Abdullah made fragile gains for Afghan peace during Pakistan trip

USA & World

Abdullah made fragile gains for Afghan peace during Pakistan trip

Islamabad, Pakistan – Afghan peace chief Abdullah Abdullah has concluded a visit to eastern neighbour Pakistan aimed at mending the often fraught ties between the two countries and making progress on moving the nascent Afghan peace process forward.

Abdullah, a harsh critic of Pakistan who has previously accused the country of sponsoring the Afghan Taliban in its 19-year war against the United States and Afghan forces, struck a markedly conciliatory tone throughout the visit, one that both countries are hoping will help reset ties at a critical stage in the peace process.

“This afternoon we leave towards Kabul, and we will leave Islamabad with a good sense and with […] the idea that we would continue to work together towards a better future for both countries and our region,” Abdullah said at an event before his departure on Wednesday.

“I am appreciative of the support of the Pakistani government for the peace efforts as well as the steps taken recently in terms of bilateral relations.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who met Abdullah a day earlier, echoed the sentiments.

“Enjoyed meeting Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman [High Council of National Reconciliation] of Afghanistan,” he tweeted.

“We had a very interesting conversation: theme being the past is an invaluable teacher to learn from but not to live in. We must look forward towards the future.”

During the visit, Pakistan eased visa restrictions for Afghan nationals and increased the number of days their border crossing will remain open for pedestrians, a long-standing Afghan demand.

In Qatar’s capital Doha, negotiations between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban that started three weeks ago aimed at the warring sides agreeing to a reduction of violence and a possible new power-sharing agreement.

Violence, however, has not abated even as Afghan negotiators have been engaged in direct talks for the first time ever.

On Wednesday, at least nine people were killed in a suicide attack in the southeastern Afghan province of Helmand, local media reported.

Taliban negotiators have cautioned against other parties’ involvement in the talks, as US Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad – a key mediator in the process – flew to Doha on Wednesday.

“If we hurry and expect to resolve all the issues in 20 days or a month, I think this will not bring us to our objectives,” said Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesman.

Illusive ceasefire

The question of Pakistan exerting its influence on the Afghan Taliban, which has maintained logistical and leadership bases on Pakistani territory for years, to establish a ceasefire was at the centre of Abdullah’s visit.

“The key role that [is expected from Pakistan] as evident in Abdullah’s trip, was the message from his side to Pakistan to intervene and get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire,” said Simbal Khan, a regional security analyst.

Pakistan’s official position has always been of having “limited influence” with the Afghan Taliban, with a senior Taliban delegation visiting the capital, Islamabad, in August, ahead of the commencement of intra-Afghan talks.

Pakistani officials have maintained a guarded response to the demand of establishing a ceasefire, say analysts.

“Pakistan is qualifying [their response] and is promising that they will deliver the message of a reduction in violence, but it may be short of a ceasefire,” says Khan.

Zahid Hussain, a security analyst and senior journalist, says the chances of a full ceasefire being established are slim.

“The Taliban are still not willing for a ceasefire and I don’t think Pakistan can get them to accept that, because that is the leverage [the Taliban] have been using in the talks,” he says.

“Once they pull out their fighters from the front, that leverage will be gone … There are limitations to what Pakistan can do.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the US-based Wilson Center, agrees that Pakistan may not have the leverage, and the Taliban the incentive, to reduce violence appreciably.

“The Taliban has ample leverage in peace talks because it has the luxury of time,” he says. “It knows that US troops are leaving, so it has the option of simply waiting out the Americans until they’re gone, before capitalising on a major battlefield advantage.

“In essence, the Taliban will soon enough have the option of trying to seize total power by force instead of trying to obtain partial power by negotiations.”

‘A milestone’

Despite the points of contention, the bonhomie on view during Abdullah’s three-day visit was a rare positive development in a relationship that has been marked by decades of mistrust. Both countries regularly accuse each other of allowing their territory to be used against the other.

Notably, Abdullah did not raise either the issues of alleged Pakistani support for armed groups or of the 2,600km border between them – one that Afghanistan considers disputed and Pakistan treats as an international boundary – during any public engagements in Islamabad.

Kugelman of the Wilson Center called the visit “a milestone”.

“There have been plenty of high-level visits involving Afghan and Pakistani leaders in recent years, but this one stands out,” he says.

“Abdullah, who hadn’t been to Pakistan for more than a decade, essentially called for a full reset in the relationship. This goes much further than the more tactical types of cooperation sought in recent years over issues like border security and trade.”

Abdullah, who took over as the Afghan government’s head of peace negotiations in March, previously served as chief executive in a tense power-sharing agreement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Khan, the analyst, suggested it was also in Abdullah’s political interest to continue to push the peace process forward.

“There has been more alignment [between the two countries] even before he was coming here – there is a growing alignment between Abdullah and the Pakistani government [based on] the idea of the post-negotiations Afghan government not being a government led by President Ghani.”

Pakistan has long called for a negotiated peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban given a role in governance of its western neighbour, a view not shared in either Kabul or Washington until recently.

“To some extent, there is some convergence of interest with the official lines of the Afghan and Pakistani government,” says Hussain. “It is in Pakistan’s interest for the talks to be successful. Pakistan has a huge stake in successful talks.”

Moreover, Khan suggests Pakistan has also been adjusting its view of an ideal outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, something that was in the past “a closed subject for Pakistan”.

“Pakistan has been genuinely looking at whether this single Pashtun-dominated government, whether it is a route to stability and that given the multi-ethnic, multi-sect, multi-regional context of Afghanistan, having a more pluralistic and federalist structure with a more parliamentary form of government is something that would be good for Afghanistan and would allow Pakistan to have a stable neighbour,” she says.

Ultimately, the path ahead will be a difficult one, and while Abdullah’s visit has struck positive notes, the progress is fragile.

“This all very clearly linked to the Doha negotiations, which are very fragile there. If a new round of fighting happens and negotiations break down completely […] then it could be back to square one,” says Khan.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.