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Knocking on the Neighbour's Door


Although not completely successful, the Karzai visit to Islamabad will go a long way in reducing the trust deficit, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: September 8, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : United Nations | Afghanistan | NATO troops | Hamid Karzai | Taliban |

In 1947, shortly after its birth, when Pakistan applied for membership of the United Nations, there was only one country that opposed its candidature. Yes! You guessed it wrong. It wasn’t its neighbour on its eastern front. It was the one on its west; Afghanistan. Till date, no Pakistani has forgotten that little piece of history. They can only do this at their own peril.

So when Hamid Karzai paid his much touted visit to Islamabad this week, one wondered what was running inside his mind. Pakistan is seen as key to ending the over a decade long conflict in Afghanistan before presidential elections in April and the withdrawal of most of the 90,000 NATO troops in exactly a year. However, under Karzai’s leadership, the relationship with Pakistan has remained, to put it mildly, kind of rough.

The initial years of the Karzai presidentship passed under the shadow of his Northern Alliance allies, especially Muhammad Fahim and Amrullah Saleh, who had little love lost for Pakistan. The contempt was shared equally, if not more, by their nemesis sitting in Islamabad. When Karzai developed confidence and got rid of Saleh, things started looking up, but it nosedived again. And after that, it has been a rollercoaster ride. In as late as February this year, UK brokered a deal between the two neighbours and it again appeared that things will improve. However, Karzai’s reckless use of words, Kabul’s general tendency to accuse Islamabad for everything that is wrong in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s insistence on treating Afghanistan as a nonentity has pulled the relationship down again.

But in spite of all these, the present trip of Karzai means a lot to both the countries. More for Afghanistan, if one abandons political correctness. Until the last few months, Karzai was desperate to find a way out not to engage Pakistan. His almost comical request to India to supply arms, even more comically rejected by India, epitomised that desperation. And  now the pieces are falling into place. The US wants to run, and fast. It’s sort of déjà vu to Henry Kissinger’s mantra of “declare victory and run.” It therefore understands that Afghanistan cannot be stabilised without roping in Pakistan. Consequently, Karzai had to come around.

“Karzai is hopeful that he will be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the help of the new Pakistani administration,” Abdul Waheed Wafa, analyst and director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, says. “But we haven’t seen anything to conclude that they are prepared to change their long-term policy towards Afghanistan and give up supporting the insurgency.”

So, what actually did he achieve in Islamabad. Let’s see. Prior to the visit, Karzai gave the impression that he was banking on Pakistan to help and provide “either opportunities or a platform for negotiations between the Afghan High Peace Council and Taliban insurgents.”

“We hope, with this on top of our agenda, that we can move forward in bringing stability and peace to both countries,” he told reporters at a joint news conference in Islamabad. It is with hope on this that I have come to Pakistan… to advance the course of action together… but also by having a common campaign against extremism, (to) make sure that the two countries are safer and prosperous towards a secure future,” he was reported to have said.

He seems to have been successful in achieving the first goal. Nawaz Sharif has publicly acknowledged that any reconciliation in Afghanistan will be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” Now that is something. The devil lies in the details. Experts and Afghanistan watchers did not miss an otherwise casual sounding, but tectonic, shift from “Pashtun-owned and Pashtun-led” to “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”

“I assured President Karzai that Pakistan will continue to extend all possible facilitation to the international community’s efforts for the realisation of this noble goal,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was reported as saying. He further added that “it is imperative to turn the tide of conflict in the region and work collectively for the common welfare of the people. Afghanistan is not only a close neighbour but also a fraternal nation with which the people of Pakistan are bound by unbreakable ties of faith, kinship and shared history. Our security and future prosperity is linked to that of Afghanistan, in multiple ways.”

However, there was awkward silence on the second demand. Before the trip itself, Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar, a member of the High Peace Council (HPC), the official Afghan government negotiators who are accompanying Karzai, said they would request Pakistan to release one of the most senior Taliban militants detained in Pakistan, Abdul Ghani Baradar.

This would not be the first time Pakistan would agree to release Taliban figures. It released 26 Talibans in two batches last year, including some really big names. The move was welcomed by the HPC then. However, Baradar is a different ball-game. Baradar crossed the Pakistani red-line by keeping Islamabad out of the loop before engaging directly with the Western peace negotiators. Pakistan promptly arrested him and set the record straight. So, Pakistan will like Afghanistan to put something more on the plate.

However, that does not mean that the trip was unsuccessful. It will go a long way in building confidence between the two nations. However, a lot of caution needs to be exercised. Both Islamabad and Kabul love to shoot themselves in the foot.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017