ISLAMABAD: A deal between the Taliban and the US for American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan has sparked Pakistani concerns over the lingering presence of Daesh in the war-torn country.
The peace pact, signed in the Qatari capital Doha by US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, could pave the way toward a full pullout of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan in 14 months. In return, the Taliban have pledged to renounce violence and sever ties with militant organizations threatening the US and its allies.
However, in an interview on Sunday with Arab News after returning from the deal-signing ceremony, Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: “There are concerns about ISIS (Daesh) and their presence; and everybody recognizes that.
“The Taliban recognize that (the Daesh threat). Iran recognizes that. Afghans recognize that. The US recognizes that, and so does Pakistan. Yes, we have to address this issue. We do not want to see the footprint of ISIS grow in Afghanistan or anywhere,” he added.
The Afghan affiliate of Daesh, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region, first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in 2014, and has since made inroads into other areas, particularly the north.
The US military estimates the group’s strength at 2,000 fighters. But some Afghan officials believe the number could be higher and may be about to get a boost when US forces withdraw from America’s longest-ever war.
After being ousted from power in 2001 in a US-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks on America which were engineered by Taliban-harbored Al-Qaeda forces, Taliban fighters have led a violent insurgency.
The Afghan conflict has been a stalemate for more than 18 years, with Taliban forces controlling or contesting more territory, yet unable to capture and hold major urban centers.
Qureshi warned that the US needed to ensure a planned withdrawal from Afghanistan as neither the country, nor the region, could afford civil war or anarchy created by a “vacuum.”
Referring to the chaos that followed the US and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan decades ago, the minister said: “I hope we have learnt lessons from history … and the international community does not repeat the same mistakes.
“Because if you withdraw without a plan, then obviously, there will be a vacuum. And then, that vacuum will get filled in by all kinds of forces; like we saw after the Soviet (Union) withdrawal, there was a vacuum created, and after that, we saw a period of turmoil, civil war.”
Qureshi added that Islamabad hoped its neighbor and arch-rival India would “desist” from using Afghan soil against Pakistani interests after the Americans left. “What we object to is not India having a bilateral relationship with Afghanistan but India using Afghan soil against Pakistan.”
Pakistan has long accused India of supporting separatists in the resource rich Balochistan province, as well as militants fighting the state from the northwestern tribal areas. Both Pakistani regions share a border with Afghanistan.
Asked if India continued to use Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan, Qureshi added: “Well, we hope that they will desist from doing that.”
India denies any such interference and in turn has accused Pakistan of backing militants fighting Indian security forces in its part of the divided Kashmir region, of helping groups to launch attacks elsewhere in India, and backing the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Qureshi noted that while India had used aid and reconstruction projects as a strategy to cosy up to Afghanistan in recent years, Islamabad did not see a major role for New Delhi in the country after the withdrawal of US troops.
“India is not an immediate neighbor of Afghanistan, nor do they share their language, culture, and religion. So, in my view, their role will remain limited,” he said.
On Pakistan’s role in the signing of the peace deal, the foreign minister pointed out that his country had facilitated the accord by convincing the world that a “political settlement” was the only solution in Afghanistan.
In October 2019, while the Doha talks were off, Washington’s chief negotiator Khalilzad, and the Taliban political delegation, held discussions in Islamabad at a meeting that was not publicly acknowledged.
Listing Pakistan’s contributions to the agreement, Qureshi said: “Convincing the Taliban that there is a huge opportunity that they should seize and come to the negotiating table; convincing them to put together an authoritative delegation so that the Americans can engage with them; convincing the Americans that engaging with Taliban is important.”
The next step in the peace process, the foreign minister said, was holding intra-Afghan talks.
“Obviously, the next logical step is the intra-Afghan dialogue. The mechanism (for talks). What needs to be on the agenda. How to go about it. Everything has to be discussed and sorted out among Afghans themselves. It is up to them what kind of a political roadmap they want for themselves.”
But experts see challenges ahead for US negotiators as they shepherd intra-Afghan talks as well as negotiations between Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban.
Asked about the implications of the US accepting to sign an agreement with the Taliban as the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan and not as a movement, Qureshi said: “The Taliban insisted on that … So, that is the compromise that they (the US) made, catering to their (Taliban) demand, and also being sensitive to the NUG (Afghan National Unity Government) point of view.”
The militant group has so far refused to negotiate with the Afghan government.
On Pakistan’s role in the future of Afghanistan, Qureshi said Islamabad did not want to interfere in the country’s internal affairs but instead wished to focus on improving trade ties.
“Pakistan wants to contribute in their (Afghanistan’s) reconstruction. We feel that there is a huge potential for bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of the war, we could not fully, optimally utilize the opportunities that existed.
“Pakistan feels that through peace in Afghanistan, we can get access into the central Asian republics, and we can develop better regional connectivity, from Pakistan through Afghanistan right up to central Asian republics, and create a situation that everybody benefits from,” he added.