Sections of the Western media had been reporting that even though formally suspended talks on the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement had continued informally, agreement had been reached on a single text with points at issue being placed in brackets.
It was then announced by the Afghan foreign affairs ministry on Aug 20 that negotiations had entered a new phase and were being conducted by a new team comprising the foreign minister, the national security adviser and the head of the Security Transition Commission, and that lastly there was confidence that the agreement would be finalised soon.
Four days later, President Hamid Karzai on the eve of his visit to Pakistan told reporters that Afghanistan was in no hurry to conclude the agreement and that if no agreement was reached it could perhaps be left to the next president to discuss whether or not to accept such an agreement.
Karzai of course knows full well that the Americans are anxious to conclude the agreement by October so that they have the time needed to plan for the stay of the residual force after the rest of the forces are withdrawn by end 2014 and, more importantly, to ensure that the American residual presence does not become an issue in the presidential election in April 2014.
Karzai knows that Afghanistan needs this agreement, not only for the ostensible purpose of providing training to the Afghan forces and fighting Al Qaeda, but also because without such an agreement the promised military and economic assistance that alone can keep Afghanistan going after 2014 may disappear.
So what does this mean? Is it a hard-nosed negotiating tactic designed to secure concessions? Is it meant to tell the Americans that if his term cannot be extended his designated successor must win the April election? Or is it to tell the Americans that they need the agreement more than Karzai’s Afghanistan does? It is difficult to tell what Karzai is aiming for.
This is how Karzai approaches relations with his principal benefactor. The attitude towards Pakistan, which may be a benefactor in so far as it provides shelter to some five million Afghans but which is nevertheless painted as the principal villain, is far worse.
Afghanistan has just cause for complaint but Karzai needs to acknowledge the contribution Afghanistan and its leadership have made towards creating this situation. Realism also demands that even if Afghanistan is the aggrieved party it must recognise that it has more to gain from rectification than either the US or Pakistan. This does not seem to resonate in Kabul. This then is the backdrop against which the Karzai visit is to be viewed.
On the face of it, Karzai’s visit to Pakistan on Monday went off well. He was accorded a welcome befitting the head of state of an important neighbour which should have served to assuage some of the ire prompted by officially inspired assessments in Pakistan, earlier this year, that Karzai was an impediment to peace and was “taking his country to hell”.
There was an agreement concluded on economic cooperation and development projects but that means little more than an expression of good intentions. Similarly, there was apparently talk of setting up a joint commission on the Kabul River and the development of joint hydel projects, but what will come of this is also not very clear since it does not seem that any solid preparatory work has been done.
The important point was Karzai’s request at the joint press conference that Pakistan should facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan and “provide opportunities or a platform for talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban movement”. In response he got Nawaz Sharif’s assurance of “strong and sincere” support for an Afghan-led reconciliation process.
The prime minister added: “Pakistan will continue to extend all possible facilitation to the international community’s efforts for the realisation of this noble objective.”
One does not know whether the reference to the international community will go down well. It may have been meant to indicate that Pakistan believed that a US-Afghan Taliban agreement on the exchange of prisoners and on the removal of Taliban names from the UN sanctions list was an essential starting point for the unconditional talks that the Afghan High Peace Council has proposed holding with the Taliban.
No mention was made, however, of the Karzai demand that Pakistan release all Afghans being held by Pakistan and particularly those like Ghani Baradar, Mullah Omar’s former deputy who the Afghans believe could facilitate the reconciliation process.
Most Afghan observers are of course aware that Pakistan had arranged for Umer Daudzai, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, to meet Ghani and he had been disappointed to learn in that meeting that Baradar was not interested in being an intermediary for Karzai’s talks with the Afghan Taliban. This, however, should not be sufficient reason for us to renege on an earlier commitment made after the Chatham House meeting to release all the Taliban, including Ghani Baradar.
At the Pakistani prime minister’s request, Karzai extended his stay and the two leaders met in Murree. One can hope that in this meeting the prime minister convinced Karzai that all Pakistanis are sincere in pushing for reconciliation, and that we will therefore release the Taliban in our custody and will inform the Afghans of the time and place so that Afghan officials can meet them.
Second, it is in our interest to have peace and stability in Afghanistan but the Afghan leader must acknowledge that Afghanistan will be the principal beneficiary and Pakistan will expect that, to facilitate further cooperation, negative propaganda against Pakistan will stop. Third, Karzai has said often that Pakistan and Afghanistan are conjoined twins. This must now find reflection in the way we talk to each other and the way we show sensitivity to each other’s concerns.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Political leaders , International media , International issues , International relations , Military-Afghanistan , Peace council-Afghanistan , Al-Qaeda , Taliban , Elections , Mullah Omar , PM Nawaz Sharif , President Karzai , Afghanistan , United States , Pakistan