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EDITORIAL: Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan paid a daylong visit to Kabul on November 19, 2020, during which he reiterated Pakistan's desire to see peace return to Afghanistan, ravaged by decades of war and internal strife. The PM underlined the benefits for our tribal areas of a possible downturn in violence in our neighbouring country. Peace, he said, would allow connectivity and enhanced trade, leading to prosperity on both sides of our common border. While the PM offered assurances to the Afghan leadership of Pakistan's readiness to help in reducing the level of violence, it must be noted that despite the US-Taliban agreement in Doha in January 2020, the intra-Afghan dialogue remained stalled since its inception in September 2020 on issues such as the agenda for talks, interpretation of Islam, women's rights and sundry other contentious issues. A ray of hope is engendered by the report that these issues have now been sorted out by both sides and the dialogue will hopefully now take off. However, despite these encouraging developments on the negotiations front, violence has not decreased but rather increased since the US-Taliban Doha agreement in January 2020. Analysts saw this as a Taliban strategy to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table. They also pointed to the encouragement offered to the Taliban by outgoing US President Donald Trump in announcing a further drawdown of US troops from their present strength of 4,500 to 2,500 by January 2021, when Trump is scheduled to step down. Although his successor, Joe Biden, is also in favour of a US withdrawal, he seems more mindful of the criticism of the US establishment that a hasty withdrawal could unleash greater chaos, as happened in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The likelihood therefore of the new Biden administration making haste more slowly in this regard is high.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relationship has hitherto been seen almost exclusively through the prism of conflict. If things can now be turned round towards peace and stability, there is every reason to hope for better relations. While every peace process has its share of spoilers, in this case al Qaeda and Islamic State amongst others, so long as the main protagonists, the Afghan government and the Taliban and their respective backers remain on the path of a negotiated political solution, the hope for drawing a curtain on one of the longest running wars in modern history could become a reality. PM Imran Khan's maiden visit seems to have been marked by cordiality, a sea change from the history of strained relations between the two neighbours. Channels of interaction must be kept open for this happy outcome to be achieved. It is therefore a matter of satisfaction that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has accepted PM Imran Khan's invitation to visit Pakistan in the first quarter of 2021. Pakistan, despite being in economic difficulties itself, has, according to President Arif Alvi, set aside USD one billion to help the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan and the post-peace return of the remaining Afghan refugees on our soil. While these portents seem good, experience shows that the long standing Afghan quagmire often proves the old adage about many a slip between the cup and the lip. Nevertheless, since all stakeholders seem agreed on peace through negotiations as the way forward, all parties must back their verbal commitment with practical efforts to make sure one of the last hurdles, the intra-Afghan talks, produce a settlement acceptable to both sides in the interests of the long suffering Afghan people, the region, and the world.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020