This Opinion was first published in The National Interest on July 12, 2012
After an eighteen-month free fall, there is tangible improvement in the tumultuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship and an opportunity to leverage these gains for a durable peace in Afghanistan. Backtracking from a messy divorce, both Washington and Islamabad have forsaken their previous approaches of unrelenting maximalism, each making necessary compromises to make the partnership work.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Washington was “sorry” for the accidental killing of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers by the United States last November. For its part, Islamabad backed away from demanding higher payment for the NATO cargo that moves along the lengthy Pakistan supply route into Afghanistan. The route is now back in business, and U.S. and Pakistani diplomats are wasting no time in building on this new opening.
This weekend, Clinton and her Afghan and Pakistani counterparts signed a joint statement affirming support for an Afghan-led, broad-based reconciliation process that includes all insurgent groups. This first regular, ministerial-level trilateral meeting also is important as it supports Pakistan’s ongoing transition toward a civilian-led process for making national-security policy.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar reiterated her government’s call—first made by then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in February—for the Afghan Taliban to join the reconciliation process. Critically, the statement also “reaffirmed the importance of pursuing multiple channels and contacts with the armed opposition”—giving space for Pakistan to take its own initiative in helping produce a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s reopening of the NATO supply route demonstrated—in Clinton’s words—that the country is “a responsible global partner in stabilizing the region.” But legitimate doubts remain given the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the Inter-Services Intelligence’s ties to militants who kill U.S. and Afghan servicemen and threaten civilians in South Asia and elsewhere.
Islamabad must take more definitive measures to prove its commitment to regional peace. Toward this, Islamabad should host—and Washington and Kabul should actively support—a conference in the form of an Afghan peace jirga. The jirga should be held either in the Pakistani capital or Peshawar (the Pashtun border city home to many Afghan refugees) this winter following the end of the current fighting season.
The challenge in Afghanistan is considerable but not insurmountable. Afghanistan needs a comprehensive peace deal, one that integrates all ethnic groups and insurgent factions under a single constitution; provides a pathway to ending civil violence; protects ethnic and religious minorities as well as women; allows for sustainable economic and social development; and secures Afghan sovereignty and neutrality.
To achieve this, Pakistan should host many parties at the winter forum, including the hard-line Haqqani network as well as the more reconcilable Afghan Taliban and Hezb-i Islami groups. The United States and Afghanistan can work to ensure the presence of non-Pashtuns in the National Front and the National Coalition of Afghanistan.
Through this and other forums, Afghans must decide amongst themselves what changes need to be made to the constitution to integrate today’s insurgents. They, particularly the Taliban, must realize that their country will remain one of the world’s poorest should it continue to oppress women and girls, who are half of its population. Pakistan should encourage its mainstream Deobandi clerics, the Sunni sect which the Taliban belong to, to issue public statements endorsing education for girls and calling for the respect of Shia Muslims, who were massacred during Taliban rule.
A long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan is likely to be a deal breaker for the Taliban. To fill the void left by departing Western troops, Washington, Kabul and Islamabad should consider replacing them with peacekeepers, trainers and special forces from non-neighboring Muslim-majority states, such as Qatar, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. Qatar and Turkey are playing enhanced regional roles in an increasingly unstable Arab world. Their ambitions, capabilities and Muslim background make them fit for keeping the peace in Afghanistan.
Finally, while U.S.-Pakistan relations were stalled, talks to normalize India-Pakistan relations resumed and matured to the ministerial level. India’s prime minister might visit Pakistan this fall. Washington, which has successfully encouraged Islamabad to liberalize economic ties with India and allow Afghan-Indian trade over its border, should delicately nudge New Delhi to make concessions with Islamabad over the disputed Sir Creek waterway and Siachen Glacier, creating momentum for a final settlement on Kashmir.
An Afghanistan without America need not be the cause of regional instability. Indeed, with Pakistan’s support, it can be the catalyst for a peace dividend that makes the region’s militants relics of the past.