Meaningful talks key to ending Af-Pak Impasse – Imtiaz Gul

With current tension soaring between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the question that everyone is asking whether both the neighbours could find a middle ground and engage in effective bilateral talks? If this question is weighed against the current situation, where Pakistan has not only sealed the Torkham border but also shelled TTP hideouts on the Afghan side, the answer is far from probable. But if viewed against what top tier leadership in both countries is saying behind the scenes, resumption of formal talks is not impossible. This is despite the prevailing toxic environment and the resentment among all those common people and traders directly affected by the border closure.

In a Track 1.5 Pakistani delegation visit, which also included members of the CRSS, extremely highly-placed political and intelligence officials said Afghanistan had decided to exercise “strategic restraint, refrain from blame game,” and indicated their readiness to “in-depth discussions” on contentious issues. If the Afghan Taliban are providing the umbrella and sanctuaries for TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, ETIM, IMU, Chechen terrorists and Jundullah, why not confront them jointly, asked an official. This is indeed an important point to ponder policy makers in Islamabad.

Another security official, who matters at the National Directorate of Security (NDS), posited, “We keep blaming each other but I think the issue is much bigger and it requires detailed analysis by both countries. I am ready to talk to anybody to thrash out this issue. It is not in the power of one country any more to deal with terrorist networks that are connected beyond national borders. For us there is no difference between TTP, TTA, Al-Qaeda, Daesh/IS, or Jundullah or IMU or ETIM. If there were no Tehreek e Taliban Afghanistan (TTA), how the foreign militants can survive here”, he asked. Individually, they are threat to the interests of Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China but for us they are all a collective threat because they are operating from Afghanistan under the protection of TTA.  We are very clear as far as the way forward is concerned; the TTA should either step forward for unconditional talks or face a definite crackdown, he further argued.   

Civilian officials in Kabul point out that the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) set out the same as one of its primary objective and there was still time for all the stakeholders to help achieve this objective. Also, the officials pointed out, if Daesh is claiming deadly attacks both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, why can’t we jointly take on them. We are facing them all here. TTA clearly is an umbrella for all of them. Our biggest vulnerability is in areas where Taliban hold sway and host foreign militants. “We know the problem. We have the opportunity to cooperate and if we do so we can turn things around in one year”, insists the official. Why not initiate a joint critical analysis of the situation before top leaders start can meet?

One big issue in Kabul, though, is the reluctance to look at the latest wave of terror Pakistan in the context of India’s “teach and bleed Pakistan” policy. They would like to brush off as what the former Indian army chief Gen. Bikram Singh, told a national tv recently; asked as to how to deal with Pakistan he offered  this recipe; If we can fuel insurrectionist movements in Pakistan (ref Balochistan), its army will start looking inwards instead of thinking of Kashmir. We have to refocus them on internal conditions. It will be possible only when we will spill their blood through asymmetric means, he was quoted as saying.

It goes without saying that no military establishment will overlook such posturing from across the border. Neither will it dismiss the possibility of another country’s soil being used for “spilling the blood”. This complicated context should ideally incentivize Afghan and Pakistani officials to resume their dialogue for the larger benefit of millions of suffering common people.  Meaningful talks on information/intelligence sharing between the security establishments and monitor human and cargo traffic via international crossings could offer a meeting point. Yet, reaching this meeting would need honest and concerted efforts from both sides.

Blame game and allegations hasn’t taken the two countries anywhere forward. Neither will the present reticence in Kabul and the emotional, self-defeating reaction by the Pakistani military establishment will lead to any solution as far as squaring off terrorists is concerned. The Afghan security official also underscored this; we know the problem. We have the opportunity to cooperate and if we do so we can turn things around in one year. This can, however, happen only if both sides admitted geo-politically driven ground realities, approached each other on a minimal agenda with trust and refrained from negative statements from the senior leadership. On top of that, the media in Afghanistan also needs to understand the importance of peaceful and balanced discourse when it comes to Pakistan.

The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

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