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Afghan peace efforts reopen wounds over Pakistan

On the surface, much of the Afghan public has lined up behind President Ashraf Ghani in his bid to bring the Taliban to peace talks.

After a year of Taliban gains in multiple battles, even an outside chance of opening a diplomatic channel strikes many officials as a crucial effort. And indications from Afghan officials that an initial meeting could happen within a week or two from now have heartened Mr. Ghani’s supporters.

But even as early skeptics of the president’s effort are publicly coming around, there is a deep current of distrust and concern among many Afghans over how he has tried to bring his plan to life: by intensively courting Pakistan’s military, which nurtured the Afghan insurgency in its early years, to pressure Taliban leaders to join talks.

In recent weeks, Mr. Ghani has made concessions to the Pakistanis that would have seemed unimaginable under the last administration, including tailoring anti-militant raids to Pakistani requests.

It has been an unsettling spectacle for Afghans who firmly see Pakistan as an enemy. Some are asking how the president could ignore so much recent history that has shown Pakistani relations to be, as one former Afghan official put it, “accident prone.”

One critic is the former national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Even though he welcomes the idea of talking with the Taliban, he said he thinks Mr. Ghani is giving away too much to Pakistan. Handing over a top Pakistani Taliban commander and going after the Pakistani Taliban on Afghan soil without reciprocal efforts from Pakistan “is absolute appeasement.”

“My advice is to be careful,” Mr. Spanta said in an interview.

On Feb. 15, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a prominent mujahedeen commander, also warned of the perils of getting closer to Pakistan.

And there are those, too, who still question the wisdom of trying to politically engage the Taliban at all. Among them is Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan spy chief, who noted recently on Twitter that “sharing the state with the Taliban” would not bring peace. “It institutionalizes conflict,” he added.

Despite the warnings, Mr. Ghani has been risking tremendous political capital to do what eluded his predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai, who is skeptical but supportive of his successor’s efforts, according to people close to him. Mr. Karzai spent years trying to persuade the Taliban to negotiate with his government. By some official accounts, there were as many as five instances when the Afghan government felt they were approaching a breakthrough.

“On a number of occasions we were very close,” Mr. Spanta said. “It’s not the first time that Pakistan has made promises and not delivered.”

In June 2011, according to one current and one former Afghan official, the government had paved the way for Pakistan to draw the Taliban into talks. A delegation led by Mr. Karzai met with Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership, including Yousaf Raza Gilani, then the prime minister, and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff, who promised to urge the insurgent leadership to join talks.

A timeline was set, then shattered. Shortly after the return of the Afghan delegation, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and the government’s chief peace negotiator, was killed in a Kabul suicide attack that derailed efforts. Many inside and outside the government suspected Pakistani involvement.

To revive the efforts, the Pakistani government agreed to allow a team from the Afghan intelligence service to investigate the origins of the attack, Mr. Spanta said. Salahuddin Rabbani, Mr. Rabbani’s son who replaced him in the job, was dispatched to meet with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former deputy leader, who was in Pakistani custody.

Neither effort panned out. The Afghan investigators were stonewalled, Mr. Spanta said. And Mr. Rabbani, meanwhile, was presented with a near comatose Mullah Baradar. Mr. Rabbani recalled being unable to communicate with him. Mr. Karzai interpreted both events as evidence of Pakistan’s duplicity.

There has been evidence, however, that Pakistan is better disposed toward the new Afghan administration. That is said to be, in part, because China, which was concerned that the militant activity and unrest at its border could spread, has urged a reconciliation. In recent months, Chinese officials have publicly offered to host or facilitate Taliban talks, and was even reported to have hosted an initial Taliban delegation in Beijing.

Another reason cited for Pakistan’s growing engagement is the absence of Mr. Karzai. Like the Americans, the Pakistanis suffered withering criticism from him before he left office. Some see Mr. Ghani’s presence as an opportunity to hit the reset button with the Afghan government.

Mr. Ghani’s election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is publicly on board with Taliban talks now that he is part of the government. But that was not always the case: In 2011, Mr. Abdullah criticized the failed efforts as “a lesson for all of us that we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this group” is “willing to make peace.”

Beyond politics, there is a pressing desire among Afghans for peace after three decades of conflict. Leaders are leery of looking like they oppose peace. Even Mr. Sayyaf, after calling Mr. Ghani’s policy “dictatorial,” seems to have been mollified. He recently met with Mr. Ghani in the palace as part of the president’s outreach effort to the political elite to shore up support for the peace talks.

“Only those who feel left out will oppose this,” said one former senior government official, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Even those who were opponents of the Taliban, as well as Mr. Ghani, seem to be on board.

Atta Mohammad Noor, a former mujahedeen commander and supporter of Mr. Abdullah, who at one point threatened to form a breakaway government during the contested election if Mr. Ghani was declared the winner, has signed off on the efforts. Mr. Noor is the governor of Balkh, one of the most prosperous provinces in Afghanistan.

In 2011, after Mr. Rabbani’s assassination, Mr. Noor was one of many former mujahedeen leaders who denounced peace talks with the Taliban. Now, reached by phone, Mr. Noor said he was supportive.

“I believe that our interests are not in tension with Pakistan,” he said of the peace talks. “My policy is that we need to improve our relations with Pakistan and the regional countries, so the mistrust is done away with.”

Mr. Noor appears to be the recipient of an evolving strategy by Pakistan to diversify its investment in Afghanistan — and its key leaders. In 2013, Mr. Noor opened a new $18 million engineering school at Balkh University — construction paid for by the government of Pakistan.

He thanked the government for another $3 million in forthcoming investment for two other schools.

Source: The New York Times

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