Afghanistan has witnessed a surge in efforts to end its protracted conflict and attain peace in recent days. However, the momentum of the peace talks has been temporarily impeded by the Afghan Taliban abruptly canceling a scheduled meeting with US officials in Qatar on the grounds of “agenda disagreement.”

There are reports that the impasse in the negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban to reach a political settlement is related to the issue of the maintenance of US military bases in the country.

Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official in Kabul who remains in regular contact with the insurgent group’s leaders, reportedly said: “The US wants the Taliban to accept at least two military bases, Bagram and Shorabak. The Taliban are not willing to accept it.” He further maintained that the insurgent leaders are unwilling to accept anything more than a nominal number of troops required to secure the US diplomatic mission.

The US has been courting the support of Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to bring the Taliban to the peace table. It is also resetting its relations with Pakistan to achieve a peace breakthrough.

Recent attempts at resetting relations

The Trump administration’s move to gradually end the American military entanglement in Afghanistan with its decision to halve the size of its troop presence and push for political negotiations has forced a change in Washington’s approach toward Islamabad. President Donald Trump had earlier accused Pakistan of “not doing a damn thing” to help the US despite receiving massive amounts of American aid.

To ensure Pakistan’s support in the Afghan peace process, the US has reportedly attempted to allay Pakistani concerns about sanctions by making it clear that although the South Asian nation remains on the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, there would be no additional sanctions imposed. Being in the throes of an economic crisis, Pakistan has responded positively to America’s conciliatory gesture.

Pakistan’s changed approach is palpable when one considers Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s response to Trump’s charges. Khan retorted: “The record needs to be put straight on Mr Trump’s tirade against Pakistan.” He argued that Pakistan had suffered more than 75,000 casualties in the fight against terrorism and the US should “stop making Pakistan a scapegoat” for its failure to win the war in Afghanistan.

Khan met with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for the Afghanistan peace process, last month and assured him of his country’s commitment to Afghan peace and reconciliation. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, while acknowledging Afghan peace is a “shared responsibility” of regional countries when peaking in his country’s legislature, also spoke about Trump’s letter to Khan asking Pakistan to assist and facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan.

In a positive gesture toward the peace process, Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi has expressed Islamabad’s desire to see the Taliban talk to the Afghan government and participate in the political settlement of the protracted conflict

Qureshi emphasized that Pakistan was already doing its part.
Afghanistan and Pakistan were witnessed undertaking efforts at normalizing their relations. The High Peace Council (HPC) – an Afghan peace body – expected Islamabad to take practical steps toward the Afghan peace process following a visit to Islamabad by Umer Daudzai, President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy. The HPC believes Pakistan could remove the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad as well by seriously supporting the Afghan peace process. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s chief of army staff,  General Qamar Javed Bajwa, discussed the regional security situation and the Afghanistan peace process with Kabul’s ambassador to Pakistan, Shukrullah Atif Mashal, during a meeting in Rawalpindi.

These overtures from both sides are significant in view of Kabul’s oft-repeated accusation that Islamabad has sabotaged the peace process and interfered in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Pakistan has rejected the charges. For instance, Afghan President Ghani blamed Pakistan for terror attacks on Afghan soil as well as for harboring the Taliban on many occasions.

However, in a positive gesture toward the peace process, Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi has expressed Islamabad’s desire to see the Taliban talk to the Afghan government and participate in the political settlement of the protracted conflict.

Peace process challenges

Recently, Republican Congressman Andy Briggs introduced legislation (Resolution 73) in the US House of Representatives (the lower house of the American Congress) to terminate Pakistan’s designation as a major non-NATO ally. The resolution has been sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for necessary action and for future re-designation. The president would need to certify that the Pakistani government was demonstrating its commitment to prevent the Haqqani Network from using Pakistani territory as a safe haven as well as actively coordinating with the Afghan government to restrict the movement of militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The future of the bill remains uncertain, as are the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Pakistan can influence the peace process in Afghanistan, as it allegedly has contacts in the Afghan Taliban and has the ability to multiply its support for the radical groups involved and disrupt the peace process.

The Trump administration has so far been unable to deal with Islamabad in a way that could help it achieve a breakthrough in the Afghan peace efforts.  On the one hand, Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi, affirming his government’s continued cooperation with the US efforts in Afghanistan despite the sanctions, has said that Islamabad’s deteriorating relations with Washington had not led to the blocking of ground and air routes through Pakistan for ferrying supplies to the US-led international forces stationed in landlocked Afghanistan.

On the other side, there are divergences in both countries’ perception of the efforts to address the Afghan conflict which will have negative impacts on the peace process. Islamabad has rebuffed Washington’s frequent charges that it has not been serious about tackling terrorism. For instance, Qureshi said the Pakistani security forces have dismantled “the safe havens” and anti-Pakistan “safe havens” that exist today in Afghanistan “under your [the US] watch” are a concern for Islamabad.

At the same time, bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are not above suspicion, which is apparent in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s appointment of hardline opponents of Pakistan to two top security posts, which is believed to be complicating US efforts to revive the peace talks with the Taliban ahead of the withdrawal of American troops. It is noteworthy that Ghani announced recently that Amrullah Saleh will be the next interior minister and Asadullah Khaleed will be defense minister. Both are former intelligence chiefs who have blamed Pakistan for the Taliban’s resurgence in recent years and have even called for it to be declared a state sponsor of terror.

Further, Pakistan perceived India’s non-military and developmental role in Afghanistan as a policy of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement strategy, and viewed India’s enhanced diplomatic presence in the country with suspicion and alleged it was aiding anti-Pakistani elements. Thus, the Trump administration will have difficulty managing such imaginary or real threats, while New Delhi cannot be denied a role given its stake in Afghanistan.

The US strategy of containing Iran and Russia while depending on its Arab allies and Pakistan fails to take into consideration the fact that Moscow and Tehran have reportedly maintained contacts with the Afghan Taliban to safeguard and promote their interests in Afghanistan. Washington cannot hope to move ahead with the peace process only by courting the support of Islamabad and its Arab allies while simultaneously pursuing containment strategies toward Moscow and Tehran.

These countries will be against Washington’s permanent military presence as well. The far-reaching sway of the Taliban in Afghanistan has enabled it to move within the peace process with relative flexibility. For instance, the Taliban have been refusing to deal directly with the internationally recognized government in Kabul, considering it an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime. Second, the Taliban argued that foreign troops must withdraw first to pave the way for peace negotiations.

The US will also have difficulty making the peace process Afghan-led without cooperation from other regional powers such as Iran and Russia. Yet another concern will be continued violence perpetrated by the ISKP – an affiliate of ISIS in Afghanistan. A spate of terror attacks launched by the group during and after the Eid ceasefire (June 15-17) between the Afghan government and the Taliban last year pointed to the fact that it banks on lawlessness in the country for its strength. It acts as an archrival of the Taliban as well as foreign troops. Therefore, it is likely to react to any political solution to the conflict with the Taliban being recognized as a legitimate as well as powerful actor within the country.