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Wednesday Oct 17 2018

A US envoy’s prickly relationship with Pakistan and the way forward in Afghanistan

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, held his first meeting with members of the Taliban Political Commission in Qatar on October 12, in a bid to find a political solution for the long-running Afghan conflict.

According to Taliban sources, six members each from the two sides met in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and agreed to meet again. The talks were stated to be preliminary and of a general nature. Obviously, substantive talks focusing on the core issues would begin when the US formally enters into a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. Till now, Washington hasn’t even confirmed Khalilzad’s meeting with the Taliban delegation, led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, or the one held in Qatar earlier in July by senior State Department official Alice Wells.

Reportedly, the US has finally decided to work for a political solution to wrap up its longest, 17-year old war in Afghanistan by appointing Khalilzad as special envoy for the Afghan peace process. It tried its utmost, more so after President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new, military-focused policy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August 2017, to weaken and defeat the Taliban. More than a year later, there is a growing realization that this strategy isn’t working as the Taliban continue to make battleground gains instead of getting weakened.

The aggressive new Trump strategy further strained the already uneasy US relations with Pakistan as Washington made unfounded allegations against Islamabad and put pressure on it to achieve its policy objectives. Despite the strained relations though, US officials have repeatedly been asking Pakistan to play its role in moving forward the Afghan reconciliation process by bringing the Taliban to the negotiations table. The US has also demanded action by Pakistan against the irreconcilable elements among the Taliban opposed to the peace process.

Islamabad has refused to take action on its soil against the Afghan Taliban leaders, who may be hiding in the country as it will bring the Afghan war to Pakistan. While admitting having contacts with the Taliban, it insists its influence on the group is limited. However, Pakistan has promised to work for peace in Afghanistan as it would be in its interest to have a peaceful and stable neighbour.

Separately, the US has now opened a direct channel with the Taliban’s Political Commission in Qatar. Yet, it still wants Pakistan to get involved.

Pakistan’s role is also considered important for removing any hurdles in the peace process and becoming one of the key guarantors in case the talks make headway. Islamabad is willing to play the role of facilitator, though it would continue to argue that making peace in Afghanistan has to be a shared objective of all the stakeholders instead of putting the burden on Pakistan alone.

There are reasons to believe that Pakistan and the US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad didn’t enjoy friendly relations until recently.

Pakistan cannot have any liking for him due to his publicly stated views blaming it for violence in Afghanistan, and advocating that it should be declared a terrorism-sponsoring state. This was an extreme view coming even from an Afghan-born former diplomat who has spent a lifetime in the service of the US, his adopted country.

For the 67-years-old to express his strident views about Pakistan openly was surprising as diplomats, even if retired, are generally circumspect in speaking their heart out. Or perhaps he thought he has played his innings and it was time to say things which he couldn’t express while in service. Just when Khalilzad apparently thought he won’t be assigned any new diplomatic work, the Trump administration put him in charge of moving forward the stalled Afghan peace process. It is obvious that the US couldn’t find anyone better than Khalilzad, its former ambassador to Afghanistan. He knows the country, its culture and could speak with the Afghans, particularly the Taliban, in their own languages.

Even if there isn’t much liking for each other, Pakistan and Khalilzad would now have to work together if the intent is to make Afghanistan peaceful and stable. Islamabad knows that Khalilzad had retired and was a private citizen when he made the outrageous allegations against Pakistan. Now that he is representing the US again, Pakistan has to interact with him and work together for promoting the Afghan peace process through political means. In fact, this is an opportunity as Pakistan has always advocated a negotiated political solution involving the Taliban for ending the long Afghan conflict, instead of persisting with the failed military option.

Khalilzad’s first visit to Islamabad on October 9 and his meeting with Pakistani officials led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi were, therefore, important to set the stage for future interactions between the two sides. The fact that the two delegations comprised diplomatic, defence and security officials pointed towards the comprehensive nature of the interaction.

Khalilzad’s 11-day visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar could be termed a promising start to a long journey in search of peace.

Yusufzai is the Resident Editor of The News International in Peshawar

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.