Saturday, September 5, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Sept 6, 2015

No breakthrough Taking advantage of the opportunity provided by Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s presence in Kabul to attend a regional economic conference, meetings were held with President Ashraf Ghani and other top Afghan officials. Not unexpectedly, despite the meeting between President Ghani and Mr Aziz continuing for an hour and a half, there was no word on what transpired. No joint statement or communiqué was issued. The few crumbs that could be gleaned from media reports indicated that perhaps the two sides had at least agreed to tone down their harsh statements against each other, which had lately become the norm, with Kabul blaming Afghan terrorists based on Pakistani soil for attacks in Kabul that killed over 50 people. Other than that, it was thin pickings. If anything could be gathered it was between the lines of President Ashraf Ghani’s address at the economic conference. He reiterated his country’s commitment to pursuing a negotiated peaceful political settlement with the Taliban, something the Pakistani side said it was willing to facilitate but Kabul had now to make the first move after the hiatus in the talks process brought about by the news of Mulla Omar having died in 2013, news that remained suppressed until now. But this positivity was negated by the Afghan president pointing accusing fingers at elements of the Pakistani security establishment that were opposed to the peace process, implying such elements in Pakistan wanted to see Afghanistan weak and thereby more amenable to control from Islamabad. While reiterating his National Unity government’s commitment to pursuing reconciliation, President Ghani attempted to put to rest any speculations about differences within the government on the issue. He underlined that his government had reached out to the Taliban despite the continuing attacks by the other side. The Pakistani foreign office in its weekly briefing in Islamabad stated that Sartaj Aziz took five messages to Kabul. These included good wishes, the desire for good relations, stopping the campaign perceived in Islamabad as anti-Pakistan, addressing the security concerns that have emerged for the Pakistan embassy in Kabul, and the willingness to facilitate an Afghan-owned and -led peace and reconciliation process. The messages were no doubt delivered, but what they achieved is open to question. The desire for not muddying the waters by refraining from hostile statements against each other reflects the aspiration to restore mutual trust between Islamabad and Kabul. However, this is easier said than done. For example, although it was apparently spoken of, it now appears the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries for intelligence sharing is all but dead in the water. Trust is not a commodity that can be switched on and off at will. Kabul had plenty of reasons for resentment against Pakistan, based on our almost continuous interventions in that unfortunate country over the last four decades, interventions that have reduced the country to rack and ruin. Building trust in the wake of this history would at the best of times have required extraordinary efforts and steps to convince Kabul that Pakistan had turned the page on its past ambition to install a weak regime in Kabul beholden to Pakistan and unable, as the icing on the cake, to press past revanchist claims on Pakistani territory. As things have panned out, however, the ‘turn’ only appears to be a ‘half-turn’ (a disturbing pattern in our history). Pakistan may be bending its back to eliminate homegrown terrorists and nudging the Afghan Taliban to talk peace with Kabul, but the elephant in the room remains the Haqqani network, considered the author of the deadly recent bombings in Kabul that took such a high toll of life. Washington and Kabul have both expressed concerns about the ‘mollycoddling’ of the Haqqani network by Pakistan. Perhaps this ‘strategic asset’ has not yet outlived its utility for the security establishment of Pakistan, despite its reported support for and providing safe havens to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the provinces of eastern Afghanistan controlled by the Haqqanis. At the very least, Pakistan needs to restrain the Haqqani network from working at cross purposes to the peace talks. Unless space for the talks to succeed is carved out by reduced, if not entirely stopped, attacks on civilians in the Afghan capital, the peace and reconciliation process may prove stillborn.

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