Pakistan’s Necessary Role In Afghan Peace Negotiations

The Afghan government has arrived at a pivotal moment in the war against the Taliban. As the U.S. hastily prepares to depart from Afghanistan, violent conflict has escalated between an emboldened Taliban and the Afghan government. Since May—just one month after President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11—Taliban forces have seized 50 of the nation’s 370 districts, including the nation’s second and third-largest cities, in the last three days. Now, just weeks before the U.S. is officially set to end the so-called “forever war”, the Afghan government is faced with the complicated task of achieving peace, or else return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. In its struggle to attain peace, Afghanistan will necessarily rely on the influence of its neighbor, Pakistan. However, the two nations have a fractured relationship resulting from a tumultuous history. 

At the end of the British-Indian Empire in 1947, Pakistan emerged as a dominant power on the Western frontier. Pakistan believes it inherited the 1,660-mile border shared with Afghanistan, the reputed Durand Line, which divides ethnic Pashtun communities. However, Afghanistan also claims the territory, spurring tensions between the two nations. Pakistan further perceives Afghanistan as a fifth province, dependent on its goodwill and protection. This discernment has been the basis for decades of distrust and skepticism on the part of Afghanistan. In 1996, Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate after the coalition captured Kabul. And while Pakistan repeatedly claims to be impartial in regard to the current war in Afghanistan, after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion expelled the Taliban regime, Pakistan provided refuge for their top leaders and military commanders. In fact, according to the International Crisis Group, Pakistan continues to shelter the Taliban’s top military and political leadership on Pakistani territory, which only augments mistrust of Pakistani intentions among Afghans. 

More recently, Pakistan has aided in the facilitation of peace negotiations, though largely for their own benefit. The nation pledged support for an Afghan-led peace process, and the U.S. has acknowledged Islamabad’s part in organizing the February 2020 U.S. agreement with the Taliban, as well as the intra-Afghan negotiations. However, Pakistan perceives these talks as an expedited route to power with international legitimacy for the Taliban. Pakistani leadership prefers that their long-time ally is included in power-sharing arrangements, which at this point, might be Afghanistan’s only option for non-combative resolution. If the Taliban achieves legitimate power, Pakistan gains yet another means of political influence over Afghanistan. 

Nonetheless, a failed peace process will likely spark a full-scale civil war in Afghanistan, exacerbating what is already a mass exodus of refugees into Pakistani territory. If the Taliban succeeds in its military takeover, Pakistan would then be allied with a regime that is internationally condemned and receives minuscule financial backing, which has been crucial during the pandemic. Additionally, the International Crisis Groups observes that China, Pakistan’s closest foreign partner, prefers peace negotiations and power-sharing to a monopolistic Taliban rule. For these reasons, Pakistan has called upon the international community to look into the “meltdown” of Afghan security forces as the Taliban advances. 

Issues of governance and the meltdown of Afghan national defense forces need to be looked into,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. “The lack of will to fight, the capitulation that we are seeing in Afghanistan … Can we be held responsible for that? No, we cannot,” Qureshi said. The Foreign Minister argued that Pakistan had the most to lose from an unstable Afghanistan as a neighbor, and questioned the swift departure of the U.S. which has the potential to undermine Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate an internationally-backed power-sharing agreement. The deadline has constricted the timeline for peace negotiations, yet the U.S. has no plans to reconsider, claiming that Afghan forces need to incite change for themselves. 

“They have an Air Force, the Taliban doesn’t. They have modern weaponry and organizational skills, the Taliban doesn’t. They have superior numbers to the Taliban,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “They have the advantages, and it’s really now their time to use those advantages.” However, combat will not be a viable, nor sustainable, solution in Afghanistan. 

 Instead, it is vital that all parties return to the negotiating tablewith genuine intention to compromisein pursuit of a power-sharing agreement. Because of its historical alliance with the Taliban, and its stake in Afghanistan’s stability, Pakistan has the greatest ability to ensure the success of a power-sharing agreement, and will therefore be an essential facilitator in the upcoming peace negotiations. Currently, Afghanistan’s government is highly centralized in a presidential system, intensifying the perception of a winner-takes-all scenario. There are minimal formal mechanisms in place to check the president’s power, granting a single position a wealth of influence. The prize-like nature of the presidency promotes unhealthy competition among political leaders. Further, because Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic nation, autocracy is more than likely to fail. Thus, a decentralized democratic system that maintains the unitary character of Afghanistan, while still delegating provincial power, is the best option for enduring peace. 

Yet, as the Taliban continues to escalate violence, many question the nation’s ability to reach a transitional state and potentially enter into an interim government with a power-sharing arrangement. The U.S. needs to legitimately consider pursuing a conditions-based withdrawal deadline over a calendar-based one in order to minimize violent attacks by the Taliban. Following their withdrawal, it is imperative that NATO allies maintain peace efforts previously upheld by the U.S. Particularly, it is critical that they follow through on their commitment to increase security measures for Kabul’s international airport, such that it can maintain operation and safely transport humanitarian aid workers. Ultimately, returning to dialogue with the Taliban—in regard to both the U.S. withdrawal and power-sharing agreements—is paramount to creating enduring peace in Afghanistan.

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