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Joint Pak-Afghan Peace Efforts and the Hidden Tensions

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By: Abdul Ahad Bahrami

Securing peace deal with the Taliban has been high on the Afghan government’s agenda in recent years. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has invested his political credibility and credit on the efforts aimed at bringing the Taliban leaders on negotiation table. Karzai is determined to push for contacting the Taliban and bringing them to negotiations that could result to a peace deal, before complete withdrawal of US-led NATO forces by 2014. The Afghan government has tried hard to garner support from international community and neighboring countries for talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. It has established secret contacts with the Taliban representatives to pave the way for formal peace negotiations with the Taliban. But so far, the Taliban has abstained to enter talks with the government of Afghanistan and said it would talk with the US, not the government of Afghanistan.

As Afghanistan is getting closer to the presidential election date and the much-feared complete withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014 when the NATO ends its over-a-decade long mission of fighting terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan, the prospect of war is uncertain and the insurgency is threatening the stability of the country. In search of peace, in addition to the government of Afghanistan, the US has also put its weight behind the efforts for peace talks with the Taliban and cut a deal with insurgent groups before it completely withdraws troops from Afghanistan. The US fears failing to cut a peace deal with the Taliban would prolong the insurgency in Afghanistan after 2014 and risk a broader instability in the country that could energize the militants for fighting harder against the nascent Afghan security forces.

To enable the Taliban to represent the groups officially in peace talks, the US raised an initiative to open Taliban’s political office in Qatar. First, the government of Afghanistan opposed the plan, fearing of being sidelined from the negotiations by the United States and the Taliban. Finally, the government of Afghanistan consented with opening of the office in Qatar, but still insisting that any initiative for peace talks with the insurgent groups should be Afghan-owned and led by Kabul. The Afghan government, with backing from international community and its western allies, pursued the initiative of opening a political official for the Taliban in Qatar. But the initiative hasn’t borne any result yet, as the Taliban refuse to resume talks with the government of Afghanistan or the United States through a political office in Qatar or elsewhere.

Pakistan’s role is seen as crucial in any effort for resolution of the Afghan conflict and the Afghan government has been well aware of this. Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been suspicious to each other, as the old conflict in Afghanistan has hit both countries. As a obvious fact about the Afghan war, Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban in past years and the main leadership of the Taliban, the so-called Quetta shura, is still operating from Quetta. The main intelligence body of the country, ISI, has had close ties with the militant group in past decade of war in Afghanistan. For centuries, Pakistan pursued policy of establishing a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul, fearing of its old foe, India, influencing the country.

But recently, there were hopes of more cooperation from Islamabad in the initiative of peace negotiations with the insurgent groups, as the two countries enjoyed relatively warmer relations after a period of tensions between Pakistan and the US as well as the government of Afghanistan. In past months, Pakistan released dozens of Taliban senior members in request of Afghanistan and announced it was ready to release even all prisoners of Taliban detained in the country to help the peace efforts in Afghanistan. The two countries even went far ahead in supporting the peace plan in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari vowed to secure a peace deal with the Taliban in six months, when the two leaders visited London and met David Cameron of Britain in a trilateral summit.

But soon the developments in the peace negotiations and relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan proved the hopes for close Pak-Afghan cooperation on peace with Taliban to be very optimistic and unrealistic. After months of back door negotiations between the Afghan government and Pakistan, now Islamabad seems to be disappointed of the process of peace efforts and the role and expectation of the Afghan government. Pakistani officials have made it clear that the country prefers the Taliban to be transformed into a political movement and the conflict to be ended before 2014 when NATO ends its mission in Afghanistan. Some Pakistani Foreign Ministry officials have told Reuters News Agency that the country is viewing Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the main obstacle to the peace process in Afghanistan. According to the report, the Pakistanis have contacts with influential figures from the Northern Alliance, comprising some political opposition parties of Afghanistan.

“There is no other option but reconciliation – with or without Karzai,” a top Pakistani Foreign Ministry official has told the Reuters. “If he continues to be this stubborn, him and his High Peace Council will naturally be sidelined.” It suggests that any expectation for close cooperation among Pakistan and Afghanistan on peace in Afghanistan is unrealistic. Islamabad tend to pursue peace in Afghanistan in its own terms, perhaps in exchange for some sorts of deals, such as the role of India in Afghanistan and Taliban’s share of power, which the Afghan governments finds it difficult to accept. The ownership of the peace efforts is over-sensitive for the government of Afghanistan. Afghan government argues that it should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and the United States has formally endorsed it.

In order to stop back-channel dialogues between the Taliban and other parties, the government of Afghanistan has harshly criticized the US and Pakistan as well as Afghan political oppositions. The facts surrounding the peace plan in Afghanistan and the hidden tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan show that it would not be easy to secure a peace deal in near future – at least in the deadline of six months.

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