Pakistan and Afghanistan have recently concluded high-level talks aimed at accelerating the process of reconciliation and reintegration with Taliban insurgents to try to bring an end to the near decade-long Afghan conflict. The United Sates, which plans a phased withdrawal of its combat troops this summer, has welcomed the increased interaction between Kabul and Islamabad, which it believes is crucial for bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Karzai Efforting Peace with Taliban
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is trying to make peace with Taliban insurgents who are ready to denounce violence and cut ties to terrorist groups. He recently created a 70-member High Peace Council in which almost all sections and ethnic groups in Afghan society are represented.
A 25-member delegation headed by council leader Burhanuddin Rabbani travelled to neighboring Pakistan this month for the first time to seek Islamabad’s cooperation for the Afghan reconciliation process.
Members of the Afghan peace delegation held extensive discussions with top Pakistani civilian and military leaders for almost four days. Both sides have agreed to promote the Afghan reconciliation process at a people-to-people level by holding a traditional jirga meeting.
Pakistan Commits Support to Effort
But a major outcome of the delegation’s visit is an agreement to create a joint governmental commission to promote the Afghan reconciliation process.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi says his country will support the process as long as it is led and owned by Afghans themselves.
"They have to determine what they want from Pakistan, and Pakistan will facilitate. They wanted a bilateral [joint commission] to oversee the whole process and Pakistan has given a nod of approval to that. So Pakistan is serious because Pakistan feels that you need more than military operations to achieve peace, you need political engagement, you need governance, you need capacity building, and Pakistan will support Afghanistan."
Building Mutual Trust
Pakistani and Afghan officials say their primary objective is to build mutual trust and make joint efforts to try to assure insurgent groups that U.S.-led international forces are not occupying Afghanistan.
Afghan delegation member Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai says Afghanistan and Pakistan have stopped blaming each other for the security problems facing the two countries. Stanekzai says that in the past two years bilateral political and economic ties have improved, leading to the formation of the joint reconciliation mechanism.
The Afghan delegate says Pakistan’s role is important because insurgent groups fighting on both sides of the border are interlinked.
"[Pakistan] can play a role because they are sharing a long border with Afghanistan. Those who were with Taliban they mostly had spent time in Pakistan. They (Pakistan) have their political and religious leaders, who have contact with them (insurgents). Our jihadi leaders have contact with them. I do not think that their (Pakistan) contacting them (insurgent groups) will be a difficulty, but the difficulty will that how we can build confidence to overcome the misunderstandings (among Taliban groups) that Afghanistan is not occupied."
The insurgents' Pakistan connection
U.S. and Afghan officials widely believe some key leaders of Afghan insurgent groups are hiding in Pakistan and have links to Pakistani militant groups and elements within the country’s intelligence network. Analysts like international relations professor Hassan Askari believe that despite pressure from the United States and other Western allies, Pakistan may not want to cut ties to some Afghan insurgent groups.
"These ties are going to be helpful. I think the U.S. will have to reconsider its emphasis on severing all connections. Pakistan will pursue a policy that would serve its interest and on this point I think the divergence between Pakistan and the U.S will continue. It is not practical (for Pakistan) to pick up confrontation with each and every Taliban group if reconciliation is to be promoted."
US welcomes interaction
Coinciding with the Afghan High Peace Council’s visit was the arrival in Islamabad of the acting U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero. After meeting with leaders of the Afghan delegation and Pakistani officials, Ruggiero said Washington welcomes the increased interaction between Kabul and Islamabad to tackle the insurgency.
"The United States has encouraged the government of Pakistan, the government of Afghanistan to increase their interactions and to improve their relationship. And from all that we have been able to ascertain from this visit and from what we are hearing back in Washington is that there has been progress in the bilateral relations."
Despite recent violent attacks in southern Afghanistan, Ambassador Ruggiero reported progress in the military campaign against Taliban insurgents, but he acknowledged the international effort to bring peace to the country faces serious challenges.
"As you see the increase of American forces go into these places, and southern Afghanistan has been the primary area where American forces have gone, I think overall you have seen an increased improvement in the security situation. You have started to see some enhanced levels of governance that remains, frankly, a very critical challenge for us. I mean Afghanistan is a society that suffered through 30-years of civil war, so trying to find that governance structure that can work with the Afghan security forces, the American security forces, is just a challenge."
While the U.S special envoy and members of the Afghan peace delegation sounded optimistic about recent talks in Islamabad, it is still not clear how Pakistan will position itself to use its influence with some of the Afghan insurgent groups to bring them to the negotiating table. But Pakistani officials have indicated behind-the-scenes work is already underway.