Even as negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and United States’ Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad enter a decisive phase, with the latter reaching Islamabad for talks (January 17, 2019) after briefing the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul (January 14-15), the Pakistani Army continues to maintain a firm control on the evolving twists and turns of the Afghan peace process and responses of the Afghan Taliban leadership to peace feelers from the Americans. Lisa Curtis, Deputy Assistant to US President Trump & Senior Director on South Asia at the US National Security Council also reached Islamabad (January 14) to join Khalilzad and America’s General in Afghanistan Scott Miller for the latest parleys.
In terms of the end game in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s policy elite seeks two overriding objectives: the settlement in Afghanistan should not lead to a negative spillover contributing to enhanced Pakistani Pashtun resentment, and two, the new, preferably inclusive (read ‘Pashtun predominant’) government in Kabul should not be antagonistic to Pakistani state interests—as a corollary, India’s footprint should be limited to a minimum ‘development assistance’ role, if at all, without any ability to manipulate post-settlement government formation there or capacity to launch activities detrimental to internal stability in Pakistan (read ‘Baluchistan’).
By the end of 2009, to fulfill its end of a bargain, etched out in consultation with the Americans and the British, Pakistan chalked out a strategy to build pressure on the Taliban, through their Office in Qatar, to force them into some form of contacts for peace talks, both with the Americans and the Afghan Government in Kabul. With this purpose, in February 2010, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI—still under Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha) carried out raids to arrest Mullah Baradar and several other senior Quetta Shura leaders from Karachi. These raids were executed under supervision of Lt Gen Zaheer ul Islam, then Commander V Corps in Karachi, who later succeeded Pasha as DG, ISI.
President Ashraf Ghani was cognizant of these imperatives during his first State visit to Pakistan in November 2014 when he departed from protocol to call on Pakistani Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif at General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. His effort was to reach out to the Pakistani Army after much bitterness had crept in due to former President Hamid Karzai’s perceived ‘double-faced’ posturing. Much was made in Pakistan at that moment about Gen Raheel’s new crackdown against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) under ‘Zarb-e-Azb’, which flushed out the TTP from South and North Waziristan, first to Mohmand and Orakzai, later only to find new ‘safe havens’ in un-administered spaces of Nangarhar and Pakhtia in Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar’s death was made public in July 2015, two years after his death due to natural causes in a Karachi hospital (April 2013). Mullah Akhtar Mansour became Taliban’s new leader after some faction fighting. He was opposed by Mullah Zakir, Taliban’s Military Commander and Syed Tayyab Agha, then heading the Taliban’s Qatar office. The Pakistani Army and ISI were fully aware of this faction fighting and possibly even controlled its outcome, perceiving Mansour to be pro-Pakistan and pro-reconciliation. These hopes were belied later as Mansour developed business ties (drug sales related?) in Iran and also shifted his family there. His efforts to use the Taliban’s Qatar office to establish ties with Pakistan’s northern neighbours (Iran, other Central Asian countries) were frowned upon by his Pakistani mentors. When American drones took out Mullah Mansour in May 2016 as he was returning from Iran, along the Nushki highway in Baluchistan, alongside charred remains of the taxi in which he was travelling, his undamaged Pakistani passport (in the name of Wali Ahmed) was found near the attack site, fuelling suspicion within the Taliban of the omnipotent Pakistani hand in a tip-off leading to his elimination.
Despite inducting Serajuddin Haqqani as his deputy, Mansour’s successor Haibatullah Akhundzada could not initially assert his authority over the Quetta Shura of Taliban’s prominent field commanders, notably Mullah Rasool and Abdul Mannan (controlling Helmand, reported killed in U.S. drone attack in December 2018) and Gul Agha (in Quetta), who continued to control the Taliban’s drug revenue collection and fund distribution channels. Here too, the Pakistani ISI’s help had to be taken before Haibatullah could establish full control over the Taliban’s field commanders and the Qatar office’s current peace interlocutors (with Khalilzad)—Maulvi Sher Abbas Stanekzai, Shahbuddin Delawar and Mullah Salam Hanafi, all three of whom have been ‘vetted and cleared’ for the talks by the ISI.
Pakistani Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Kabul in June 2018 just after the post-Eid ceasefire with the Taliban. Apart from Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua. He was accompanied by DG, ISI Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar. This visit occurred in the backdrop of evolving U.S. peace feelers and visits to the Taliban’s Qatar office by ‘unofficial’ interlocutors Robin Raphel and Col Chris Kolenda (Retd). U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke to Bajwa just before his Kabul visit.
Much has been made afterwards of improved Pak-Afghan relations and accord in implementing measures agreed under the so-called APAPPS (Afghan-Pak Action Plan for Peace & Stability), which include resumption of fencing along selected portions of the Afghan-Pak border and screening of batches of Afghan refugees in Pakistan wanting to return to their homes in Afghanistan. On his first visit to Peshawar in January 2019, Afghanistan’s newly appointed Ambassador to Pakistan Shukrullah Atif Mashal called on the XI Corps Commander, Lt Gen Shaheen Mazhar Mehmood, ostensibly to review progress in this regard.
Buoyed by military gains inside Afghanistan, the Taliban are negotiating hard over their demands. Officially, they still insist on complete foreign forces’ withdrawal while not rejecting outright U.S. feelers for retaining some presence, possibly in Bagram and Helmand. They do not want to accord any legitimacy to the NUG by agreeing to talk to them. They are reluctant to allow the next presidential elections to go ahead peacefully in July’19. Instead, demands for an interim government, with possible Taliban participation remain in the air. The Pakistani Army is privy to these demands but has not formally endorsed them so far.
On January 15, in a manoeuvre possibly timed to coincide with the arrival of visiting U.S. officials, Pakistani authorities arrested former Taliban Minister Hafez Mohibullah in Peshawar. This ‘arm-twisting’ may not dispel doubts in Afghanistan about the sincerity of their intentions.
The latest parleys in Pakistan reverted to form, with Khalilzad’s team holding ‘operational’ discussions separately with Pakistani Army Chief Gen Bajwa and his team at GHQ, Rawalpindi before discussions at the Pak Foreign Office and a notional call by Khalilzad on PM Imran Khan.
The decision to hold the next round of U.S.-Taliban talks in Islamabad, with the Saudis and Qataris joining in could be a major diplomatic coup for Pakistan. As the American urgency to retrieve itself from the quagmire before the next presidential elections throws this region into increasing instability, the ensuing political scenario in Kabul will need to be closely watched, with possible adverse consequences for India as well.
(The author is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India. Views are personal)
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