Kabul, Islamabad flog the dead horse of ‘Taliban talks’
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had an unscheduled meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of this month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana and decided to revive the moribund and potentially dysfunctional Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) to tackle “jointly” the irreconcilable Taliban groups. According to reports, the meeting was successful in reducing the tension that has gripped the Afghanistan-Pakistan region during past few months.
However, reviving the QCG under the current circumstances seems to be flogging a dead horse in the hope for a magical revival of friendly ties between the two countries and for turning the war scenario into a better direction.
While Pakistan seems to have utilized the SCO summit and its newly acquired membership to the club to send a general message about its supposed commitment to fighting terror in the region, there is no gainsaying that the differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan are too wide to be simply bridged by “agreements” made on the sidelines of multilateral summits.
For one thing, such unscheduled meetings themselves speak volumes about the conspicuous absence of bilateral diplomatic cooperation –something essential for normalizing bilateral relations.
The other thing that has explicitly made this “agreement”, which was in reality nothing more than a verbal commitment, a road to failure is that it has brought to surface the very tensions that it was, and still is, supposed to suppress and eventually resolve.
The very language of Pakistani Foreign Office’s communiqué on the meeting reflects it. It said: “The two leaders agreed to use the Quadrilateral Coordination Group mechanism as well as bilateral channels to undertake specific actions against terrorist groups and to evolve, through mutual consultations, a mechanism to monitor and verify such actions.”
The emphasis on the yet-to-be established “mechanisms” itself signifies not only the current situation of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, but also resurfaces the challenges that have hitherto marred a deep bilateral engagement on the anti-terror front.
Even if the “mechanisms” are eventually established (it is not yet clear how exactly this will take place), there is no guarantee that the other two QCG members, China and the US, would agree and seek to integrate those mechanisms into the broader QCG framework.
Clear difficulties, in this context, lie ahead.
The QCG had its last meeting almost a year ago. Its fifth meeting, due to be held in April 2016 in Islamabad, was postponed because of Afghanistan’s unavailability for the session, which was to reassess the situation in the aftermath of the Taliban’s refusal in March 2016 to attend peace talks and accordingly adjusting the roadmap.
This was when the Barack Obama administration was in office in the US and some space was available for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. This emphasis, ever since Donald Trump’s emergence as the US president, has gradually made way for a renewed military engagement and revival of emphasis on finding a solution through military means, adding to the large amount of debris the QCG is currently buried under.
Can Pakistan and Afghanistan push for a change in the US policy for Afghanistan – and that when their own bilateral relations are far from normal?
Current US policy is clearly pointing more to a “surge” in military operations than to an opening of dialogue with the Taliban, who are even more powerful now than they were in 2001, thus taking the Trump administration to the brink of making a decision that might see a significant increase in US forces along with a mandate to engage directly in combat. This has been strongly recommended by Trump’s national security adviser H R McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with Pentagon brass.
This direction has become the most likely course of action in the wake of Trump’s own disengagement with conflict in Afghanistan and his delegation of authority to his team, which largely consists of retired army generals. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that, very much unlike the Obama administration, the emphasis is back on pushing for a military victory against the Taliban and also ISIS, which operates as IS-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan.
Trump’s military commanders, who are not, unlike Obama’s, in direct contact with their president, have argued that sending an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops to help “advise and train” Afghan security services would give the US a crucial fillip in its battle against extremism and the chance to overcome the “stalemate”.
The emphasis back on a military surge is, however, not merely due to the Taliban’s strong position in the country. Part of it is also attached to the way Russia and China have gradually started to establish their own footholds in Afghanistan. The Americans, as such, are not willing to allow Russia, after it has firmly established itself in Syria and protected the Syrian regime, any space in the Afghan saga.
The US military is especially weary of this emerging reality. For General John W Nicholson Jr, commander of US Forces Afghanistan, the Russians are lending the Taliban “overt legitimacy”, and he has not ruled out that they may be arming the group.
The Russians, on the other hand, have become particularly weary of the growing activity of IS-K and have, in the recent past, implicitly linked this activity to, in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “double standards” and “geopolitical games” at play in Afghanistan.
What is sufficiently clear here is that the internal and external dynamics of the Afghan conflict are changing in a way wherein space for the revival of dialogue with the Taliban is minimal to nil in the foreseeable future. And it shrinks even more when placed within Trump’s resolve to push the US out of “nation-building” business, implying that times have arrived wherein platforms like the QCG carry no significance, and are instead likely to be seen as carrying seeds of greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s mounting attacks and sustained campaign have added further to the improbability of the revival of QCG. What then is left for Pakistan and Afghanistan to do is to focus more on bilateral ties through bilateral platforms, building on first assessing and locating common threats, such as IS-K, that both countries are facing.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are publicly committed to peace. They can surely find a way to take the right steps in that direction.