In pursuance of the declaration of the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference held in Islamabad on December 9, 2015, deliberations of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) and trilateral talks on the sidelines of the conference that reiterated the continuation of the quest for a lasting peace in Afghanistan, another round of QCG talks was held on Monday, January 11, in Islamabad. The meeting emphasised the need for direct talks between representatives of Afghan government and Taliban groups underscoring the importance of ending the conflict in Afghanistan. The discussions, reportedly focused on undertaking a clear and realistic assessment of the opportunities for peace and reconciliation, anticipated obstacles and measures that could help in creating a conducive atmosphere for peace talks.

It is really hard to take an issue with the aims and objectives outlined in the quadrilateral meeting in regards to bringing peace to Afghanistan. However, with the Taliban now controlling nearly two thirds of Afghanistan and so far no statement coming from them to support Monday’s talks or the desire to return to the negotiation table and differences within the Taliban movement in regards to the holding talks with the Afghan government, it is going to be an excruciating undertaking to re-start the dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It may take a long time to build a congenial ambience for the dialogue. The position taken by Pakistan during the talks that for bringing Taliban to the negotiating table and restarting the process of reconciliation it was imperative to offer some incentives to them, not to impose pre-conditions and avoiding threats of military action, is beyond any reproach which reflects a pragmatic thinking on the whole issue. The drawing of a realistic and flexible road map for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table that broadly defines steps and phases for pursuing the defined objectives is of paramount importance. As the Advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz recommended certain confidence building measures would have to be taken to encourage the Taliban willing to hold talks, to return to the table. The next meeting of the quadrilateral group is likely to be held in Kabul on January 18.

Pakistan rightly believes that the reconciliation in Afghanistan was not possible through military actions and the only way to achieve it was through dialogue, making sure that the process was Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Pakistan, Afghanistan and China as facilitators have very high stakes in peace in Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs a break from the decades old conflict. Pakistan needs peace in Afghanistan to quell terrorism within its boundaries and success of operation Zarb-e-Azb and realizing its objective of regional linkages for shard economic prosperity, while China needs peace in Afghanistan and the region to pursue its strategic and economic goals in the regional and global context and an end to the phenomenon of terrorism which was also a cause of great worry for her. The geo-strategic location of the three countries also dictates the imperative of the three countries to make joint efforts in transforming the region into a hub of peace and economic activity to facilitate the unleashing of the potential that awaits to be harnessed for shared economic prosperity.

The revival of the initiative to re-launch the quest for peace in Afghanistan owes to a great extent to the renewed interaction between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the recent visit of the COAS to Afghanistan and his meeting with Afghan leadership for strengthening security and counter-terrorism cooperation through intelligence sharing and facilitating the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. There are no two opinions about the fact that the ambience of trust and cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan was a vital ingredient for nudging the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan and Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process in Afghanistan has always remained a top priority of the present civilian and military leadership in Pakistan who are very much conscious of the fact that peace in Afghanistan was an indispensable variable in the fight against terrorism, particularly the success of operation Zarb-e-Azb. Peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan cannot be expected to work against its own interests by fomenting acts of terrorism in Afghanistan as often has been alleged by the Afghan leadership. Though the task of re-engaging the Taliban in the process of parleys is difficult due to the conflict within the ranks of the Taliban movement but given the commitment and resolve that Pakistan has shown in addressing this convoluted problem and with unqualified support of the Afghan government and other stake holders forthcoming, the task should not be impossible.

It is hoped that the re-established bonhomie between the two countries would not only help in ending the bitterness of the past but would also pave the way for renewed collective efforts to fight the common challenges. Needless to emphasize that both sides need to work together with sincerity of purpose showing sensitivity to mutual concerns and making a new beginning. An immediate re-evaluation of the current relationship is essential in order to move forward. It must be understood that as the US troops gear up to withdraw, Afghanistan would need Pakistan more than ever. President Ghani is struggling to maintain his unity government intact and the withdrawal of US and NATO troops might precipitate his woes as the Afghan army was still not in a position to maintain security. The battles in Kunduz and Badakhshan and the latest clashes in Helmand, are indeed very dangerous portents, which have exposed the vulnerabilities of the new political dispensation in Afghanistan.

Increased attacks by Taliban on government installations, their offensive to capture Afghan cities as well as the presence of IS in Afghanistan in the shape of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are real threats to the Afghan government. There is a strong likelihood that Afghanistan might drift towards an unending conflict and struggle for ascendency among different power players after the departure of US-NATO troops. To prevent this horrible scenario from re-emerging, Ghani’s government has no alternative but to join hands with Pakistan in forestalling the impending disaster. Similarly Pakistan also is in desperate need of Afghan cooperation in taking the war on terror to its logical conclusion, implementing its economic initiatives including CPEC and achieving its strategic objective in the region.

Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot change the geographical and historical realities. Their destinies are interwoven with each other. The challenges that they are faced with will keep haunting them indefinitely if they do not overcome the mutual distrust and the under currents that are undermining the chances of the two countries to form a common front against terrorism and reconciliation in Afghanistan. It is an inevitable choice. It would surely need neutralising the machinations of the internal and external forces inimical to mutual cooperation.