While the US is anticipating conclusion of a peace agreement with the Taliban by September, followed by elections in which Taliban could participate as apolitical group, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani fears fading into oblivion. In his quest for continued relevance in future Afghan landscape, he visited Pakistan on 27-28 June. Long pending invitation by Prime Minister Imran Khan to President Ghani came as a handy aid for the visit. This was his third visit to Pakistan. President Ghani had earlier undertaken a bilateral visit to Pakistan in November 2014 and subsequently came to attend the ministerial conference of Heart of Asia/ Istanbul Process in Islamabad in December 2015. Then on, he kept putting off his visits to Pakistan on one pretext or the other. It followed the recently held first review session of the landmark Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).
The wide-ranging talks between the two sides focused on strengthening bilateral cooperation in diverse areas – including political, trade, economic, security, peace and reconciliation, education and people-to-people exchanges.
The two leaders discussed the whole gamut of relationship as well as current efforts seeking peaceful end to the lingering conflict in Afghanistan. They were later joined by their respective aides for a “frank and candid” discussions. Leadership of the two countries agreed to bury the past misgivings and open a “new chapter of friendship and cooperation”. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have remained tense because of trust deficit between the two neighbours. Kabul for long has kept accusing Islamabad for supporting the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has its own list of reservations that include Afghan government’s lack of action against groups involved in cross-border attacks.
A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office spoke positive about the future of ties between the two countries. It said the two leaders agreed to “open a new chapter of friendship and cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, based on mutual trust and harmony for the benefit of the two peoples and countries and for advancing the cause of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” Pakistan remains committed to a peaceful, stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan and wishes to have stronger political, trade, economic, and people-to-people relations with Afghanistan.
Point is well home that early completion of major energy connectivity projects such as Central Asia-South Asia (CASA 1000) electricity transmission line and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline will bring long-term economic benefits to the countries involved.
The crux of Ghani-Imran meeting was that there was realisation on part of both sides that there was no point sticking to the past. Both the countries agreed to look into the future and for this purpose discussed various steps leading to restoring mutual trust. In a related development, Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to undertake his five day State visit to the US starting from July 20 to meet US President Donald Trump. Earlier, Trump had extended an invitation to Premier Imran.
The US president had expressed his desire to meet the premier to discuss “important regional matters”. Imran-Trump meeting was linked by Trump with positive outcome of the ongoing American efforts seeking a peace deal in Afghanistan. Relations between Pakistan and the United States have remained tense during the Trump’s tenure. The US president publically accused Islamabad for ‘lies and deceit’ and also suspended security and other assistance. But at the same time he expressed his desire to work with the Imran-led government.
Pakistan is resolute towards finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict as Pakistan supports an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself. As Taliban have, so far, refused to engage with the Afghan government directly, the Afghan government and other groups are worried that they may be excluded from the process with the US. They are looking for face saving; Pakistan also wants to avoid this scenario, as such a situation may lead to another cycle of a civil war. Against this backdrop, the visit of President Ashraf Ghani was quite significant, as Pakistan is looking to play a positive role in facilitating an all-inclusive dialogue among the Afghan groups. President Donald Trump has, time and again voiced impatience with the Afghan war, believing there is no further reason to bear the cost in money or lives.
During his first visit to Kabul since Washington launched peace talks, September last year, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on June 25 that he hopes for a peace deal with the Taliban “before September 1”, He said peace was Washington’s “highest priority”. The US and the Taliban have opened fresh negotiations on June 29. The US negotiator Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, voiced hope for progress in ending America´s longest war. “Based on my recent visits to Afghanistan and Qatar, I believe all sides want rapid progress,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter. Negotiations are taking place in Qatar. Khalilzad is hoping to negotiate a deal under which the United States could withdraw troops. In turn, the Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would not be used as a staging ground by extremists.
The renewed multilateral push for Afghan peace, involving China, Russia, the EU and the GCC countries has created a new opportunity and every effort must be made to seize the moment. Despite President Trump’s contemptuous approach towards international treaties, the comity of nations cannot afford to miss this rare opportunity. Elements inimical to Pak-Afghan friendship will try their best to scuttle this process as was done in the past. It is up to the collective international leadership to not to give eyes and ears to detractors but engage deeply to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan, this region and beyond.