Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Islamabad on March 10-11 has added another chapter to the fast evolving cooperative relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From President Karzai’s meetings with Pakistani leaders, especially from the joint press conference he and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani held in Islamabad, it was clear that Afghanistan and Pakistan were finally on the same page in their joint struggle to combat the common terrorist threat.
President Karzai reiterated that Pakistan had an “important” role to play in Kabul's proposed reconciliation talks with Afghan insurgent groups. Without Pakistani cooperation, he said, “Afghanistan cannot be stable or peaceful.” “There is a recognition now…I am certain, in both nations…of the opportunities together and on the dangers that we have faced together,” said the Afghan President, adding: “And that it is upon both of us a responsibility towards our own nations and towards the future generations that we notice the dangers and that we work together to remove them, to take them away from amongst us, and to work together toward stability and peace in both countries.”
Prime Minister Gilani reciprocated Afghan leader's goodwill gesture by stressing that Pakistan placed “its full weight behind the agenda and vision outlined by the Afghan people and their elected leadership.” Pakistani press was full of speculations prior to President Karzai’s visit that the Afghan leader would press the country to hand over Afghan Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was captured last month in a joint Pakistani-US operation from Karachi.
However, even on this issue, the stance of Afghan-Pak leaders was quite conciliatory. Mr. Karzai told senior journalist at the breakfast meeting that the two countries were working out modalities for signing an extradition treaty to facilitate the exchange of each other’s captured terrorist suspects. Prime Minister Gilani pointed out that Islamabad’s hands were tied by a court decision last month barring it from handing over recently arrested key Taliban leaders.
The Afghan President also seemed to understand Pakistani fears about India’s future role in Afghanistan. Therefore, on more than one occasions, he made it clear that Afghanistan does not want any big or small country, nearby or far, to engage in any activity against another nation in Afghanistan.” He specifically stated, “Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory. It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the United States on Afghanistan.”
The timing of President Karzai’s visit to Pakistan was crucial. It took place at a time when the two countries can rightfully claim significant successes in defeating al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-led terrorist insurgency in the region.
The other day, President Karzai was sitting in Marjah, listening to complains of tribal Pashtun elders. This was unthinkable just a few weeks, before the US and British-led massive operation dislodged Taliban from this town of 80,000 people in Helmand province. The operation is the first major success of the revised US battle-plan for Afghanistan under which major population centers in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions are to be liberated through military offensives and then their security and development is to be handled by the Afghan government.
Another source of strength for the Karzai government is the increasing rift among Afghan insurgents. A few days before his Pakistani tour, some 60 insurgents, 40 of them from Hizb-e-Islami and 20 from Taliban, died in a major skirmish between two insurgent groups in the northern province of Baghlan. The first incident of insurgent infighting of its kind occurred amid news that several commanders loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had joined hands with the Karzai government.
Hekmatyar himself, unlike the Taliban leadership, welcomed the offer made by President Karzai to insurgent forces to join the Afghan political process at the London conference on Afghanistan on January 29, even though he linked it to the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Several former Hizb officials are already well placed in the Afghan parliament. This means the Taliban-led insurgency, which in the previous years had only gained further momentum, is now effectively receding.
This is surely a good news for the international forces in Afghanistan as well as for the Karzai regime, something that paves the way for a similar counter-insurgency success in Kandahar, which is expected to see a similar military offensive like the one in Marjah.. The US-led coalition forces re-taking town after town from Taliban control and then handing over their security and governance to the Afghans, coupled with growing rift among the insurgent forces, may help make the AfPak strategy a success, thereby paving the way for the scheduled withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan from summer next year.
While counter-terrorism successes in Afghanistan are a relatively recent phenomenon, Pakistan can proudly claim to have taken the leap in this respect by defeating Taliban first in Swat last year and then in South Waziristan and other tribal agencies since October. The drone attacks may have helped the country eliminate some of its fearsome Taliban terrorists such as Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain, but many of the dreaded Taliban figures like Maulvi Faqir have met their eventual fate as a result of resolute Pakistani security operations in recent weeks.
In fact, during the same period, we have seen several high profile figures of Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Baradar, being arrested by Pakistani security forces. Just as the noose has tightened against local and Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, restricting al-Qaeda’s ideological reach and operational capability to carry out its terrorist agenda in the two countries, we have seen the international community and the Afghan leadership increasingly acknowledge the pivotal role that Pakistan can play in resolving the Afghan conflict amicably.
When President Karzai floated the idea of reconciliation at the London conference, he said: “We ask all our neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to support our peace and reconciliation endeavors. We're looking forward to the international community supporting this plan of action.” The Afghan leader floated the same idea at the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan, and has reiterated it during his Islamabad visit.
As for Afghanistan and Pakistan, gone are the times when leaders of the two countries will accuse each other on the issue of terrorism, as was the case prior to the coming to power of the current civilian government in Pakistan. In the last two years, the two countries have preferred to expand their bilateral cooperation in intelligence sharing for combating Taliban-led terrorism and engaged other regional countries, from Iran to Turkey.
In fact, one of the positive outcomes of the political transformation in Pakistan from the quasi- military regime of General Musharraf to the civilian government led by President Zardari is the increasingly cooperative nature of Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. While much needs to be done at the societal level to overcome trust deficit between the people of the two countries, their leadership level ties show a promising trend. President Karzai especially flew to Islamabad in August 2008 to participate in the oath-taking ceremony of Mr.Zardari, who, in turn, reciprocated when his Afghan counterpart took a second oath as Afghan President last November.
Even though it is up to the Afghans to elect their leaders, Pakistani decision makers, owing to the country’s unique historical, geographical and ethnic link with Afghanistan, were clearly in favour of Mr Karzai winning the August presidential elections in Afghanistan. In Pakistani perceptions, whether of the ruling party, its allied party in the Frontier, the ANP, and even the security establishment, Mr Karzai’s victory in these elections was crucial. For, unlike Mr Karzai, the other main election contender ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was not considered a preferred choice. One, because of his affiliation to Panjsheri Tajik Northern Alliance, which is traditionally anti-Pashtun and anti-Pakistan; and, two, due to his closeness to India, a factor that Pakistan wishes to neutralize in any future peace settlement in Afghanistan.
It was the failure of Afghan authorities to duly appreciate and understand Pakistani sensitivities in the region, and vice versa, which created unnecessary tension in relationship between the two countries. Thanks to the new counter-insurgency approach adopted by the Obama Administration a la AfPak strategy—one that places greater emphasis on politically resolving the Afghan conflict along with a meaningful exercise of military option—the security situation in Afghanistan has started to shift effectively in favour of the Karzai regime.
The same factor may have helped Afghanistan and Pakistan to mend their fences, even though the importance of the civilian democratic transformation in Pakistan in the last two years and President’s Karzai’s proactive peace diplomacy after re-election in recent months cannot be under-estimated in this regard. The two leaderships now aim to accomplish some actual targets to further harness their cooperative ties.
One of the concrete outcomes of President Karzai’s visit to Islamabad was, for instance, the reported agreement on reviving the stalled peace jirgas. The two sides have agreed on a road map under which they will hold a jirgagai, or small meeting, after a domestic Afghan peace jirga on April 29. That meeting is meant to set out the Afghan government's plan of reconciling with moderate Taliban members and get the backing of the entire Afghan political spectrum. A follow-up loya jirga, or grand assembly, will then be held in Islamabad later this year. The first peace jirga between the two neighbors was held in Kabul in 2007.
If Pakistan’s counter-terrorism ties with Afghanistan and its international stake-holders continue to evolve as cooperatively as they have in recent weeks and months, whose credible outcome is visible in the qualitatively improved security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no reason why issues such as whether Afghan Taliban leaders should be held and investigated in Pakistan or Afghanistan become immaterial overtime.
At the end of the day, what matters the most is that all those who have actively taken part in insurgency and terrorism in the two countries, whether against Pakistanis, Afghans or international forces—and who are responsible for so much bloodbath in the region—should be brought to justice. Conditional reconciliation with insurgent leadership and reintegration of insurgent warriors are, indeed, pragmatic options, but the governments in Kabul and Islamabad must be extremely careful in exercising them.
In Pakistan’s case, insofar as the non-state actors like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are concerned, there is nothing that the state or the government can negotiate with them, except to urge them to renounce violence and live as peacefully as other Pakistanis do. In Afghanistan’s case, the Pashtun marginalization is a direct outcome of the fall of the Taliban regime. President Karzai seems to understand the need to co-opt Pashtuns in the country’s security and political structure. That is the main motivation behind his recent proactive diplomacy—and also one major factor that brings Afghanistan and Pakistan together on the same platform insofar as the quest for peace in Afghanistan is concerned.
In sum, never before Afghanistan and Pakistan have needed each other as much as they now, when their shared hope for getting out of the terrorist quagmire is brighter than ever. Additional good news in this respect is that there now exists broader international consensus today for the need to politically resolve the Afghan conflict. Just like the regimes in Kabul and Islamabad, Afghanistan’s international stakeholders seem to be clear about the actual source of this common danger and what needs to be done collectively to combat it.
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