Pakistan foreign minister to visit Afghanistan: Taliban threat means Islamabad has an upper hand over Kabul

The new government of Imran Khan is set to take its first steps towards enunciating its Afghanistan strategy. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi will visit Afghanistan in his first visit outside the country. The visit comes just after a long meeting between the prime minister, army chief General Qamar Bajwa, ISI chief Naveed Mukhtar, and major ministerial heads on Friday where foreign policy matters were reportedly discussed.

The visit of the foreign minister has its more-than-obvious backdrop. First, the Trump administration is breathing fire and brimstone at Pakistan’s clear and continued support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. The most recent in this regard were reports of Taliban militants being treated in Pakistani hospitals after the mass attack on Ghazni in August. Social media showed several pictures of Taliban dead arriving in Dir, in Khyber Pakthunkhwa immediately after the attack, which seemed to confirm the presence of Pakistani fighters.

Since the report on medical treatment to Taliban fighters has been endorsed by no less a person than President Ashraf Ghani himself, there is potential for an extremely awkward meeting. But present and past presidents of Afghanistan have tried friendship, extravagant praise, and just about everything in the book to stop Pakistani assistance to death and violence. That hasn’t happened yet. It's unlikely to happen this time around for many reasons, one of them being that the Taliban may see themselves as steadily winning important territory.

File image of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

File image of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

The attack on Ghazni was known months in advance. As is now the norm, Taliban fighters were reported to be around the city months earlier, with experts like Ehsan Qaane detailing the slow surrounding of the city, as district after district was attacked by Taliban soldiers equipped with night vision devices and heavy equipment. Several times, the roads to Ghazni were cut off, demonstrating the capability of the terrorist force that took its time to entrench itself, at times even collecting taxes.

The fall of Ghazni is an important milestone for the Taliban, putting them within shouting distance of Kabul. It also means the ability to cut off communications to the 203 Corps located at Paktia. When Qureshi goes calling, he’s going with a full hand in this area. His group has all the cards and the trade in this regard will be in terms of what Pakistan can get out of “talks” whenever they happen.

The “talks about talks” – which at one level can be said to be “ongoing” since the last decade — seem to have had some kind of a revival. Recently, a meeting of sorts between four Taliban officials and Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary in the state department, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, was reportedly held at Qatar in late July. This preceded the fall of Ghazni, and its “success” lay in the ceasefire that was declared thereafter during Eid.

That ceasefire – which saw dramatic pictures of Taliban soldiers hugging Afghan security personnel – had a hasty demise. The Taliban are back on the warpath, but seem to be still open to some sort of negotiations with the US, but on different issues altogether. The optimism is evident in that the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" seems to feel that the recent appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, is something to cheer about.

Its commentators compare his coming to that of Vorontsov, who was sent by the Soviet Union to pull out tired Soviet troops out of the hell hole into which they had fallen. According to Taliban back channel rumours, the only thing the US would – or should — want to negotiate at this stage is a continuance of its military bases. That premise – whether true or not – is interesting. It means that the Taliban may be open to some limited (and quiet) US presence in the future. The defining of that “limited” will again lie in Pakistan’s ability to persuade – for want of a better word – Taliban leadership. That old adage of a cat always falling on its feet completely describes Rawalpindi’s strategy. No, President Ghani needs Qureshi more than the latter needs him.

President Ghani is particularly weak at the moment. His government’s infighting has not just stymied efforts to build the country, but also specifically weakened the defence against the Taliban. The New York Times recently reported that the defence of Ghazni was worsened by the fact that the besieged force was sent the wrong type of ammunition. A spate of resignations followed, including that of powerful National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, sparked by this as well as simmering differences between members of the cabinet, and a rocket attack on the Presidential palace on Eid.

Then, there is also the fact that many of these cabinet members will want to distance themselves from the palace before they themselves stand for elections. Parliamentary elections are due soon, and presidential elections in 2019. There is little public confidence in the voting process, particularly the preparation of voter lists. In other words, the Pakistani foreign minister will be talking to a leader all but bereft of public support.

It only remains to understand what the Pakistan foreign minister’s brief was likely to be for talks. That meeting of the top brass would have counselled him to simply buy time. Rawalpindi will be aware that peaceful parliamentary elections are only useful where it brings the Taliban-backed candidates to power. That math will determine whether or not parliamentary elections remain peaceful or wracked with enough violence to bring in a sullen and divided Parliament.

For Pakistan, this is a time for consolidation of its efforts, that will eventually give the Taliban some power at the top, just enough to keep them as a tool. It was never ever part of Rawalpindi’s vision to have a triumphant and victorious group that grows too big for its boots. As Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Hussain Qureshi packs his bags for Kabul, he can comfort himself with the fact that its not his boss’s hands on the tiller. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s talk of peace with neighbours and goodwill towards all, never has and never will apply to Afghanistan. He simply doesn’t have the clout.

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Updated Date: Sep 15, 2018 22:04:09 IST

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