Of ties and trust by Rahimullah yousefzai

On an invitation by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council was to send a delegation to Pakistan months ago, but it was delayed until now. One apparent reason for the delay was Kabul’s concern that the visit won’t be able to achieve anything unless Islamabad was able to persuade the Taliban to agree to direct talks with the Afghan government.

As the situation hasn’t changed a bit and the possibility of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government is still improbable, the trip by the High Peace Council head Salahuddin Rabbani and his delegation to Pakistan is unlikely to achieve anything worth the effort.

The visit, however, is somewhat important because it is the first by Salahuddin Rabbani to Pakistan as the chairman of the council after having succeeded his father, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed in a suicide attack allegedly carried out by the Taliban in Kabul on September 20 last year. The younger Rabbani, though, isn’t new to Pakistan as he lived in Peshawar for a number of years along with his family during the Afghan jihad and is familiar with the country and its people. It would still be unrealistic to attach too many hopes to the visit in view of the ground realities.

In April 2012, President Hamid Karzai appointed Salahuddin Rabbani as the chairman of the 70-member High Peace Council, which has achieved little in its two-year existence. His appointment was primarily due to political and emotional reasons as he happened to be the eldest son and successor of the slain leader of the Jamiat-i-Islami, a religio-political party of mostly ethnic Tajiks who, after having fought the Taliban for years, was willing to negotiate peace with the Pakhtun-dominated, Mullah Mohammad Omar-led Islamic movement.

The late Rabbani had also undertaken a trip to Islamabad in the hope of contacting the Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan, and had returned empty-handed. The same could happen to Salahuddin Rabbani unless the Taliban leadership is persuaded to make a fundamental shift in its policy of not recognising the Afghan government and refusing to interact with it at any level.

That seems unlikely at this stage and one could, therefore, say even before the Afghan delegation sets foot in Pakistan that the visit will be an exercise in futility. All Pakistan can do at present is arrange a meeting of Salahuddin Rabbani with the detained Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and others, or hand them over to Kabul, but this won’t solve the problem because Mullah Omar has a standing policy that no Taliban figure can negotiate on behalf of his movement unless specifically assigned this role. Detained Taliban leaders certainly cannot represent Mullah Omar and his movement in any talks of such an importance.

A number of things need to happen before one can become optimistic about the possibility of a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The US, as the patron of the biggest military and economic assistance to the Karzai government, holds the key to break the stalemate because Kabul would have to be empowered to take decisions that would convince the Taliban that President Karzai or his High Peace Council aren’t powerless. Following President Barack Obama’s re-election, his administration could consider restarting the stalled Qatar peace process with the Taliban and investing more time and resources into finding a political, instead of a military, solution to the Afghan conflict.

The US would have to play an instrumental role in removing the names of Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders from the UN ‘black-list’ so that they could travel and possibly enter into negotiations with the US and the Afghan government in future. It would also have to take back its announcement of head-money placed on the Taliban leaders to make any peace talks meaningful. One of the most important confidence-building measures would be to free Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, not unconditionally but as part of a swap for the US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who is in custody of the Haqqani network, for the last three years. Obviously, the Taliban too have to make some concessions if all this were to happen.

Kabul could also argue that the Taliban are powerless and that Islamabad holds the key to overcome the impasse, but it seems it is being unrealistic with regard to Pakistan’s influence over Mullah Omar and his Rahbari Shura, or Leadership Council. Islamabad certainly has some influence over the Taliban as a number of their leaders are based in Pakistan, but this isn’t of a decisive nature. And any coercive move by Pakistan to dictate terms to the Taliban could harm its own interest, alienate Mullah Omar and his men from Islamabad and even force them to take a more hard-line stance on ending the Afghan conflict.

Why would Pakistan apprehend and keep in its custody Taliban leaders, around 30 according to Taliban sources, including important ones like the movement’s deputy head Mullah Baradar, his predecessor Mullah Obaidullah who died in the custody of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), late Maulvi Yunis Khalis’ son Anwarul Haq Mujahid and Ustad Mohammad Yasir, if it was sure of its control over the Taliban movement? Why did Pakistan hand over some Taliban leaders such as former interior minister and Guantanamo Bay prison detainee Khairullah Khairkhwa to the US and several others, including Akbar Agha and Ustad Yasir, to the Afghan government if it wanted to unconditionally oblige the Taliban? In fact, an element of distrust exists between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban due to past events and also in context of future scenarios in the region. This cannot bode well for the stability of the Pak-Afghan border areas.

It is also important to defuse the tension on the Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan before expecting the two countries to sincerely cooperate with each other to end the Afghan conflict, restore peace and fight terrorism. Infiltration by militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan is still a problem, and since 2011 cross-border attacks by Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah into Chitral, Upper Dir and Lower Dir districts and Bajaur tribal region have contributed to the tense situation on the Durand Line. On the other hand, India’s growing influence in Afghanistan has been causing unease in Pakistan.

In fact, the timing of Salahuddin Rabbani’s visit to Pakistan has coincided with President Karzai’s trip to India and the signing of four more agreements of cooperation in various fields. Although Afghanistan as a sovereign country has every right to take any decision regarding its foreign relations, Islamabad has reasons to become concerned when its offer of further cooperation with Kabul is rebuffed. There is a growing feeling in Pakistan that Kabul has to show more sensitivity to Islamabad’s concerns with regard to India’s role in Afghanistan.

No doubt Afghanistan also has many complaints on Pakistan’s actions and Islamabad certainly needs to do more to earn Kabul’s trust. Unless the two neighbouring countries start trusting each other, one-off visits like the recent one by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to Afghanistan and that of the High Peace Council to Pakistan won’t achieve anything substantial in terms of ending the Afghan conflict.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com


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