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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s behind-the-scenes role in thwarting intra-Afghan talks is shrouded in intensified Taliban violence


Much has been made in recent weeks of how the spiraling Taliban-perpetrated violence in Afghanistan was threatening to potentially wreck the 29 February agreement that the United States (US) had inked with the Taliban with the ostensible aim of ushering in peace. The contention that the agreement represented quite a surrender by the US, mainly in furtherance of President Donald Trump’s electoral ambitions, has been made in earlier EFSAS Commentaries. With the November elections in mind, Trump insisted that US troops double up and leave Afghanistan in a hurry. The urgency, coupled with the knowledge that the bulk of the Taliban leadership was being sheltered in Pakistan by Pakistani intelligence agencies, meant that the US, at least temporarily, opted to stow away the considerable misgivings that it had over the reliability of the Pakistani security apparatus. The US reiterated with more seriousness, both carrot and stick in hand, that it wanted Pakistan to get the Taliban to the table. Pakistan, buoyed by the twin prospects of a US withdrawal from and a Taliban return to Afghanistan, obliged.

The US-Taliban agreement stipulated an exchange of prisoners between the Afghan government and the Taliban, followed by commencement of the intra-Afghan talks. The prisoner exchange has made slow progress amidst several hiccups along the way. Of the required 5,000, the Afghan government has released well over 4,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban has released over 700 of the 1,000 Afghan security officials it was supposed to. The Afghan government is reluctant to release the remaining Taliban prisoners as it deems that they were guilty of serious offences and human rights violations, but the Taliban is insistent that the original list agreed to in Doha was non-negotiable. Its Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted earlier this week, “As regards the release of the prisoners, it is of utmost importance that those prisoners who are to be released, must be in accordance with the list of the Islamic Emirate as decided upon in Doha”. The Taliban also made it clear that intra-Afghan talks will only begin after the prisoner exchange had been completed. The intra-Afghan talks, which were scheduled to begin in March, are therefore nowhere near commencement.

Meanwhile, tales of bloodshed in continuing Taliban attacks have dominated the Afghan media space. The attacks launched by the Taliban have been both large scale and persistent. On 13 July, a Taliban car bomb and gun attack in Aybak, ­capital of the Samangan province, left 11 Afghan intelligence workers dead and at least 60 civilians wounded. It caused Javed Faisal, a government spokesman, to tweet, “This is what the Taliban have to offer the Afghan people. Destruction, destruction and more destruction”. According to the Afghan Interior Ministry, on the same day as the attack in  Aybak the Taliban also carried out 30 separate ground assaults and bombings in 17 Afghan provinces, killing 19 people. The previous day, 12 July, there were 44 attacks or bombings in 21 provinces in which a total of 21 security officials were killed. Of particular concern was the high rate of civilian casualties in these Taliban attacks. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission informed that the first six months of this year had seen 1,213 civilians killed and 1,744 injured in conflict incidents, with the Taliban being responsible for the vast majority of the casualties.

Amidst such escalation in Taliban attacks that have killed hundreds of government forces and civilians in recent weeks, President Ashraf Ghani has also linked the release of the remaining prisoners to a reduction in Taliban violence. In the first of three online conferences aimed at briefing the global community on the peace talks last week, Ghani warned that “If the Taliban continue fighting, the Afghan peace process will face serious challenges”.

Other Afghan leaders have also expressed concerns over the impact that the Taliban violence could have on the fate of the peace process. Abdullah Abdullah, who as the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation constituted by the Afghan government is tasked with leading the government’s negotiations with the Taliban, said at an international conference on the peace process that the high level of violence being triggered by the Taliban was an obstacle to progress in the peace process. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former Afghan foreign minister who has been critical of the US for making too many concessions to the Taliban in its rush to withdraw troops, recently averred that “The Taliban are in a state of glorification, and the country is in a state of resignation”. Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi urged the Taliban to renounce bloodshed and join the peace process as the rise in violence in Afghan cities and bomb attacks on security forces “have hurt the hopes of and expectations of the people and the international community for making peace through negotiation".

The level of Taliban violence has also got the international community worried. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in a statement last week urged the Taliban and Afghan authorities to not target civilians and to push on with efforts to de-escalate the conflict ahead of the upcoming talks. UNAMA chief Deborah Lyons added, “It has taken enormous work and some brave decisions for Afghans to reach the point of being on the eve of unprecedented intra-Afghan negotiations. There are spoilers who do not wish to see an end to war. No matter what tactics they employ to derail the peace process, they cannot be allowed to succeed”.

The North Atlantic Council (NAC), the political decision-making body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on 15 July called for the Afghan Taliban to join a “humanitarian ceasefire” and “fulfill their commitments, including entering into intra-Afghan negotiations”. It said in a statement that an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process was the “only way to deliver sustainable peace to the Afghan people and to ensure Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability… The current level of violence – driven especially by Taliban attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, remains unacceptably high, causing instability and undermining confidence in the peace process”.

Having wrested the initiative at the talks with the US, the Taliban now feels no real pressure to back down. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on 12 July dismissed as “illogical” the escalating domestic and foreign calls for the Taliban to cease hostilities before the commencement of intra-Afghan peace negotiations. He said, “A demand for us to stop the fighting and then start the negotiations is illogical. War is raging precisely because we have yet to find an alternative”.

The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks. Things have reached such a pass that contingency plans have started figuring in serious discussions. The US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank opined that “While it is sensible to support peace talks in Afghanistan, it is equally important to prepare a Plan B if talks fail. We may be closer to that point than most Americans realize”. In its Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 37 titled ‘A Failed Afghan Peace Deal’, the CFR on 1 July noted that “There were notable problems with the (US-Taliban) agreement, such as its failure to include the Afghan government in the negotiations. It was an attempt to make the best of a bad situation… Given these challenges, the risk of the peace process collapsing or stalling indefinitely is significant. In either case, domestic U.S. pressure to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan would likely intensify. But this would be a mistake, especially if the Taliban is largely at fault. The overthrow of the Afghan government by the Taliban would also likely be a boon for Islamist extremists”.

The CFR memorandum, interestingly, also touched upon the likely role that Pakistan was playing in stoking instability in Afghanistan, and suggested remedies for countering it. It stated, “The Taliban’s Quetta Shura, or senior military leadership council, continues to reside in Pakistan, as do the Taliban’s regional shuras that support the Afghan war… If Pakistan is unhelpful - or even counterproductive - in preventing stalled negotiations, the United States could consider suspending or terminating Pakistan’s non–North Atlantic Treaty Organization (non-NATO) ally status, which offers military and financial advantages that generally are not available to non-NATO countries. Washington could also consider placing Pakistan on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. After all, U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies have collected an abundance of information about Pakistan’s ties to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, from Lashkar-e-Taiba (fronted by Jamaat-ud-Dawa) to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network”.

US research group The Brookings Institution in a paper titled ‘Will the Afghan peace process be Pakistan’s road to redemption?’ by Madiha Afzal on 25 June raised the basic question, “Will Pakistan’s approach to militant groups - the Haqqanis in particular - substantively change? The suspicions post-9/11 on Pakistan’s notorious double-game - giving haven to terrorists while also cooperating on counterterrorism with the United States - run deep. To answer this, it is worth understanding what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan”. She added, “Will any of this change Pakistan’s fundamental calculus in the long-term, or alter the strategic imperatives that have led it to rely on militant proxies? Will Pakistan ultimately let go of its support for the Haqqani network? The short answer is that it hasn’t proven yet that it will. The State Department, in its latest country reports on terrorism, notes that the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban still have safe haven in Pakistan. Pakistan would need a wholesale redefinition of policy to let go of its (existential) insecurities (vis-à-vis India, that lead it to “invest” in militant proxies on both its western and eastern borders). This is easier said than done, since the military thrives on those insecurities. As long as the military, the prime architect of Pakistan’s jihadist foreign policy to date, remains the most powerful institution in Pakistan, it is hard to argue that anything will change. Worryingly, Pakistan’s military has significantly consolidated its hold on the civilian government in the last two years. Domestically, it is increasingly cracking down on dissent. And Pakistan’s laws and educational policies that have given rise domestically to extremism remain intact as ever. Its prime minister, too, engages in narratives sympathetic to terrorist groups; he did so again on June 25, when he alarmingly referred to Osama bin Laden as a martyr”.

On what the US could do to change Pakistan’s behavior, Afzal was of the view that the US had already lost out on a promising opportunity “to condition Pakistan’s seat at the table for the Afghanistan talks on it definitively denouncing the Haqqanis, with proof”. She added, “Going forward, Pakistan’s Financial Action Task Force status should be tied more closely to it cutting its ties to the Haqqanis”.

While the questions raised by these think tanks are relevant, it is surprising that the obvious angle of Pakistan’s involvement in stoking the present escalation of Taliban violence has not been debated. If Pakistan possessed enough leverage over the Taliban to get it to the negotiating table with the US, it certainly should have the clout to get the Taliban to eschew violence at a time when such violence is threatening to tear apart the US-Taliban agreement that was consequently reached. The Pakistani Ambassador to Kabul, Zahid Nasrullah Khan, clearly acknowledged that Pakistan was indeed in a position to influence Taliban behavior when he said in a Reuters interview that “We have been persuading the Taliban to show that the violence level remains down; it’s very important”. Why, then, has there been no let up in Taliban violence?

Rangin Dadfar Spanta provided a plausible explanation when he said, “They (the Taliban) have only one goal - not a sharing of power but a transfer of power”. Madiha Afzal also made the same point when she wrote, “To answer this, it is worth understanding what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan”.

What Pakistan really wants is a pliable dispensation in Kabul that would keep its arch rival India at an arm’s length and not allow it to build upon the goodwill that India’s political and economic contribution and elements of its soft power have helped generate and sustain in Afghanistan over decades. A Taliban regime in Kabul would, in Pakistan’s assessment, serve this purpose fully. A power-sharing agreement with the present Afghan regime, on the other hand, would continue to provide India with the linkages and the space that it needs in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s end game, therefore, appears to be a forcible and complete takeover by the Taliban. While clandestinely working towards this, the Pakistani military establishment is simultaneously putting into practice its skill, honed over generations, of hoodwinking the US into believing that it was doing all that it could to ensure the success of the US-Taliban agreement.   

It is about time that the international community, especially the US, recognized that truth be told, it was likely that the US would not have required Pakistan at all to assist it in getting the Taliban to the table had the Taliban known that the US would cave in to the extent of accepting every major Taliban demand at the negotiations in Doha.

Pakistan’s real role ought to have begun now, and it must be asked to provably demonstrate its claimed commitment towards peace and stability in Afghanistan by contributing towards curbing the mindless violence being perpetrated there by its proxy, the Taliban.