As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches near, there is a renewed desire within America to engage Taliban in talks. With the Qatar initiative gone in the cold storage for US reluctance to release Taliban leaders from Guantanamo bay, new vistas have been opened elsewhere around the globe. The latest has been the French initiative where various Afghan stakeholders were invited to Paris on 21-23 December to discuss the Afghan imbroglio. A Paris based Foundation ‘Pour la Recherche Strategique’ also arranged two conferences with other Afghan parties during the occasion. The conference was fruitful in many ways. Whereas it afforded an opportunity to the Afghan government officials and Taliban to talk to each other directly, it also served as a platform for the Taliban to renew their demands for the foreign forces to quit Afghanistan.

Earlier there was also a flurry of Afghan officials’ visits to Pakistan. The first was that of ‘Afghan Peace Council’. The council interacted with Pakistani officials seeking help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Kabul regime. The council also handed over a roadmap for the integrating the Taliban into Afghan national polity by the time foreign forces quit Afghanistan. As a goodwill gesture, the government of Pakistan released a few of the detained Taliban leaders, including Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, the justice minister during the Taliban regime. Another important initiative that the two sides agreed to was about using Ulema to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process. An ulema conference could either be held in Saudi Arabia or any other Islamic country. It would be mandated with deliberations on the issue of rising militancy and suicide attacks in the name of religion in the Islamic world.

The roadmap of integrating the Taliban with the Afghan polity was also discussed between President Zardari and President Karzai in Turkey recently. The roadmap outlines four milestones. The first focuses on taking Islamabad on board for furthering the peace process, second milestone calls for initiating moves for direct interaction with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia in the first half of the year 2013; the third speaks of ceasefire and transforming the Taliban into political parties to enable them participate in 2014 elections. The fourth one seeks securing a peaceful end to the conflict by the first half of 2014.

Whatever Afghan stability dynamics may shape into as 2014 approaches, one thing is certain that Pakistan’s centrality to Afghanistan’s stability cannot be ignored. Pakistan has always said that any peace process in Afghanistan must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. By saying so, it has made it clear that it will not support any other process and any country that overlooks this vital factor of peace and stability in the country will not bear fruit. Chief of the Army Staff General Kayani, while addressing a gathering at Brussels earlier this month, also made it abundantly clear that it would only accept Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process.

Pakistan has a critical role to play in bringing peace to Afghanistan not only to ensure security for itself, but also the region and beyond. Frequent interaction between Pakistani and Afghan officials have gone to reduce the trust deficit between the two. ‘Strategic Agreement’ between the two countries has now become a distinct possibility. The recent meeting between the Presidents of the two countries in Turkey has also gone to remove trust deficit to some extent despite Karzai’s apprehensions of Pakistani hand in terrorist attack on his security chief not too long ago. As the Afghan Peace Council’s roadmap envisages, all the parties will be working together to get some ceasefire agreement by the end of 2013 or early 2014 before the foreign forces have Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the renewed effort of Afghan reconciliation efforts has given hopes that 2014 may be the year when Taliban would form permanent part of the Afghan political mainstream and relative peace is established. The Afghan war has taken its toll on all the participants. They are all tired. Some Taliban leaders have accepted the fact that they cannot continue to fight and taking the negotiation course is the best remedy to save Afghanistan from further destruction.

Pakistan is interested in seeing an end to war in Afghanistan and have some kind of say in any future Kabul setup. This will be in line with its desire that the government that comes into power in Afghanistan  does not support India in its anti-Pakistan activities on its soil. This wish may not hold true for long keeping the history of Indo-Afghan relationship. For all of its sacrifices in the war on terror and international recognition that peace in Afghanistan would be a distant possibility if Pakistan is not made part of the process. Pakistan, as such, has to tread the path with utmost clarity and commitment to deliver on the peace process, otherwise, there is all the likelihood that Afghanistan may slip back into a civil war, a chilling scenario that nobody wants to witness.

The writer is a freelance columnist.