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What Next?

by Ejaz Haider
Courtesy PID

Courtesy PID

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. is on life support.

In 1962, Edward Albee wrote his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It has four characters, Martha, George, Nick and Honey, couples in that order. The play opens on a late evening with Martha and George inviting the younger couple Nick and Honey after a university faculty party. As the evening progresses, the younger couple gets sucked into Martha and George’s bitter and frustrated relationship.

The evening begins to proceed not just bilaterally, with Martha and George insulting and tearing each other apart, but turns quadrilateral, sucking the other couple into their ‘fun and games’.

There’s sex and infidelity there or it is threatened. Everything is used as a weapon, to gain power over the other. Even when characters try to become intimate to connect with each other, it is either short-lived or they can’t do it without insulting each other.

On Wednesday, May 18, Pakistan hosted the fifth round of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) in Islamabad. This is how the pro forma press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the meeting:

“The fifth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process was held in Islamabad on 18 May 2016. Foreign Secretary of Pakistan Mr. Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry hosted the meeting. Other delegations were led by Afghan President’s Special Envoy and Ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan Dr. Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, the Special Representative of the United States for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard G. Olson, and China’s Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Ambassador Deng Xijun.

“The QCG reiterated that violence serves no purpose and that peace negotiations remain the only option for a political settlement. In this respect, QCG countries reaffirmed to use their respective leverages and influences.

“The QCG strongly condemned the April 19 terrorist attack in Kabul and underscored that those who perpetrate such acts of terrorism should be ready to face consequences of their actions.”

What the MoFA PR statement doesn’t put out is the fact that an irate Afghanistan, following the deadly attack in Kabul, refused to send a delegation and the meeting had to make do with the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad.

Following the April 19 attack, which left 62 dead and over 300 injured, President Ashraf Ghani rejected the QCG process as well as talks with the Taliban, lashed out at Pakistan and threatened to go to the United Nations Security Council to get a resolution to isolate Pakistan. He also said that there was nothing left to talk about and it was now up to Pakistan to leash the Taliban and take action against them.

The QCG is on life support, if not entirely dead. What next?

Let’s begin with Afghanistan and its ironies.

President Ghani did reach out to Pakistan. He did appreciate Pakistan’s security concerns and he did give Pakistan certain guarantees. His approach was very different from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Pakistan reciprocated. High-level delegations met on both the civilian and military sides. Commitments were made.

But this is precisely where expectations were different and bound to go awry. Notwithstanding his outreach to Pakistan, Ghani was precariously balanced internally. He took a calculated risk with his Pakistan policy, thinking that if Pakistan could get the Taliban to take the foot off the pedal and start talking, that will help him internally. He’d be able to cobble together a viable government, push back his political opposition, especially Karzai and his cohorts, get a respite from violence to build the economy and also extend Kabul’s writ to large ungoverned spaces. That, he calculated, will also give time to the Afghan National Security Forces to get the confidence to start operating more cohesively.

It was a neat calculation in a country where everything is a Daedalian labyrinth. The Taliban put the foot on the gas, the opposition incessantly hit out at Ghani, the government couldn’t really be worked out, the economy continues to teeter, with foreign pledges drying up and indigenous resources nearly non-existent. The ANSF, for the most part, is more chaff than grain, with desertions, ghost soldiers, lack of training and equipment, and plummeting morale.

On top of that, while Kabul insists that there should be no illegal movement across the border, it remains loath to accepting the “Durand Line” as an international border and raises Caine every time Islamabad wants to plug gaps to stop illegal movement. The irredentist mindset which laid claim to Pakistani land right unto cis-Indus territories still lurks beneath the surface.

But the question remains: why couldn’t Pakistan deliver to Ghani?

A surface answer, generally put out by Afghan, Western and Indian analysts, is that Pakistan continues to harbor the Taliban and wants to use them in Afghanistan because of security concerns from India. The problem with this narrative is that Ghani’s outreach took care of this. Another problem is that Pakistan realizes that instability in Afghanistan results in instability in Pakistan. There’s also now the much-larger issue of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which simply can’t reach its potential without stability in Afghanistan.

So, what went wrong?

From conversations with officials involved with the process, it seems that Pakistan went into making commitments without correctly realizing whether it could fully deliver. There was also another discrepancy between Kabul’s and Islamabad’s approaches. While Ghani sought to use his policy to strengthen himself, Pakistan expected matching efforts from Kabul on the ground to control Taliban groups fighting inside that country. Pakistan has been insisting that its ability to convince the Taliban to get to the table needs Afghan capacity to put the heat on the fighting groups.

The Taliban phenomenon, by all indications and reports, is far from linear. The news about the death of Mullah Omar has been an added factor in throwing the entire talks initiative into a tizzy. Mullah Mansour Akhtar, contesting against “Rahbari Shura members like Mulla Mohammad Hasan Rahbari, Mulla Abdul Razzaq, Mulla Mohammad Rasool and Mulla Abdul Qayyum Zakir—and certain other prominent figures such as former deputy foreign minister Mulla Abdul Jalil and military commander Baz Mohammad” had to do much maneuvering to get steady in the saddle. In addition to getting the support from Mullahs Mannan and Yaqoob, Akhtar also had to pull in Sirajuddin Haqqani to that end. Further, Akhtar also had to ratchet up attacks against the Kabul government to establish his credentials as the ultimate leader of the movement.

None of this has redounded to the advantage of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the talks initiative. Kabul wants Pakistan to take military action against Taliban leaders and their families while Pakistan wants Kabul to appreciate that it [Kabul] has to extend its writ within Afghanistan. The Taliban, for their part, know that Kabul can’t win and Pakistan can’t go beyond a certain point in pressuring them. This means more violence before the Taliban decide at some point to get to the table from a position of strength. Whether Ghani can survive until then is moot. He knows this too and hence his anger at Pakistan.

It’s a vortex, for sure. And it needs taking big decisions. If Pakistan and the other three in the QCG can’t get down to that, nothing positive is likely to come out of it. A lot will also depend on the U.S. game plan. Does Washington really want stability; does it want to leave? Can China play a more proactive role? Or is it that, despite good intentions by all the actors, events are overtaking them?

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.

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