
Again, the fact that the Afghan spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil has quit on Thursday in controversial circumstances, openly dissenting with Ghani’s policy line to improving ties with Islamabad as well as to place continued store on the peace talks underscores the entrenched opposition within the Afghan power structure to the very idea of reconciliation with the Taliban.
The only mitigating factor is that even the hardline factions will know their limitations, given the geopolitical reality that China and the United States, which are major donor countries, stand behind Ghani and they have had a big hand in the latest attempt at reviving the moribund Pak-Afghan rapprochement.
The two trilateral meetings – China-Pakistan-Afghanistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan-US – which were held in Islamabad on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference have highlighted the remarkable similarity in the respective approaches of Beijing and Washington to the stabilization of Afghanistan.
The US-China congruence was evident in the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Ghani also co-chaired a separate session in a quadrilateral format with the Chinese and US delegations to the Heart of Asia conference, led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken respectively.
The statement issued after the ‘quadrilateral’ affirmed that “reconciliation remains the most viable option to end violence and promote stability in Afghanistan and the region. All four countries agreed to work together to create a conducive atmosphere that encourages Taliban groups to engage in meaningful and sustained negotiations”.
Significantly, Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif showed up at the airport on Tuesday for the ceremonial welcome to Ghani in an unprecedented gesture, and later he called on the visiting Afghan leader in a move to convey “full support to the Afghan president for intelligence sharing, operational coordination and reconciliation process” on the basis of “mutual interest and respect”.
The gesture was intended to convey a political signal that the civilian and military leaderships are working together on the Afghan problem.
Meanwhile, the ouster of Nabil as spy chief (which Ghani reportedly had demanded before emplaning for Islamabad on Tuesday) will no doubt please Pakistan. Ghani ‘inherited’ Nabil from the Hamid Karzai era and was virtually stuck with him so far as the national unity government could not agree on a consensus figure to replace him. Nabil was an indefatigable foe of the Taliban who viewed the Pakistani military and the ISI with great suspicion.
But, importantly, he was not a ‘lone wolf’. Influential sections within the security and military establishment in Kabul share his profound skepticism about Ghani’s continued faith in constructive engagement with Pakistan.
Given Nabil’s closeness to the Indian security establishment, his exit will please Pakistan. But Pakistan’s wish list will go well beyond Nabil’s ouster. Gen. Sharif’s accent on “mutual interest and respect” hints at the Pakistani expectation regarding the activities of the (Pakistani) Taliban groups operating from Afghan soil. In fact, for Gen. Sharif, that is the litmus test of Kabul’s trust and goodwill.
Ghani, of course, also expects reciprocal moves by the Pakistani military by rolling back its support of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Ghani’s speech at the Heart of Asia conference signaled that he has no illusions regarding Pakistan.
His references to Pakistan, made on Pakistani soil in front of an international audience, were direct and forceful and he touched on the deep-rooted Afghan suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions.
Clearly, Ghani put the onus on Pakistan to respond to the huge risks he has taken in re-engaging with Pakistan (even as he was visiting Pakistan, Taliban made a big attack in Kandahar killing scores of Afghan civilians and soldiers).
Lacking a political base within Afghanistan, saddled with a security and defence establishment that is weaned on ‘anti-Taliban resistance’, facing constant sniping from powerful quarters who are not stakeholders in the current power structure and are disaffected for one reason or another, and leading a national unity government that is far from united, Ghani is indeed in an unenviable position. How he navigates the way forward in the crucial period ahead bears watch.
Surprisingly, Mullah Mansour’s ghost did not haunt the Heart of Asia conference at any point during the past two days. It appears that the rumors regarding his death were exaggerated.
At any rate, Pakistan hopes to shortly convene the next round of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban – as early as next week. Such optimism would have been unlikely if things were not under the control of the Pakistani military and the Taliban were inexorably fragmenting and descending into hopeless disarray.
Arguably, the optics of a wounded-but-still-alive Mansour and the perceived factionalism within the Taliban will be found useful by Pakistan to calibrate the forthcoming peace talks, by creating the space for it to dissociate itself from any continued bloodshed even in the downstream of any ceasefire that might be in the making.
The statement issued after the ‘quadrilateral’ (which met in Islamabad on Thursday), in fact, pointedly referred to “Taliban groups”, in a tacit acknowledgement of the long-standing Pakistani contention that it does not control the Taliban movement.
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