PM Imran Khan, left, talks to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, second right, as Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, center left, listens during their meeting at the PM's Office in Islamabad. Photo: AFP / Pakistan Press Information Dept / Ho

This month, after the postponement of a multilateral conference in Russia on the Afghan issue, the region’s foreign ministers are struggling to reschedule the event. The planned peace conference would be a very important step for the resolution of the years-old conflict in Afghanistan, which is a major hurdle to regional security and economic activities. Everyone is interested in having peace and stability in Afghanistan, but everyone is also hesitant over its process and potential outcomes.

Why is it so important for the region? Well, looking into the Afghan issue pragmatically, we notice that it’s not just about Afghanistan but a number of forces have sometimes divergent and at other times convergent interests. Let’s have a look at some countries and their potential interests in the Afghan Peace.

The conference is vital for the US because it is tied up in a lengthy and costly war, without any tangible outcome yet, and moreover is unlikely to see any success in the future either. It is also vital for China, as peace in Afghanistan would provide the right kind of atmosphere that could enable the Belt and Road Initiative to thrive and flourish.

It would be good for Pakistan because peace in the region would reduce defense spending and provide economic and security stability for its continuous development. For the last four decades development in Pakistan has been hindered by the situation in Afghanistan.

Russia doesn’t want US influence in the Central Asian region where its own influence reigns supreme, and above all its withdrawal from Afghanistan during the Soviet era is still fresh in its memory.

Iran is under constant threat from ISIS, which has shown open hostility against Tehran, and a stable Afghanistan would mean fewer sanctuaries for ISIS.

The American presence in Afghanistan is not acceptable by any of its neighboring countries. Stabilizing it would therefore be a win-win situation for the whole region.

Foreign ministers in action

In this context, there has been an increased frequency of foreign ministers visiting across the region. On September 5, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accompanied by General Joseph Dunford met with the Pakistani civilian and military leadership. The same day, Pompeo flew to India for a 2+2 format dialogue with India.

Prior to this trip, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad for talks with the newly elected government. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived on a two-day trip to Islamabad on September 7. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi will make his maiden trip abroad to Afghanistan. Pompeo has invited Qureshi to Washington. All of these visits can be seen as shuttle diplomacy among states concerned with Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s key role

Why has Pakistan suddenly emerged as the centerpiece for Afghan talks? The first answer could be that Pakistan has just elected a new government with a fresh mandate and a lot of legitimacy among the masses, hence bold decisions can be made.

Second, Imran Khan, a longtime critic of the Afghan war, is in the driving seat of Pakistan. In his maiden speech after winning the election on July 26, he expressed his wish to resolve Afghan issues. His stance, though very unpopular a few years ago, is extremely popular now, domestically as well as internationally, especially with the Americans.

The US government knows that Pakistan under Khan’s leadership can woo the Taliban into accepting some kind of long-term ceasefire. Pakistan is the only country in this region that understands the Afghans very well and in depth. Pakistan’s role has been acknowledged globally and its potential is recognized very well.

China has played a very important role too – it has been at the forefront of the Afghan peace process and has done much to ease the otherwise tense relations between Islamabad and Kabul.

Pakistan wants to help with the Afghan process; peace in Afghanistan would be the best thing that could happen to Pakistan in a decade, but certainly not at Pakistan’s expense. Pompeo has asked for Pakistan to bring the Taliban back to the table. How can Pakistan do this when the US had previously intentionally derailed the quadrilateral peace process?

The US has to wake up to the realities in Pakistan. It cannot expect on one hand to cancel Pakistan’s Coalition Support Fund reimbursements and on the other hand signing multibillion-dollar projects with India and still expect Pakistan to commit wholeheartedly to American interests in Afghanistan.

The Americans need to restore trust practically, through their actions. On one hand the US objects to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and resists Pakistan’s economic takeoff. But on the other hand it breaks its own rules when it allows India to buy defense equipment from both Russia and the US and initiates an arms race in the region. Arming India could destabilize the whole region and constitute a direct threat to its smaller neighbors.

The Taliban have been very clear in their demands from the very beginning, and that is a complete withdrawal of the US and its allied forces from Afghanistan. However, this might not be acceptable to the Americans.

The American presence

The Americans have been in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan for 17 years now. They did not come in with the intention of eventually abandoning Afghanistan. They want to have a limited military presence in Afghanistan for an undefined period of time.

Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states are all in a catch-22 situation where they do not want the American forces to be there, but are also skeptical of the situation after a US withdrawal, and also do not want to indulge directly in Afghanistan. The presence of ISIS has made the equation even more complicated, as ISIS is competing with the Taliban in gaining control of certain areas of Afghanistan.

All of these matters will require long and detailed discussion if the Afghan peace conference goes ahead. At least there will be a silver lining during the talks, and that is that none of the parties are in favor of ISIS gaining control in Afghanistan. This could be a potential rallying point for the nations to gather around.

These frequent visits by foreign ministers to one another’s countries indicate that there might be a solution in the box, and it is only a question of when the box will be opened, and not if it will be opened.

A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is vital to everyone’s interest. Let us keep on struggling for peace and move forward.

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Zamir Awan

Professor Zamir Ahmed Awan is a sinologist at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Chinese Studies Center of Excellence, Islamabad, Pakistan. Posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing as science counselor (technical affairs) from 2010-16, he was responsible for promoting cooperation between Pakistan and China in science, technology, and higher education.

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