In a visible attempt to jump-start talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Afghanistan amid the coronavirus pandemic that is taking a mounting toll on the neighboring countries.
As in similar leadership meetings in the past, both sides reiterated cooperation and Pakistani support for peace in Afghanistan during the June 9 meetings between Bajwa and Afghan leaders.
“Both sides discussed the peace process and Pakistan’s support for the process,” an Afghan presidential statement noted. “They also discussed that the soil of the two countries would not be used against each other.”
The statement noted Bajwa’s support for “independence, and the republican and democratic [political system] in Afghanistan.”
In Rawalpindi, a city adjoining Islamabad where the Pakistani Army is headquartered, the public message also reiterated cooperation.
“[The Afghan] president was appreciative of the role being played by Pakistan for [the] Afghan peace process,” the military’s public relations office wrote on Twitter on June 8. “Both sides discussed current developments in the Afghan peace process, necessary steps to facilitate [the] Afghan-led and owned peace process and facilitation of trade and connectivity.”
But apart from the rather vague pledge of not letting their soil being used against the other, the two sides have not mentioned, let alone agreed, on a framework to tackle the most contentious issues that have defined and dominated their bilateral relations for decades.
The first is the issue of Afghan Taliban sanctuaries. Since the emergence of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamist movement has largely been seen as a Pakistani ally and even a proxy. Following the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghan and Western officials have flagged the Taliban’s sanctuaries and support network in Pakistan as the number one impediment to defeating the insurgency inside Afghanistan that now controls one-third of the country’s rural areas.
Some Pakistani leaders have attempted to rationalize Islamabad’s support for the Taliban by projecting the group as a bulwark against archrival India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad also accuses Kabul of supporting remnants of Pakistani Taliban factions and Pashtun and Baluch ethno-nationalists.
This is why all previous efforts to bring together Afghan leaders and Pakistani generals in the hopes of reconciling Kabul and Islamabad have mostly ended in mutual recriminations.
But Washington appears to be banking on a different outcome this time around as Bajwa’s public pledge of supporting the Afghan peace process came days ahead of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The talks are set to begin three months later than scheduled in the February 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban. The agreement has created a framework for the withdrawal of American troops and peace talks between the Taliban and leaders and factions supporting the current government and political system, formally called the Islamic Republic.
“Ambassador Khalilzad expressed his appreciation for the role Prime Minister Imran Khan and General Bajwa are playing in support of peace in Afghanistan,” a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad noted after U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with Bajwa. “The two agreed peace in Afghanistan offers an unprecedented opportunity to advance security, connectivity and development for the region.”
Regional specialists hope that this time around Islamabad will follow through on its words.
“By supporting a negotiated [Afghan] settlement, Pakistan is not giving up its investment in the Taliban,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. government adviser. “It is cashing it in, though at a lower profit than it originally hoped for.”
He says Islamabad is unlikely to move against the Taliban sanctuaries without a peace agreement among Afghans.
“If and only if the political agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban provides for demobilization and repatriation of Taliban fighters, including those in Pakistan, Pakistan will help implement the agreement and move against any who resist it,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Rubin says Islamabad is still unlikely to crack down on the Afghan Taliban as part of a pressure campaign. “That is clearly in the interest of Pakistan, and Pakistan is sincere about pursuing its national interest,” he noted.
But many in Afghanistan and some in Pakistan remain skeptical.
“After bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and midwifing the U.S.-Taliban deal, Pakistani generals are quite relieved as U.S. pressure has substantially decreased,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani lawmaker, noted in a recent op-ed. “For nearly a quarter-century, the Pakistani Army has [had] too big an investment in the Taliban to give up.”
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security specialist, is also skeptical. “The Taliban were and remain Pakistan’s political actor of choice, and I expect Pakistan to support them through the intra-Afghan negotiations in the same way as in the last 16 to 17 years,” he told Gandhara.
Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, noted that Islamabad might change its approach to the group once it joins the Afghan government as a result of the peace process. He says this could transform from "covert sanctuaries and material aid to more formal mechanisms of facilitation for Taliban leadership and rank-and-file at a political and military-to-military level."
However, he argues, a lot still depends on how Washington approaches the issue. “Does it want Pakistan to dismantle Taliban infrastructure during intra-Afghan negotiations?” he asked. “From the public pronouncements of Khalilzad, this is unclear.”
The litmus test of Islamabad’s intentions may come in how it delivers on more short-term goals. It could prove skeptics and critics wrong by helping to deliver a lasting cease-fire as representatives of Kabul begin long-delayed peace talks with the Taliban this month.