Monday, December 14, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 12, 2015

Talks about talks The Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad produced a litany of positive noises about regional and international cooperation to bring about peace in Afghanistan, while on its sidelines the bilateral interaction between Pakistan and India yielded an agreement in principle to restart the stalled talks between the two countries under the rubric of a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. However, the euphoria over these two developments amongst the participants and stakeholders the world over must be tempered by caution about being swept away by the triumph of hope over reality. The Conference concluded with the desirable but fraught intent to restart the abortive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The first round of these talks were hosted by Pakistan in Murree with the US and China in attendance. The planned second round never got off the ground as it was overtaken by the controversy that broke out with the revelation of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's death two years earlier. What followed, and apparently continues, was a fracturing of the Taliban ranks over Mullah Omar's successor, with the claimant, Mullah Omar's longtime deputy, Mullah Mansour finding his hands full with challenges to his elevation. That fracture continues with new and alarming developments of late. First, a meeting of top Taliban leaders in Quetta ended in a fratricidal shootout in which Mullah Mansour has variously been reported to have either been killed or at least seriously wounded. This has produced another spanner in the works because given the uncertainty of whether Mullah Mansour has survived and if so, whether he is in a position to lead the movement underlines the existing quandary over who speaks for the Taliban. To further add fuel to the fire, reports regarding an ongoing battle between Mullah Mansour's faction and a rival challenger in Herat that has so far yielded around a hundred casualties on both sides renders the question of who will represent the Taliban at any peace talks that may emerge even more vexed. Further complexity stems from the Taliban attack on Kandahar on the very day the Heart of Asia Conference started, in which 50 people have been killed, pointing to two possibilities: either Pakistan has lost control and influence over the Taliban, or it is continuing a policy of duality by talking peace while waging a not so secret proxy war. The attack further clouded Pakistan's credentials as a peace partner in Afghanistan, the apparent bonhomie and spirit of cooperation reflected in the Conference's final communiques notwithstanding. In fact reservations within the Afghan government regarding President Ashraf Ghani's attempted pragmatic rapprochement with Pakistan burst forth with a vengeance just one day after the Conference when the Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned. That may have driven the last nail in the coffin of the Conference's hope for 'increased' cooperation between the Afghan National Directorate of Security and the Pakistani ISI. A fractured Afghan government facing a fractured Taliban does not credible peace partners make. Afghanistan therefore may be expected to continue to be conflicted, with the schisms on both Afghan sides further complicating an already complex conundrum. As far as Pakistan and India's bilateral interaction on the sidelines of the Conference is concerned, the positives are that the brief meeting between the two countries' prime ministers in Paris, followed by the delayed National Security Advisers' meeting in Bangkok, has brought about a marked improvement not only in the atmospherics, but also in the substance of the Dialogue henceforth. All issues, unlike the falling out over the agenda of the aborted National Security Advisers' meeting scheduled in Delhi, have been included. Peace and security, confidence building measures, Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counterterrorism, narcotics control, humanitarian issues, people to people exchanges and religious tourism: this menu seems to cover all bases and issues bedevilling relations between the two countries. However, the cautionary aspect, regardless of welcoming the resumption of the dialogue, is precisely the long standing and so far intractable nature of some, if not all, of these issues. Nevertheless, people of good sense on either side of the border live in hope that wisdom prevails in this resumed dialogue, whose dates and schedule are yet to be fixed for the first step, i.e. the foreign secretaries' meeting. Hope in these fraught times and prospects for the region, for Pakistan looking both east and west, may have been boosted by the Heart of Asia Conference and the bilateral Pakistan-India interaction, but if the past and the few sentences above indicate, there remains many a slip between the cup and the lip.

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