Afghan Peace Talks Are Not Hopeless

As Afghanistan-Taliban peace talks resume, there is reason for cautious optimism.

After an encouraging first round of meetings that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed as a “breakthrough”, peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban are slated to begin in earnest this week. Pakistan, long suspected of having played a pivotal role in the Taliban’s revival, has given the peace talks their official blessing and reportedly facilitated informal talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban in China and Qatar earlier this year.

All this reinforces a commonly-held opinion in Afghanistan: it is Pakistan that holds the key to peace. Although both Taliban and Pakistani officials deny links, recent revelations by former Pakistani officials confirm the enormous leverage that the Pakistani military establishment has over the Taliban.

Like his predecessor, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani grasps that Afghanistan needs to reach an understanding with Pakistan as part of the peace process. Thus far, he has succeeded where former President Karzai failed in bringing the two countries closer in spite of objections by many in his government, and in getting Pakistan to show a meaningful commitment to supporting peace. But unless he is able to extract a genuine change in Pakistan’s long-term strategic objectives in Afghanistan, the peace talks will likely sputter out without any significant achievements.

Pakistan’s Motives

The most pressing question is whether Pakistan’s facilitation of peace talks is a temporary tactic or a genuine shift in Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan?

For the moment, it is too soon to tell. It is possible that rising pressure against Pakistan from its U.S. patron—coupled with a spate of increasingly brutal terrorist attacks within Pakistan—have raised the costs of supporting the Taliban and shaken confidence within the military that the Taliban and other non-state actors operating on Pakistani soil can be kept under control.

Still, the Taliban retain the ability to carry out brazen attacks in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan and hold more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. Many Afghans, reeling from a rapidly deteriorating security situation and the highest rate of military and civilian casualties since the beginning of the insurgency, are unsurprisingly cynical about Pakistan’s professed support for peace and pessimistic that Pakistan’s recent crackdown on Taliban militants is genuine. The recent Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament—reportedly carried out with ISI support—add to their anxiety about Pakistan’s sincerity.

What Now? How to Advance the Peace Process

Now that the long-stalled peace process is gaining momentum, two things are needed.

First, President Ghani’s critics should provide space for the talks to move forward constructively. It will take time to develop credible processes for peace and for Pakistan’s strategic calculus to shift more in Afghanistan’s favor. Realistically, Pakistan’s hardliners will resist abandoning a proxy as effective as the Taliban on short notice. They will need compelling incentives to shift their Afghan policy entirely and to start seeing the government in Kabul as a long-term partner.

The Afghan government has already made overtures to the Pakistani side with a controversial security cooperation memorandum between the intelligence services of both countries. Despite the uproar among many Afghans, the gesture appears to have sparked positive improvement in security cooperation, including unusually-strong criticism from Islamabad about Taliban operations in Afghanistan.

To encourage Pakistan to change its strategic view of Afghanistan, the Afghan government should also focus on deepening economic ties between the two countries and promoting regional integration. While there is a renewed commitment to doubling bilateral trade from the current $2.5 billion to over $5 billion over the next three years, concrete steps towards enhanced trade and economic integration remain elusive. Bringing regional actors into the discussions—particularly China, which Pakistan relies on for investment—will be critical.

Second, Pakistan must demonstrate its willingness to reciprocate President Ghani’s overtures through concrete actions, not just words. First and foremost, Pakistan will need to counter the widely-held perception in Afghanistan that its policies are duplicitous and that it is supporting some Taliban leaders in peace talks while maintaining active support for other Taliban elements. After years of mounting distrust and frustration, there is no quick solution. Only by using its influence to convince members of the Taliban to engage in a ceasefire with the Afghan government, along with a concerted campaign against Taliban holdouts within its borders, can Pakistan convince a skeptical Afghan population that its intentions are sincere.

A Unique Opportunity