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Afghan perceptionsFrom the Newspaper

By Hasan KhanJanuary 24, 2011 (2 weeks ago)

FORMER Governor Punjab Salman Taseer`s assassination overshadowed the otherwise crucial visit of a delegation of the Afghan High Council for Peace to Islamabad in the first week of January. The meeting was important as evidence of a major change in thinking toward Islamabad by ordinary Afghans and other important actors in the Afghan conflict.

Despite the extraordinary political situation in Pakistan, the delegation led by former Afghan president and leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani, interacted with top government, military, religious and political leaders. The delegation returned home with the impression that if Pakistan`s genuine fears in Afghanistan were addressed, it would be ready to play a peacemaker role and legitimately desired to be part of the Afghan solution.

The Council was constituted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai after getting a mandate from a traditional `Loya Jirga` in September 2010. The Council is tasked to seek peace talks with Taliban militia resisting the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan. Karzai first announced convening the Loya Jirga in his speech after winning elections for a second term in November 2009. The jirga was attended by some 1,600 delegates from across Afghanistan representing different segments of society.

The Council`s visit to Pakistan is evidence of a major change in the thinking of important actors in the Afghan conflict towards Islamabad, particularly its role in negotiating peace with opponents. Irrespective of the clout and influence the Council enjoys in reaching out to Taliban militia and other insurgent groups, for Pakistan the visit heralds a new era in its relationship with Afghanistan and is evidence of an improved image of Pakistan in the eyes of Afghans.

Not too long ago the current regime in Kabul and its international backers were dead set against giving Pakistan any role in the resolution of the Afghan conflict. Instead, Pakistan was considered solely responsible for keeping the Taliban intact by providing it safe havens and training facilities on its borders and sending it to fight against the Afghan army and international forces.

No doubt, it is the tough and long resistance put up by the Taliban against US-led international troops that has played a key role in influencing President Karzai and the US to rethink Pakistan`s role in the peace process. However, the role played by the incumbent Pakistani ambassador, Sadiq Khan, in improving Pakistan`s image among Afghans, particularly non-Pakhtuns, can also not be ignored. Over the years, Khan has done much to reach out to non-Pakhtun Afghans and made extensive visits to northern Afghanistan and inaugurated several Pakistan-funded development projects. All this has demonstrated that Pakistan`s Afghan policy is no longer entirely Pakhtun-specific.

Khan`s visit to Punjsher Valley where he laid floral wreaths on the grave of late Ahmed Shah Massoud, popularly known as the lion of Punjsher, proved very crucial. This apparently small, but highly symbolic, gesture played a major role in softening the Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The participation of Ahmed Wali Massoud, brother of slain leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, in the inaugural ceremony of Pakistan`s embassy building in Kabul on December 5, 2010 dispelled widely held perceptions that non-Pakhtun Afghans are anti-Pakistan.

The visit of the High Council delegation reasserts Afghans` growing trust in Pakistan and signals that besides Karzai and his American backers, Afghans are also now willing to accept Pakistan as a stakeholder in the process of peace and reconciliation with the Taliban. Simultaneously, Pakistan and Afghanistan`s mutual understanding about forming a bilateral mechanism to negotiate with the Taliban also demonstrates willingness on both sides to work jointly. This is by no means a small achievement.

This fresh development has put Pakistan centre stage and provided it an unprecedented opportunity to play a role in helping Afghans end the insurgency. No doubt, Afghans have only one genuine fear: the return of Taliban rule. Pakistan needs to play a sincere role to allay this deep-seated fear of the Afghans who tremble at the idea of a reversal. Playing a sincere role doesn`t entail that Pakistan help the Afghan government defeat or secure the surrender of Taliban militia by force; the Afghans neither desire nor expect such cooperation from Islamabad.

“We don`t want to make the Taliban surrender and kill them. We want an honorable way for the Taliban to return homes and participate in the nation`s rebuilding,” Qazi Amin Waqad, an Afghan jihad veteran and senior member of the delegation said in an interview to a local television channel.

Pakistan needs to help the Afghan leadership find a workable solution based on a win-win formula. As a first step, which would also be important at a symbolic level, Pakistan should convince the Taliban to form a political wing and open a door for peace negotiations. Taliban are still a purely military outfit and do not have a political wing to struggle for the group`s objectives on the negotiation table.

Pakistan`s policy-makers are well aware of the fact the majority of Afghans do not have high expectations the Rabbani-led Peace Council will reach out to the Taliban for reconciliation. However, extending genuine help and cooperation to the Council in its efforts for reconciliations will enhance Pakistan`s image in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, a majority of whom have not yet forgotten the days of being refugees in Pakistan.

The writer is Director News & Current Affairs, Khyber Television.




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