By Seema Guha
When Afghan leaders come to India they are generally forthright about Pakistan and its support of the Afghan Taliban. But this time around, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah was much more circumspect in his interaction with reporters on Thursday.
Ahead of peace talks between the Afghan government, Pakistan, US and China in Islamabad on Saturday, Abdullah Abdullah did not want to queer the pitch. When quizzed about Pakistan and the Taliban, he merely said: "Many Taliban leaders are in Pakistan," at the same time he acknowledged that "Pakistan is crucial for talks, but
talks and terrorism can't go along." At one point he could not help adding that those who encouraged terror groups must know that "they come back to haunt you." That was a not so subtle dig at the blow back of terror to Pakistan.
"Afghanistan’s main challenge and focus is on the security situation," Abdullah Abdullah said. The Taliban has been steadily getting control of more and more territory ever since the American and Nato forces left Afghanistan in December 2014. Every other day government forces and ordinary people in Afghanistan come under attack. Much of
this is because the Taliban too is preparing for a time when it is ready to come to a political settlement and sit across the table from a position of strength.
While the international community is worried about the ISIS or Daesh now complicating the situation in Afghanistan even more, Abdullah Abdullah made short shrift of these worries. "Daesh is a new phenomena but in Afghanistan it does not have a reach. It is very different from the Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Here it is mainly a change of flags from Taliban to Daesh in certain areas," the chief executive said.
Ironically the Taliban, driven by factional fighting after the death of its supreme leader, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, will not attend the. The Afghan government for now is putting no conditions on talks. Nor are they talking of the "good" Taliban as opposed to the "bad." The negotiations will be a long complex process, aiming at bringing
all those who wish to give up the gun join the political process.
"In this preliminary stage we are not setting conditions..we are expressing our desire for talks and a peaceful settlement of the problem. There are no red lines at the moment. But finally we would want those who are for peace, sever links with violence and fight for their gaols and aims politically," Abdullah Abdullah said.
Pakistan is key to the talks and the international community is well aware that without Pakistan’s involvement, Taliban would not be in the negotiating table. Pakistan which was in the doghouse when US and NATO forces were deployed in Afghanistan, has been steadily gaining ground after December 2014 when the bulk of the foreign forces left.
Islamabad is being wooed by the US, for exactly the same reason as the Afghan leadership: to give the Taliban a share in the future political settlement which will end decades of violence in the war-torn nation. Having built up the Talibs in the early years, the Pakistan army, more so its spy agency the ISI, know the Taliban leadership.
Though the American and the Chinese have been reaching out to sections of the Taliban, it is only Pakistan that knows the people who call the shots. So Pakistan remains at the centre of the efforts to get the Taliban on board. Both Afghanistan and the US need General Raheel Sharif’s co-operation in this.
Pakistan has been a difficult neighbour to Afghanistan. Though the two countries share a common religion and Pasthuns live on both sides of the Durand Line yet relationship has been uneasy after the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001. Afghanistan’s dilemna is how to handle Pakistan. Kabul desperately needs Islamabad for a political
settlement. Yet Pakistan wants to make sure that its friends in the Taliban are accommodated in any future political settlement that evolves in Afghanistan. In short it wants to make sure that its friends weild power and countries like India do not spread themselves out in Afghanistan. "Strategic depth" is something the Pakistan
military has long sought in Afghanistan.
President Ashraf Ghani realized soon after coming to power in 2014 that he needs to mend fences with Pakistan. His predecessor Hamid Karzai was unpopular with Islamabad, more so because the former president had excellent ties with India. Ghani’s first trip abroad was to Pakistan and he broke protocol to call on General Sharif at GHQ in Rawalpindi and win over the army chief, who is in charge of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Yet despite the initial warmth, Pakistan and Afghanistan soon had problems, with each charging the other of harbouring terrorists.
Pakistan has claimed that the attack on the Bacha Khan University, where 19 students were killed by terrorists
was directed by elements based in Afghanistan.
No one knows what may happen when the "quad" meets in Islamabad on Saturday. But Afghans are hoping that the Taliban will be persuaded to end the vicious cycle of violence it has unleashed across Afghanistan.