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EDITORIAL: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had a telephone conversation on January 25, 2021 with his Afghan counterpart Hanif Atmar regarding, among other things, the intra-Afghan dialogue. Media reports hint at this call emanating from concern regarding new US National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan’s talk with Afghan NSA Hamdullah Mohib, in which the former hinted at the review of the deal with the Taliban struck in Doha on February 29, 2020. Shah Mahmood Qureshi reiterated Pakistan’s view that the intra-Afghan dialogue had the potential to bring about a reduction in the increasing violence in Afghanistan and a possible ceasefire. But the intra-Afghan dialogue’s second round since the last three weeks appears to be going nowhere, so much so that not even the agenda for negotiations has been finalised. Afghans generally are reported to be losing hope, with President Ashraf Ghani and officials publicly expressing misgivings. Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar had called for pressurising the Taliban after the conversation between the US and Afghan NSAs. Media reports speculate that the Taliban’s increased attacks and violence are meant to strengthen their hand in negotiations, meaning their accepting a ceasefire seems unlikely as they fear they would lose their battlefield leverage. One fallout of these developments is that the Afghan President’s Office spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi stated that the agreement failed to deliver since the Taliban did not live up to their commitments. Reportedly, 600 freed Taliban prisoners have been rearrested by the Afghan government on the plea that they had returned to the battlefield.

Pakistan’s ‘troika’ of the Prime Minister, COAS and ISI chief also met to review the implications of the announcement of the US review. It goes without saying that Pakistan can ill afford to ignore or annoy the US. Despite managing to soften former US President Donald Trump’s initial hostility to Pakistan for its alleged ‘double dealing’ by facilitating the Doha agreement, a new US administration always engenders speculation about how Pakistan-US relations will now play out. Despite China’s firm support, Pakistan cannot ignore the leverage the US enjoys in terms of being Pakistan’s biggest export market, deciding force in the international finance institutions such as the Bretton Woods twins and the Asian Development Bank, on all of whom Pakistan crucially depends for aid and loans, and last but not least the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sword that dangles over our heads. So while Pakistan must engage intelligently with Washington to help it pull its chestnuts out of the Afghan fire without too much further humiliation, its incomplete implementation of the FATF plan can impact its hopes for the US to pressurise India on its actions in Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The other factor that militates against the Biden administration leaning too heavily on New Delhi in this regard despite Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s greater interest in human rights issues is the abiding hope in Washington to use India against China in the US’ effort to curb Beijing’s growing global influence. Pakistan must root its relations with the US in an intelligent diplomatic balance between Washington and Beijing. Difficult as this sounds in the middle of growing tensions between the US and China (the latest development being warlike moves by both sides in and around Taiwan), it is in our interests to handle both sets of relations with care so Pakistan’s best interests are served without alienating or annoying either Washington or Beijing. A delicate task indeed, in which helping the US withdraw as honourably as possible from Afghanistan while facilitating a negotiated political intra-Afghan settlement could be a trump card, and adhering to the FATF conditions to get off its grey list would lubricate Washington looking at Pakistan with a positive attitude since it would remove any suspicion of supporting terrorist groups against India. These are the current uncertainties, reefs and shoals in our foreign policy that must be carefully calibrated and navigated to ensure the best outcome for Pakistan.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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