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EDITORIAL: Former Afghan warlord and leader of Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar coming to Pakistan as an ambassador of peace, and meeting the top leadership including the foreign minister, president and the prime minister, is just one of the many ironies that typify the Afghan peace process. Indeed for the once “Butcher of Kabul” and US as well as UN designated “global terrorist” to find himself in such a position was about as unthinkable not too long ago as the Trump administration’s sudden decision to dump two decades of State Department and Pentagon policy and talk to the Taliban; without so much as bothering to inform the legitimate government in Kabul. Washington also seemed to realise, after all these years of fighting, that Pakistan was right all along and this long and ugly war would only end after a negotiated settlement with the insurgents. That explains why now all parties, from the fiercest advocates of “fighting the occupiers” like Hekmatyar to the principal enemies of the Taliban like the Afghan government and US forces, are doing what they can to nudge the talks along. Everybody is also finally appreciating the centrality of Pakistan to creating an enabling environment for the dialogue that broke the ice and brought peace within reach, which is why the Americans, Afghans, even the Chinese are coming to Islamabad one after the other to talk about the future of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government is right to point out that the first order of business, now that the talks have got going, should be working together to achieve a ceasefire. Nobody expected the process to get off to a fast start, but escalation in violence just when they are talking about peace tends to sour the atmosphere and slow the whole thing down even more. Only once the fighting stops will they be able to turn their attention to the more complex issues like the structure of the future power-sharing government and the final nature of the constitution. Clearly, it is not enough just to get the ball rolling and in some ways even bigger tests lie ahead. There are bound to be serious disagreements on numerous points considering that the two sides have been bitter enemies for the longest time, which is why both will have to give and take more than a little bit for this exercise to be a success.

The Pakistani government is also very rightly warning any dignitary that is coming here to watch out for “spoilers,” those out to sabotage the peace process for their own strategic and selfish purposes. Chief among them is India, which all stakeholders now seem to understand better than before, since it has got used to using Afghan territory as a launch pad for covert and terrorist operations inside Pakistan. Any country with a credible intelligence service knows well enough by now what New Delhi’s objectives really are in Afghanistan. And since the peace process involves a number of such countries, and they are committed to making these negotiations successful, hopefully they will check its activities before its agencies are able to fund and arm Pakistani militants holed up on the Afghan side of the border any further. There are enough pitfalls to watch out for within the framework of the peace process and nobody needs any more irritants from the outside. Yet for some any advance in peace is a direct threat to their own narrow interests, so the sooner all such evil is nipped in the bud the better.

Pakistan has indeed been a “second home” for Afghans, as Hekmatyar put it during his visit, and now that it has done all it could to help end conflict in their country, it is looking forward to working with Kabul on an honourable return for all the refugees that have lived here for so long. This is the closest Afghanistan has come to peace in a very long time and a number of countries in the region and beyond have had to play important parts. But all this time and energy spent in pursuing peace will be worthwhile only if it is really achieved on the ground. It is now up to the Afghans themselves to make sure that there is something to show for all the blood spilled over the years and that this process is really Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020