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Peace talks and Pakistan

SOME years ago, a small passenger aircraft in the US crashed because its pilot and engineer started concentrating on neutralising the trimmer that had not settled, although it was not dangerous.

Both crew members failed to watch the fuel gauge, and the crash occurred due to lack of fuel, not the malfunctioning trimmer.

Today, Pakistan is in a similar situation. The state machinery and its top civil-military leaders are so engrossed in the day-to-day happenings in the Supreme Court and the Mansoor Ijaz episode that developments in Afghanistan are being ignored. They are not receiving the attention they deserve.

For instance, the Afghan Taliban made a very important pronouncement on Jan 16, when they officially declared victory in the Afghan conflict. Obviously, they are now making the announcements that will lead to the end of hostilities: if the war has ended in victory, it is no longer necessary to continue fighting.

This declaration, though very meaningful, has not received due attention. Only 10 days earlier, on Jan 3, the Taliban officially expressed interest in negotiations with Washington. This was a considerable shift from their normally stated position that there could be no talks until foreign troops left Afghanistan.

This stance, too, is no longer fixed as they announced their willingness to open a political office in Qatar (although no date for an actual opening has been fixed yet). The Taliban have said that the objective for opening the office was to reach an “understanding with other nations”.

Afghan ethnic minority leaders have simultaneously begun to make statements that they support a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. By all accounts, it is apparent that the Afghan peace process is under way but Pakistan — for reasons explained — is not focusing on the ramifications of what is happening.

What was the need for the Taliban to announce victory? One of the strongest reasons for the group to do so is that it is shifting and transforming itself from being a non-state to a state actor. In 1996, the Taliban fought and came to power in the civil war after the departure of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Now, however, the situation is different and they realise that they will need to supplement military options by starting a political process that will allow them to share power.

In the earlier period of the civil war, there was no government in Afghanistan. This time around, there is one. However weak it may be, it is a legal entity. There is also a visible flexibility on the US side, which is no longer insisting that the Taliban accept the existing constitution as a pre-condition.

As an indication of this change, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said some days ago that discussions regarding the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar were taking place and that the release of Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo was also under consideration.

These are clear signs that positive steps have taken place to start the Afghan peace process. It is likely that some milestone agreements can be expected before the next Nato conference in Chicago in May. It is hoped that by then Pakistan opts to assist in the peace process.

Sagacity and cold calculation warrant that once peace returns to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s centrality — that was crucial for the western alliance — will no longer have the same value. This would call for serious debate on the terms and conditions for its re-engagement as an important regional player.

The window of opportunity is closing fast and our present thinking and concerns will be less valid in, say, six months’ time. Perhaps the time has come for Pakistan to renegotiate its position with its erstwhile partners and to build some solid IOUs to use for solving many or some of its problems.

Pakistan also needs to focus on the terms and conditions on which it would like to reduce the level of military operations that it began in support of Nato in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

However, as time passes, two of the country’s largest worries will be to control and retire the phenomenon of the Punjabi Taliban that is predicted to continue challenging the state and threaten regional security as well as cause difficulties with India. Pakistan must counter this situation and instead concentrate on building links.

But, to bring about a positive change, we will have to take robust counterterrorism measures coupled with the de-radicalisation of militants and de-weaponisation. Reconciliation with different groups may now be unavoidable; in a sense, Pakistan today appears to be facing more difficult challenges than perhaps Afghanistan is.

We should begin the task of national self-preservation in right earnest immediately, since the regional security situation is changing very rapidly. Meanwhile, Pakistan must begin to provide whatever assistance it can to help bring the Afghan conflict to an end. The opening provided by the Qatar peace process is a major opportunity to finally conclude the decade of death and destruction that began after 9/11.

Our tragedy today is that Pakistan has a split national consensus — not only is civil society split among various political parties but the civil-military framework that is so essential to stability is also not functioning smoothly.

For Pakistan’s efforts to succeed, the country must find the space to generate economic growth for an increasing population that is facing massive unemployment, inflation and a decaying infrastructure.

The situation would have been much worse if Pakistan had not had a strong agricultural base and the benefit of the flow of remittances from expatriates working abroad. Pakistan badly requires nation-building.

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