Pakistan should ease tensions with Kabul, build consensus: ICG

International Crisis Group report says Islamabad faces renewed pressure from Kabul, Washington to 'convince Taliban' to reduce violence

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  • International Crisis Group report gives Pakistan tips on how to handle Afghan peace process, its possible implications.
  • An unravelling Afghanistan could embolden Pakistani militant groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban, and threaten yet another massive influx of Afghan refugees, says ICG
  • Says Islamabad trying to persuade Afghan Taliban allies to opt for a "peacefully negotiated political settlement".

BRUSSELS: Pakistan has been given a number of suggestions on how to resolve the current crisis in Afghanistan by Brussels-based International Crisis Group in its recent report.

Three of these suggestions are crucial in the reported titled, 'Pakistan: Shoring Up Afghanistan’s Peace Process'.

The ICG report advised Pakistan to ease tensions with the Kabul government and build trust with the Ghani administration for cooperation.

According to ICG, the fast withdrawal of NATO forces undermines Pakistan's peace efforts and efforts to facilitate the Taliban’s alleged return to Kabul through power-sharing arrangements.

Read more: Spoilers of peace in Afghanistan risk regional instability, says COAS Gen Bajwa

Pakistan should pressurise the Taliban to reduce violence through the Afghan Taliban who reside in Pakistan, the report suggested.

An overview of the ICG report

Pakistan’s stakes in a stable Afghanistan have never been higher as violence escalates in that country and the peace process set in train in September 2020 remains largely deadlocked, the report said. 

"An unravelling Afghanistan could embolden Pakistani militant groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban, and threaten yet another massive influx of Afghan refugees. Islamabad has been trying to persuade its Afghan Taliban allies to opt for a peacefully negotiated political settlement. Its failure in that endeavour would strain its ties with Washington and Kabul. With the clock ticking on the deadline for pulling out U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan should redouble its efforts to convince the Taliban to scale back both their attacks and their aspirations to reinstitute their version of Islamic governance – so that the peace process may yet succeed," the ICG report stated.

It was added that Pakistan has supported the Afghan peace process, largely because its long-time Taliban ally can use the talks as a road to power with international legitimacy and the attendant economic support. 

"It saw an opportunity to push for its preferred option – the Taliban’s inclusion in power-sharing arrangements – when the Trump administration began pursuing a political settlement in Afghanistan as the U.S. prepared to withdraw troops from the country. Washington acknowledged Islamabad’s role in facilitating the February 2020 U.S. agreement with the Taliban and the subsequent peace talks, also known as the intra-Afghan negotiations," the report said.

Read more: Pakistan can partner with US for peace, not for conflict: PM Imran Khan

But in January 2021, when President Joe Biden took over the U.S. administration, the talks were at an impasse. 

ICG said the Taliban "continued to rely on violence to strengthen their bargaining position" and Kabul, too, appeared "unwilling to make substantive compromises". 

Biden’s decision, announced on 14 April 2021, to withdraw all U.S. troops by 11 September, even absent a political settlement, has tightened timelines for getting a peace process moving before the conflict intensifies, as appears likely, in the withdrawal’s wake, ICG said. 

At the time of publication of ICG's report, the withdrawal looked set to be completed even earlier, by mid-July.

The ICG said that since the intra-Afghan negotiations started in Doha, Qatar on 12 September 2020, Pakistan’s military leadership and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI government have "repeatedly emphasised that only a political settlement can end conflict in Afghanistan". 

"Pledging support for an Afghan-led peace process, they have also repeatedly denied backing any party to the conflict. Yet the presence of the Taliban’s top military and political leadership on Pakistani territory gives Islamabad a direct role, and hence a big stake, in the intra-Afghan parley. The sanctuary Pakistan gives the Taliban also reinforces mistrust of Pakistani intentions among Afghan governing and opposition circles," it was written in the report.

Afghanistan’s future: Lessons for India

The report recognised that Islamabad faces renewed pressure from Kabul and Washington to "convince the Taliban at the very least" to reduce violence to ensure that negotiations continue as foreign soldiers leave, and the insurgents appear bent on using force to gain power and install an Islamic system of government.

ICG said Pakistan’s "clout" with the insurgents has declined as they continue to make military gains in Afghanistan. "That influence has far from dissipated, however, since the Taliban shura (leadership council) still operates out of Pakistani havens. Taliban commanders in Afghanistan may dispute but will still follow that leadership’s instructions," it said.

"It is in Pakistan’s interest to persuade, using pressure if need be, the Taliban shura to break the logjam in the peace talks by reducing violence and moderating demands for Islamic, likely Sunni Deobandi, governance," the report stated. 

"Indefinitely stalled negotiations would heighten tensions with Kabul and might harm Islamabad’s relations with Washington – a grave concern for Pakistani military leaders," it said, highlighting that China, Pakistan’s closest foreign partner, also probably prefers that Islamabad work to produce a more stable outcome than a Taliban victory followed by an attempt at monopolistic rule. 

"A failed peace process could spark all-out civil war in Afghanistan and a massive influx of refugees into Pakistani territory. Violence in Afghanistan would also spill over into Pakistan. In the worst-case scenario, a Taliban military takeover in Kabul, Pakistan would face the dilemma of dealing with its ally heading a regime that would enjoy scant outside backing and – crucially – very little financial aid," the report concluded.