Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban began in November 2010, followed by another attempt in 2015. Earlier, after a national unity government came to power in Kabul, Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a memorandum of understanding, under which Islamabad pledged to support efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Then in 2018, US and Afghan government officials held several rounds of talks with Taliban. But none of these approaches worked.
Eventually, continued US pressure on Pakistan and increasing incentives offered to the Taliban led to a peace agreement between the group and the United States. But given the problems with the intra-Afghan peace process, the question is what Pakistan’s approach will be going forward, and whether it will be a help or a hindrance.
Pakistan’s main goals in the Afghan peace process are as follows.
Reducing US pressure
Pakistan has repeatedly stated that it is the biggest victim of the war in Afghanistan, and that it has cost Islamabad more than US$120 billion since 2001. US-Pakistani relations have soured since Donald Trump became president, and Washington has cut off economic and military aid to Pakistan since the beginning of 2018.
Islamabad seems to be trying to play a bigger role in peace talks with the Taliban and increasing its ties with the United States. In fact, Pakistan’s more positive role in the peace process will reduce US pressure on Islamabad.
Pakistan’s facilitator approach could pay dividends. It could mitigate Washington’s allegations of money-laundering and terrorist financing, and in addition to increasing the scope of international relations, it could restart US economic aid.
In another dimension, one of the promises made by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to his people was to expand cooperation with neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, and to implement government development programs, especially in the provinces bordering Afghanistan. A peace deal with the Taliban may help make these policies a success.
On the other hand, the challenge of immigrants is very important for the economy of Pakistan, and Islamabad can plan for the return of Afghan refugees by playing a facilitating role and considering its interests in Afghanistan.
The history of Pakistan’s presence and influence in Afghanistan is also influenced by the geopolitical and historical element (the conflict over Pashtunistan and Durand). Over the past few decades, Pakistani politicians have been involved in Afghanistan according to their national interests, and through such efforts as helping the Taliban in Afghanistan consolidate their military power have shown clear examples of their active policy and diplomacy toward developments in that country.
Also, the reciprocal claims of the land around the Durand Line been an incentive for Pakistan to be present in the negotiations and to be influential.
On the other hand, strengthening of the country’s strategy against India, and the creation of a strong network of regional allies against India, is another major goal of Pakistan in its foreign policy in Afghanistan. Therefore, with the help of the Taliban, Pakistan will pursue efforts to reduce any Indian economic, political and security influence in Afghanistan.
Political and security motives
Undoubtedly, Pakistan has had a major impact on the political and military developments in Afghanistan over the past four decades. By playing a facilitating role in the intra-Afghan and Taliban-US negotiation process, Islamabad appears to be trying to prevent a territorial claim against Pakistan from Afghanistan’s political sovereignty by establishing a cooperative government in Kabul.
Therefore, if the Taliban cannot seize full power in Afghanistan, they can participate in the structure of government and power through the peace process. This can be seen as one of the best choices by Islamabad.
In addition, Pakistan is using the peace talks to secure its interests in Afghanistan with the help of the Taliban in order to gain greater political influence in Kabul.
Just as Pakistan played a key role in the four decades of the Afghan crisis, the country has a very influential and decisive role in facilitating peace. In other words, attempting to achieve the desired result in the Afghan peace process without the presence of Pakistan would be fruitless.
Although Afghanistan has taken many steps in the past to negotiate peace with the Taliban, Islamabad considers it necessary to have a mediator and facilitator in these talks, and that should be Pakistan. It seems that from Pakistan’s point of view, all roads for negotiation with the Taliban must pass through Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
In fact, the Pakistanis, given their influence in the Taliban, are trying to manage the peace talks according to their own wishes. At the same time, Pakistan does not seem to want to lose much of its security and political leverage in Afghanistan, so it is keen to manage the negotiation atmosphere.
What is clear is that Pakistan wants peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but peace that can be seen through Islamabad’s own lens. It may claim that its goal is stabilization of Afghanistan without any expectations, but Pakistan’s dual policy of continuing cooperation in peace negotiations while also encouraging and providing practical support to the Taliban seems to be continuing.
However, for Pakistan, the peace process in Afghanistan is also a kind of tactic, a tactic that should serve the overall strategy of Islamabad’s interests in the neighboring country. Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s approach to the Afghan peace process has shifted to facilitating rather than hindering the negotiations, in consideration of its own national interests.