The July 12 suicide car bombing near a military base in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Khost killed 20 people and drew instant flak from all those critical of President Ashraf Ghani’s reconciliation moves. The lethal attack provided an instant opportunity for detractors to criticize Taliban as well as Pakistan, which they insist remain unchanged on the geo-political front.
None of the Taliban factions claimed responsibility for the latest attack but it did cause embarrassment to all those stakeholders who had left the Murree conference room on a rather positive note. They even discussed a ceasefire before and during the Eid as a possible confidence building measure.
Where does this leave the intricately delicate peace process and what does it mean for major stakeholders such as Pakistan, USA and China? And will the Afghan narrative on Pakistan change in favour of a regionally-steered reconciliation process?
Afghanistan, President Ghani and most of the security establishment find themselves caught in an intense tug of war; following stiff opposition to the counter-terror cooperation deal with Pakistan by the NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil, representing the surreptitious Karzai legacy (comprising Pashtun nationalists and those Afghans critical of Pakistan) Ghani lost no time in appointing Ajmal Abedi as the deputy director of NDS. In an attempt to neutralize majority of the thundering MPs in the Woolasi Jirga – the parliament – opposition within the security apparatus the president also agreed to reviewing the MoU text.
Dawlat Waziri said Pakistani helicopters were assisting the Taliban in the Paktika province
But clearly, Ghani finds himself pitched against a deeply-entrenched narrative on Pakistan within Afghanistan’s security establishment and bureaucracy, exemplified by two recent statements.
The deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Dawlat Waziri, on July 5 made a loaded claim that Pakistani helicopters were assisting the Taliban with weapons in the Paktika province. Only a day earlier, the Kandahar Police Chief General Raziq insisted that Pakistan remains a major destabilizing force in Afghanistan, (Insurgents are helped by Pakistan and are equipped with powerful weaponry, he told media on July 4).
Both Ghani and Pakistan must jointly fight off this odd. The latter, too, remains under the shadow of perceptions propagated relentlessly by characters such as Hamid Karzai, Amrullah Saleh and their extended constituency within government structures. What went lost on these gentlemen is an unprecedented paradigm shift in Rawalpindi, driven largely by the pressing, multiple security and economic crisis. International concerns also clearly weighed heavily when the GHQ decided to shift the gear for facilitating the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Practically led by the unflinching General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan staked a lot to lay bare many of its cards to prepare for talks, and thus rub off much of the criticism and skepticism over Pakistan’s role in and vis a vis Afghanistan.
Both Sharifs, officials insist, threw their weight behind the dialogue at Murree as a “make or break” for Pakistan’s interests. The fact that foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was put in charge of overseeing the Afghan dialogue – in the presence of American and Chinese representatives and all Afghan stakeholders also reflected the conscious attempt to underscore the resolve to help, particularly when approaching a divided and reticent Taliban leadership has become increasingly difficult.
Chinese and American officials also appeared amenable when Pakistan told them that the Taliban were not monolithic any more and that the only way forward was to expand the constituency of all those Afghans interested in an early way out of the conflict. Pakistan, it seems, also managed to convince outsiders that the Taliban do not work under its total jurisdiction, they are not the puppets.
Until the Murree round, this perception was a big non-starter for any argument that Pakistan made. But now, not only did the Afghan government interlocutors but also the outsiders such as Americans and Chinese, appear agreeable to Islamabad/Rawalpindi viewpoint. This reflects a visible change in the US narrative on Pakistan, an important development, particularly in view of the continued three key US interests in Pakistan, as recently spelt out by Marine Corps Gen Joseph F Dunford Jr during a Senate hearing last week. Dunford, who will take over as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff from General Martin E Dempsey on October 1, identified averting Al Qaeda’s re-emergence, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promoting regional stability as the three interests that will require the US to stay engaged with Pakistan.
The big challenge, however, remains, as to how President Ghani can mitigate, if not turn around the narrative on Pakistan within the Afghan parliament and his security establishment, which intrinsically remains pro-India and inimical to Pakistan.
Essentially, the challenge is about neutralizing mindsets poisoned by years of acrimony, Pakistani lop-sided Afghanistan policies and poisoned by geo-political interests. This is ripe stuff for spoilers, largely proxies of external powers.
And these proxies represent an enormously daunting task for President Ghani and all those who would like him to extricate his country from the clutches of the Taliban-led, Al Qaeda/IS-inspired insurgency. Dealing with those who use militant splinters for subversion and destruction represents a huge challenge and would require unity among all those pushing for peace.
Both the US and China, who have rallied around Pakistan, now carry the arduous responsibility of explaining to dissenting Afghans and their supporters in India that, brinkmanship will only deprive them of the much-needed political and financial support.
The country can easily descend into political chaos and financial misery if talks with Taliban make no progress. Pakistan, too, has to keep up the pressure on Taliban actors, supporters and their sponsors to warn them that while its degree of accommodation, appeasement and acquiescence for peace in Afghanistan also limitations, a hot pursuit and systematic squeeze probably could be boundless as long as external friends stood by Islamabad.