by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1437)
Peace in Afghanistan is vital for the region but there are players that want to disrupt it, especially members of the Afghan Northern Alliance because they believe such an outcome would diminish their influence and clout in the country.
The on-again, off-again peace talks on Afghanistan received a boost at the Heart of Asia Conference held in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on December 9–10, 2015. The significance of the conference was highlighted by the fact that foreign ministers of 10 countries including those from China, Iran, and India were present. Afghanistan was represented by a strong contingent led by President Ashraf Ghani himself. Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and American Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken were also at the conference.
While the ostensible purpose of the conference was to promote trade, security, and connectivity in the region that is becoming extremely important because of geostrategic and economic reasons, peace in Afghanistan dominated discussions during the two days. The downside of this was that the other more intractable, decades long problem of Kashmir was sidelined. Without the Kashmir dispute being resolved between India and Pakistan, the region will remain mired in conflict and many of the ambitious plans will not bear fruit.
A series of bilateral and trilateral meetings were held on the first day of the conference (December 9) involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US, and China. Following these, the Afghan government agreed to restart the dialogue with “reconcilable” Taliban with the help of the other three countries. The Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani disclosed after these meetings, “At the trilateral and bilateral meetings we had this afternoon [December 9], the main discussion item has been the peace process in Afghanistan. Our allies agreed to work with us in this regard… to bring the reconcilable elements to the table.”
Differences among the Afghans immediately came to the fore. Head of the National Directorate of Security (the Afghan intelligence agency), Hikmatullah Nabil, announced his resignation to coincide with the agreement in Islamabad on resumption of talks with the Taliban. Nabil did not accompany Ghani to the Pakistani capital. He had deliberately been kept out because he was instrumental in sabotaging the last round of talks before they were held at the end of July. Nabil leaked information to India about the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, which Pakistan had shared with the Afghans in the first round of talks in Murree. The Indians, too, were not happy about peace in Afghanistan that would benefit Pakistan.
It has since come to light that Nabil was acting as an Indian agent and passing secret information that Pakistan shared with Afghan officials. It is reported that when Ghani confronted him on this matter, Nabil is reported to have told him, I do not answer to you. At this point, Ghani told him either to resign or be fired.
The Afghan government is not united. It was cobbled together by US Secretary of State Kerry in 2014 to accommodate the ruthlessly ambitious Abdullah who had lost to Ashraf Ghani in the presidential election, but was not willing to accept defeat gracefully. Thus, a new post of chief executive (as if Afghanistan was some kind of a corporation!) was created for him in order to assuage his oversized ego. Ever since, he and his Tajik allies from the Northern Alliance have tried to undermine Ghani, especially relating to peace talks with the Taliban. They fear that if such talks were to succeed, the Tajik minority would lose in the power equation.
It is interesting to note that the Afghan president also had a meeting with Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif, at the end of the first day of the conference. The Pakistani army chief is seen as crucial to any deal and during his discussion with Ghani, the emphasis was on “meaningful steps” that could bring enduring peace and ensure that the gains made in this regard are “irreversible.” It was Pakistan that brought up the issue of making the gains “irreversible” because while Islamabad had used its good offices to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, the Afghan intelligence agency sabotaged the second round of talks before they could be held.
Both China and the US have invested heavily in the talks, for their own reasons. The Chinese showed their seriousness by sending Foreign Minister Wang Yi to lend weight to the talks. Peace in Afghanistan is important for China’s plans for Road and Belt Initiatives that will connect the region making Pakistan the hub. Beijing has already announced an investment of $46 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will link it with the Pakistani deepwater port at Gwadar at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Its strategic and economic benefits cannot be overemphasized. China is building similar links across Central Asia.
For the US, Pakistan’s cooperation becomes vital for the long-term Western military presence in Afghanistan. The landlocked country is rich in mineral resources estimated at $4 trillion. It has had to endure nearly four decades of war because the predatory powers are anxious to grab these riches and to deprive rivals from getting hold of them. Afghanistan has become hotly contested space but Pakistan holds the key to accessing it.
The American Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was equally anxious to advance the Afghan reconciliation process. Talking to journalists at the US Embassy in Islamabad he said, “The governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the US held a series of meetings today [December 9] to reaffirm our collective commitment to enabling an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation and cessation of violence.” He also said there had been discussions on the roadmap and steps that would be required to take the process forward. This had been agreed during General Sharif’s visit to the US in November.
“Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US commit to pursuing peace talks immediately. All efforts for dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban groups will be explored and encouraged. All will pursue with urgency confidence-building measures that reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan and allow for full participation in talks by all participants,” a joint statement issued at the end of the trilateral meeting said.
In their opening statements at the conference, there was considerable contrast between the conciliatory tone of the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as host and that of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Sharif described the enemies of Afghanistan as Pakistan’s enemies and pledged his government’s continued support for an Afghan-led reconciliation process. Referring to Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism and extremism through military operations that were achieving the desired results, he said, “We are convinced that terrorism and extremism is the common enemy of all…” He then expressed the hope that the “long-term stability in Afghanistan should envisage the return and resettlement of Afghan refugees to their homeland, in a dignified manner.”
Pakistan is host to more than two million Afghan refugees. At the height of the conflict in Afghanistan in the early-1980s, there were nearly four million refugees. Their presence has had a devastating impact on Pakistani society socially, economically and politically. Ghani, however, was not so conciliatory in his remarks. He said, “The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan launched a vicious attack on children in Peshawar [December 16, 2014], for which Pakistan robustly responded. But that very response brought them into our country. Until now, we have launched 40 operations against them through our forces.”
While it is true that Pakistan’s military operations in North Waziristan have forced many people to flee to Afghanistan, Ghani’s complaint is misplaced since Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees for more than three decades. At the same time, terrorist outfits like those of Mullah Fazlullah have gained sanctuary in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. So far, the Afghan government has neither taken steps to stop Fazlullah’s terrorist activities nor allowed Pakistani forces to go after them in hot pursuit.
Equally hostile was Ghani’s suggestion that if Pakistan wanted transit facilities through Afghanistan to Central Asia, Islamabad should provide similar facilities to India through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Why was Ghani making such a demand on behalf of India? Surely, Pakistan has since the beginning of its existence provided Afghanistan with transit facilities through its territory. Far from showing any gratitude for this friendly gesture from Pakistan, he was trying to promote India’s interests at the conference.
The other big-ticket item discussed at the conference was the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project that has been held up by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Both the US and Japan are stakeholders in the TAPI pipeline that is supposed to undermine the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI). Interestingly, Iran completed its side of the pipeline in 2013 and awaits Pakistan’s completion of its side. It should have been completed by December 2014.
Pakistan has been dragging its feet advancing the excuse that it cannot do so because of US sanctions against Iran. There are several flaws in this argument. First, when the agreement was signed, it stipulated that any party delaying the project would have to pay a fine of $1 million per day. Iran has lived up to its side of the bargain; Pakistan has been dragging its feet and piling up fines. Second, at a time when US sanctions on Iran are about to be lifted, why not complete the IPI pipeline instead of rushing to build the TAPI pipeline that still has to get the approval of the Taliban through whose territory it will pass? This will have to wait until there is a peace deal in Afghanistan. That is likely to take some time.
The US is pushing the TAPI deal to the chagrin of Russia. It is aimed at curtailing the influence of China and Russia in Central Asia. The pipeline from Turkmenistan also has the backing of Saudi Arabia, which is vehemently opposed to the Iran gas pipeline. The Bedouins from Dari‘yah want to isolate Iran but their ill-conceived policies are failing everywhere and their room for maneuver is getting restricted.
To push the TAPI project forward, the US prodded the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to approve $1.2 billion in grants to reinforce ongoing energy projects in Afghanistan. The ADB an-nounced its approval on December 13. For its part, Pakistan is playing coy willing to be courted by suiters. The TAPI project (approved in Istanbul in November 2011) seems to find greater traction in Islamabad than the IPI pipeline (agreed to in 1995) for several reasons. The former would please a host of players — the US, Afghanistan and not least Saudi Arabia — the latter will only please Iran but at the same time upset the US and Saudi Arabia.
Officials in Tehran seem to have reconciled to the fact that the pipeline project may not proceed after all since its completion deadline of December 2014 came and went and no progress has been made. Despite continuing to make soothing noises about his commitment to the IPI pipeline, Nawaz Sharif did not sign an agreement to extend the completion date deadline during his visit to Tehran in May 2014.
Pakistani politicians of all stripes continue to cling to American coattails even if they are repeatedly humiliated. It was almost certainly American pressure that forced Pakistan to accede to India’s deep involvement in the future of Afghanistan. Interestingly, India will host the next ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia Conference as co-chair in the last quarter of 2016. Nawaz Sharif may present this as a victory by bringing India into the negotiating process but in reality, it is a huge setback for Pakistan by ceding so much political and diplomatic space to its arch rival.