Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Friday, November 15th, 2019

Optimistic Approach to Afghan Peace Process

US President Donald Trump voiced optimism that Islamabad could help broker a political settlement to end the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, during his visit to Washington, pledged to “urge the Taliban to talk with the Afghan government and come to a political solution”. 
In turn, Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, has said that the Taliban would accept Islamabad’s invitation for a meeting.
Pakistan is a heavyweight stakeholder in Afghan peace process with a strong leverage on the Taliban leadership. Afghans believe that Islamabad can nudge the Taliban to negotiating table with the Kabul government, which is also demanded by Trump. After Trump-Khan’s meeting, a bonhomie emerged in Afghanistan that Islamabad will put its weight behind the peace talks that would step up the process.
Afghan-Pak relations also improved since Khan took office as the two countries’ high-level officials exchanged trips and pledged to promote mutual support in terms of economy and counterterrorism. As a result, the trust deficit between the two countries declined to some extent and both sides stopped the blame game that had had a very adverse effect on their bilateral relations. 
To broker talks between Kabul and the Taliban so as to end the conflict, three steps will be effective to be taken by Pakistan: First, Islamabad has to put pressure on Taliban political leadership to come to negotiating table with Kabul and on Taliban military commander to conform. It is believed that military commanders are against intra-Afghan dialogue and intensified their attacks on Ghani administration despite the ongoing peace talks – which suggests a rift between Taliban political leadership and military group.
Second, Islamabad should urge Pakistani clerics to issue fatwa (religious decree) against “Jihad” in Afghanistan. As religious scholars carry much weight among religious individuals and ideologues in Pakistan, their fatwa will be proved highly effective and cause “Jihadist/militants” to doubt their beliefs and mindset concerning jihad – which will be another pressure on the Taliban military commanders. 
Third, it will be acceptable to both parties if Islamabad offers hosting direct talks between Ghani administration and Taliban leadership as an ice-breaking meeting.
Islamabad brokered and hosted the first round of talks between Kabul official representatives and the Taliban leadership in Murree in 2015 vowing its support to “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process. It was indicative of Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban. But the second meeting never happened as the death of the Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar was leaked out.
Even with the Murree talks, disagreement between the Taliban political leadership and their battlefield commanders was reported. Nonetheless, the ongoing disagreement between the two segments is too latent to be resurfaced to the media. 
The nature of the 2015 Murree talks was different of the ongoing talks between the Taliban and the US representatives. For example, the Taliban ushered in negotiations in 2015 with the Kabul government from a weak point, but the current talks are with the US representatives from a strong stance. In turn, the Taliban refuse to hold talks with Kabul and haggle over higher price with their American interlocutors.
If Islamabad fears the spillover of instability to its soil from Afghanistan, as some Pakistani analysts have voiced their concern, ending conflict in Afghanistan will be also in the interests of Pakistan. With this in mind, Pakistan has to push harder for organizing talks between Kabul and the Taliban – regardless of the fact that it is the demand of Trump administration.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed the Taliban were ready for talks with Pakistan, which will play the role of a mediator for restoring peace in Afghanistan, he said. Now both Kabul and Washington are eyeing Pakistan whether or not it would or it could play the role it is expected.
But if Pakistan fails to bring Afghan and the Taliban representatives to the table and facilitate the honorable exit of the US forces, it is feared that mistrust between Islamabad on the one side and Kabul and Washington on the other side will resurface.
Overall, with the preparation of US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for eighth round of talks with the Taliban, and Pakistan’s reiteration of support to the Afghan peace process, the air is filled with hope and optimism. Although I have been viewing the peace talks with doubt and mistrust – since the Taliban played a foul game with the Afghan government at the table in the past and assassinated the former head of Afghan High Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani in 2011 under the peace terms – I believe that the support of regional stakeholders, mainly that of Pakistan, will find a political solution to the conflict.