The Heart of Asia Conference (HOAC) in Islamabad last week was bookended by two devastating attacks in Kandahar and Kabul. As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was being honoured with a 21-gun salute in Islamabad, the Taliban were in the midst of a 20-hour-long assault on Kandahar airport that killed at least 54. And before the ink dried on the HOAC pledges, the Taliban penetrated the relatively secure diplomatic enclave in Kabul in a brazen attack on the Spanish embassy in which eight people died. The Afghan High Peace Council called it a slap in the face of the peace process. The Taliban is clearly sticking to the fight-talk-fight strategy even in winter. That the Taliban chose a key peace conference to shed blood is the jihadist group’s way of painting the Afghan government as weak and it’s the harbinger of yet another bloody spring and summer.
The HOAC has been underway since 2011, but has not been able to evolve into a tangible mechanism to deliver peace. Ghani’s speech alluded to this shortcoming and called for verifiable mechanisms to counter the jihadist threat. He was careful in choosing his words in Islamabad, but not when giving interviews to the German and French media earlier, when he clearly said, “Pakistan was in a state of undeclared war against Afghanistan” and “a major trust deficit” exists between the two. Whether one conference can bridge that mistrust seems unlikely, Ghani’s optimism notwithstanding.
Afghan officials attribute the HOAC’s “success” to several factors: One, Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif acknowledging Afghanistan’s sovereignty, its central government and constitution; two, the US and China acting as guarantors for the peace negotiations with the “reconcilable” Taliban and opposing the irreconcilable ones; three, the commitment to a high-level meeting in early 2016 to draw a region-wide counter-terrorism and security strategy.
To Afghan officials, the litmus test of Pakistan’s seriousness and sincerity would be whether it’s willing to restrain the Taliban from conducting largescale attacks. Kandahar and Kabul appear to have already betrayed the newfound Afghan trust in the capacity, if not the will, of the Pakistani security establishment. The chief of the Afghan National Security Directorate (NDS), General Rahmatullah Nabil, took to Facebook to post a scathing critique of not just Pakistan but also Ghani, chiding the latter for letting “the 5,000-year-old Afghan history kneel before a 60-year-old Pakistan”. Nabil followed this with a resignation. Needless to say, Ghani accepted it promptly. This led to the media asking if he was fired at Pakistan’s behest. A visibly upset Ghani formally denied the charge but the die has been cast.
The Afghan media then reported Ghani conceded way too much in Islamabad. A leaked report was cited that Pakistan has apparently demanded that Ghani act against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, restrain “anti-Pakistan rhetoric and individuals”, accept the Durand Line as the formal border, limit Indian influence, and deny support to Baloch separatists and Pashtun nationalists. This litany of Pakistani demands means we are back at square one in the bilateral relationship. Islamabad’s demands have put the onus of securing peace wholly on Kabul.
That fits well with the pattern of Pakistan’s peace pledges to Afghanistan, which start before the first snow and melt away with the first thaw, making way for the Taliban’s attacks. Pakistan has never been keen on a political solution. The closest it came to a political partner was the fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. What’s at stake isn’t just military gains but also the future of Ghani’s government. He is bound to face a backlash when Pakistan reneges on its pledges. The opposition is wary of Ghani putting all his eggs in Pakistan’s basket again. His attempt in May to have the NDS surreptitiously sign an MoU with the ISI had backfired badly.
The difference now is that Ghani has almost no political capital to squander. The November protests in Kabul, after the Islamic State’s massacre of Hazaras, showed Ghani is on thin ice. This is not lost on Pakistan and the Pakistan-backed Taliban, who would love to plunge Kabul into political chaos at a time of their choosing. International guarantors can certainly play a major role. But they and the principles of non-interference were hallmarks of the May 1988 Pak-Afghan Geneva Accords. Yet, Afghanistan has been the bleeding heart of Asia since.