With the Afghanistan government in Kabul approaching Islamabad for help in opening “reconciliation” talks with the Taliban, a Pakistani role in shaping the political landscape in Afghanistan is now an uncomfortable likelihood for New Delhi.
Acknowledging Islamabad’s influence with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Islamabad on Monday and asked Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “to facilitate peace talks” between Kabul and the Taliban.
Sharif, who declared that he wants a “peaceful, stable and united” Afghanistan, did not hesitate in accepting this opening.
“I assured President Karzai that Pakistan will continue to extend all possible facilitation to the international community’s efforts for the realisation of this noble goal,” said Sharif, in comments made live on Pakistani television after meeting with Karzai.
In what observers and officials regard as an indication that the two leaders have found common ground, the Afghan president -- who was to return to Kabul on Monday -- has extended his stay in Pakistan in order to continue talks on Tuesday.
New Delhi, which enjoys enormous political leverage with Karzai, had tried to convince the Afghan president not to approach Islamabad as a conduit to the Taliban. But, with the Pakistan-based insurgent group spurning Kabul’s direct overtures, and dismissing Karzai as an American puppet, Pakistan has landed the role of middleman.
Speaking at a closed-door seminar in New Delhi on Friday, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid had repeatedly expressed regret that Kabul was talking to the Taliban. “Certain elements in (the reconciliation) process are not very comforting to us,” said Khurshid
“We are not sanguine about some of the armed groups that Afghanistan is talking to, but that is for Afghanistan to decide.”
It remains unclear who exactly Islamabad would bring to the dialogue table. Kabul has repeatedly asked Pakistan to release all Afghan prisoners from Pakistani jails, especially Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a key deputy of Mullah Omar.
Pakistan arrested and jailed Mullah Baradar in 2010, reportedly after the Taliban leader initiated a direct dialogue track with Kabul.
In June, Pakistan claims it brought more than two dozen Taliban representatives to Qatar, for opening a political office. That initiative quickly collapsed, with Karzai furious that the Taliban had adopted the trappings of a government in exile.
Monday’s Pakistan trip is a climb down for Karzai, who has repeatedly accused Islamabad of blocking the Taliban from talking to the Afghan high peace council, the body set up by Kabul to pursue reconciliation between Afghan factions, especially the Taliban.
Notwithstanding Pakistan’s new role, India’s influence remains strong in Kabul. New Delhi’s clout rests on an ongoing, and widely appreciated, $2-billion aid programme in Afghanistan. New Delhi and Kabul signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011.
On Monday, Defence Minister A K Antony told Parliament that India was engaged in “the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the Afghan national security forces.”
New Delhi intends to keep a sharp watch on Kabul’s talks with the Taliban. Khurshid said, “We will study the solutions that Kabul evolves, and we will be grateful for being informed. But the solution has to be what Kabul wants, what it is comfortable with and which it must find for itself.”
Next year, Afghanistan is scheduled to undergo a dual transition. Karzai, having served two terms as President, must hand over to a successor, for which countrywide elections are due. Also, 80,000 troops of the International Security Assistance Force, which has underpinned security for over a decade, are due to be pulled out. Left in Afghanistan will be is a residual United States presence, which remains to be negotiated between Washington and Kabul.
Image: Afghan President Hamid Karzai shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the prime minister's residence in Islamabad
Photograph: Mian Khursheed/Reuters