Afghanistan’s peace process is passing through a crucial phase and the country will need all the help it can get — especially from its neighbours. How India and Pakistan take their troubled relationship forward will, to a great extent, impact Afghanistan’s reconciliation process with the Taliban.
As parties in Afghanistan work out the modalities of an intra-Afghan dialogue with assistance from international friends to formulate a ceasefire agreement, the regional players too have their task cut out.
India after elections
India will find out either today or by the end of this week who its next prime minister will be. And a mandate for incumbent PM Narendra Modi, who led his over a month-long election campaign for a second term on a primarily anti-Pakistan rhetoric, will greatly determine what shape Afghanistan’s peace process takes. Can India’s next prime minister work with Pakistan as a partner in achieving peace in Afghanistan? Or, as in the past, the tension between the two countries will keep polarising Afghanistan?
During the crises in relations between India and Pakistan after the terrorist attack in Pulwama in February, top Pakistani officials had indicated on several occasions that any further deterioration in relationship can have a negative impact on the Afghan reconciliation and peace process. It means that Pakistan continues to look at its relations with Afghanistan from an Indian prism. When will this situation change?
Similarly, Pakistan and India prioritising geostrategic concerns over the geoeconomic ones in their regional relations needs to be addressed as well. Can the neighbours afford to continue ignoring the dividends of peace in developing regional economic cooperation? Only time will tell.
Pakistan, supporter of Taliban
Pakistan, the traditional patron-in-chief of the Taliban is on the horns of a dilemma for three reasons. One, any possibility of the Taliban control over eastern and southern Afghanistan will certainly create conducive conditions for the ascendancy of the Taliban on the eastern side of the Durand Line. Pakistanis have a vivid memory of the largescale death and destruction that a similar development had brought in the past.
Two, Pakistan is the most unpopular country in Afghanistan due to its consistent support for the Taliban that resulted in the continuation of Afghanistan war for over two decades. But actions will speak louder than words in establishing if Pakistan’s claim that it wants to change its image in Afghanistan can be taken seriously.
Three, Pakistani security establishment is also concerned about the Taliban’s growing relationship with Iran. A new chapter in Taliban-Iran relations started after 9/11 when some Taliban leaders took refuge in Iran where they were provided complete security and support. However, the depth of the Iran connection of the Taliban came to surface in recent years. That is what led to the killing of then Afghan Taliban chief Amir Akhtar Mansoor in a US drone strike in May 2016. Over the last two years, Iran is believed to have been the major supplier of weapons to the Taliban for their war in Afghanistan. This presents a serious challenge to the Pakistan’s monopolistic influence over the Taliban. The extent of the problem can be understood only if one gets to know about the amount of cultural and political influence Iran enjoys among the non-Talibani Afghans.
The Chinese corridor
China has emerged as an important player in not only developing intra-Afghan reconciliation process but also in promoting understanding between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was possible because China enjoys a trust-based relationship with both the countries. China’s bilateral relations with both Pakistan and Afghanistan have seen impressive development in recent years. Chinese have on many occasions expressed their desire to build an economic corridor between Pakistan and Afghanistan as an extension of the CPEC.
But peace in and around Afghanistan is a prerequisite for the development of such projects. Any regional convergence on Afghanistan will be possible only if Pakistan, India and China can insulate their support for the Afghan peace process from their regional rivalries. A model for such cooperation has already been established by the US, Russia and China to cooperate in promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan over and above their sharp differences on other issues.
Beyond the Big Three
The three Central Asian Republics and northern neighbours of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have demonstrated active support for the reconciliation and peace process in Afghanistan with their important representatives visiting Kabul and Doha on separate occasions. These countries know they would be vulnerable to the negative fallout if the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan is undermined. They are particularly worried about the activities of the Islamic State in the region, which is being joined by the war-hardened citizens of the central Asian countries that are coming back from the Middle East.
Apart from their security concerns, these countries have their eyes on the potential for economic gains with the establishment of peace in Afghanistan. There is an agreement in principle about holding further meetings for Afghan reconciliation in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) in the coming months.
The stereotyping of Afghanistan by some foreign observers make them blind to the important changes taking place in the country in recent years. These changes have been attracting positive international and regional interest towards Afghanistan. Despite difficulties of the armed conflict, Afghanistan’s potential as a hub for regional economic cooperation is persuading many regional countries to revisit their past policies of zero-sum games.
Afrasiab Khattak is a former Pakistani Senator and an analyst of regional affairs with particular focus on Afghanistan. Views are personal.
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