UNITED NATIONS   -    Voicing cautious optimism about peace prospects in Afghanistan, Pakistan has underscored the need for taking the next key step: initiating an “intra-Afghan dialogue” aimed at ending the 18-year-old war in the strife-torn country.

“We urge all sides, including the Taliban, to commit to this,” Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi said in a speech to the UN Security Council, while highlighting Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate Afghan government-Taliban peace negotiations.

Speaking in a debate on the situation in Afghanistan, the Pakistani envoy noted there were reasons for cautious optimism about peace prospects after decades of war, pointing to several rounds of direct talks between the United States and the Taliban.

For almost two decades, she said that Pakistan had argued that there was no military solution to the conflict and that the only path to peace is through dialogue.

“We are, therefore, gratified that this is the path that is now being seriously pursued.”

Apart from Afghanistan, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi said no country other than Pakistan has suffered more from the four decades of war and foreign intervention in Afghanistan.

She told the 15-member Council that Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his very first address to the nation after his election last year,  reaffirmed Pakistan’s support to peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan, and that Islamabad played an “active role” towards that objective.

“My government responded positively to US President Donald Trump’s request to Prime Minister Imran Khan last year for help in the Afghan peace process,” she said.

“We have not only called for a reduction of violence by all sides as well as a ceasefire, but have taken, whatever, steps we could to contribute to that objective”.

In a significant policy pronouncement, Maleeha Lodhi detailed the steps Pakistan had taken to help overcome the impasse in the commencement of peace talks.

Pakistan released Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and extended full support to the United States-Taliban talks, she said.

Pakistan, she said, would continue to play, whatever, role it can to help promote a political settlement that can end the suffering of the Afghan people.

“The path to peace will not be easy. Hurdles remain. Many challenges lie ahead before a comprehensive agreement can be reached and accepted by all the parties,” the Pakistani envoy said.

An intra-Afghan dialogue must be initiated, and she urged all sides to commit to this step, expressing hope that the seventh round of United States-Taliban talks, expected early next month, can kick-start a genuine dialogue.

“This could lead to a potentially decisive phase in the peace effort,” Maleeha Lodhi said. 

As cooperation with Afghanistan is vital for peace in the region, she said that strengthening bilateral relations is a priority and that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will visit Islamabad later this month.

Expanded trade, energy cooperation and transregional economic projects can also greatly enhance regional prosperity, she added.

“Today we look hopefully to a future where the restoration of peace in our neighboring country will lead to the realisation of stability and security that has long eluded our region,” the Pakistani envoy said.

Opening the debate, Tadamichi Yamamoto, who is also the Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that Afghans are focused on the need to reach a negotiated settlement.

While some prominent actors already exchanged views with Taliban representatives in Moscow in May, all such efforts must aim towards one common objective: the start of formal negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, he added.

“The common message to the Taliban is clear: come to the table and negotiate directly with the Afghan Government,” he said.

The Presidential election scheduled for September 28 will be a key moment to reaffirm the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s democratic political structure, the UN envoy said.

There are significant operational and technical challenges to be overcome, he stated.

Furthermore, the first quarter of 2019 saw almost 1,800 civilians killed or injured — fewer than in previous quarters but still far too many — he said, stressing that the targeting of civilians by anti-govt elements is a war crime and must stop in the war.