A top Pakistani official is expressing optimism about restarting the stalled Afghan peace talks, but there are no signs that Kabul is ready to rejoin the process.
Sartaj Aziz, the foreign policy adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told reporters on Friday that the peace talks, which were scuttled in 2015 by news of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death and subsequently by Mullah Mansoor's death in 2016, could resume in the coming weeks.
When asked about Aziz's assessment Saturday, Dawa Khan Menapal, a deputy spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said that Pakistan still must demonstrate its commitment to the peace process by taking action against militants that launch attacks in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan needs to act on the promises it made in the quadrilateral meetings. Unless and until that happens, we will continue to pursue our current stand in regards to peace talks," said Dawa Khan Menapal, President Ghani’s deputy spokesperson.
The last quadrilateral meeting was held in May and included representatives from the U.S., Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese governments. Taliban representatives refused to join.
During the talks, Pakistan pledged to crack down on militant groups that launch attacks in Afghanistan. For many years, Afghan authorities have accused Pakistan of differentiating between "good terrorists" who launch attacks against Afghan and foreign troops, and "bad terrorists" who also attack Pakistani targets.
"Pakistan must prove it by action that it’s against all militants and it no long differentiates between good and bad terrorists," said Dawa Khan Menapal.
He indicated that until that happens, the Afghan government will not participate in the talks.
Last month Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told leaders at a NATO Summit in Warsaw that all regional countries are on board to bring stability to Afghanistan — except Pakistan.
"Our regional initiatives with neighbors are beginning to yield significant cooperative dividends. The exception is with Pakistan. Despite clear commitments to a quadrilateral peace process, their dangerous distinction between good and bad terrorists is being maintained in practice," Ghani told the summit.
Upon assuming power in 2014, President Ghani vowed to start a new chapter in relations with Islamabad, one based on mutual trust and confidence building.
In July 2015, that appeared to be on track with the so-called "Murree Talks", which marked the first ever direct official talks between Taliban and the Afghan government. The talks were hosted in Pakistan, and were viewed as the fruit of the new attitude by leaders in Islamabad and Kabul. The second round of talks were postponed when the news of Mullah Omar’s death broke.
In 2016, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States launched new efforts to restart the stalled peace talks. The so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group met five times in Kabul and Islamabad, without Taliban representatives present.
Pakistani Crackdown Sufficient?
Retired General Talat Masood believes that Pakistan has done enough in tackling militant groups and the country can only do so much without endangering its own security.
"Pakistan’s view point is that we are doing more than what we could and if we do anything more than that, we will have to fight them all," said General Masood. "That we [Pakistan] do not want because we are already engaged with our own war. We do not want to fight the Afghan war in any case."
Masood added that should Pakistan increase its pressure on Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, they will join hands with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and that will pose greater risk to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Anthony H. Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that while Pakistan has not illustrated any meaningful efforts, it is also important to remember that Taliban have continuously denied peace talks and talks have over time become an extension of the fighting verses a solution.
" It is critical to note that the new head of the Taliban has specifically rejected peace negotiations and in many cases like this peace negotiations have simply become an extension of the fighting -- not a solution," Cordesman said.
General Masood believes that with Taliban capturing territory in Afghanistan and having made military gains in recent months and years, Pakistan no longer has much influence on them.
"They [Taliban] think that they are quite independent. They have territory within Afghanistan. They can launch attacks from Afghanistan. They have the support of certain segments of the Afghan people and they can keep fighting," Masood said.
But Afghan analyst General Atiqullah Amarkhil believes that Pakistan risks becoming isolated by declining to aggressively confront all militant groups.
"Pakistan ought to cease its covert support to insurgents in Afghanistan and continue its crackdown on terrorists and extremists in its soil or else the country will risk a total isolation from the international community," Amarkhil said.
Long Road for Crucial Peace Process
The peace process has long been seen as a way to end the war in Afghanistan that all sides see as essentially stalemated.
After nearly 15 years of war, Afghanistan's military still requires significant assistance from U.S. and NATO troops, its government depends on foreign financial support, and the Taliban insurgency continues to grind away at government control in pockets across the country.
Rebecca Zimmerman of Rand Corporation says the peace process has been slow, but that is not unusual.
"The road to any peace agreement in any country has steps forward and steps backward. That’s a natural part of the process and it has to be," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman added "I by no mean think that the future of peace talks in Afghanistan is completely gone, but in the form of the quadrilateral coordination group, I think they are gone for the foreseeable future."