Abdullah Abdullah: Pakistan on board with Afghan peace efforts

Senior Afghan leader says he received positive response to ongoing negotiations with Taliban insurgents during three-day visit

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (L) speaks with Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah during an event at the Institute of Strategic Studies, in Islamabad on September 29, 2020. The Afghan official overseeing Kabul's efforts to forge a deal with the Taliban arrived on September 28 for a three-day visit to Pakistan, the influential neighbour considered vital to the peace process. / AFP / Aamir QURESHI
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Pakistan has come to realise the need for peace in neighbouring Afghanistan and relations between the uneasy neighbours are warming, according to the senior official overseeing Kabul's negotiation efforts with the Taliban insurgent group.

Abdullah Abdullah said he had received “a positive sense” after three days of meetings in Islamabad, including discussions with the generals believed to set Pakistan's Afghan policy.

The comments from the three-times former presidential hopeful follow years of accusations from Kabul that Pakistan is stoking violence in Afghanistan by giving safe havens and support to the Taliban.

His remarks also chime with recent western diplomatic assessments that Pakistan has used its links with the militants to push them toward negotiations.

Dr Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, spoke as government and Taliban envoys try to break an impasse over setting ground rules for formal negotiations in the Qatari capital Doha, and violence continues to kill or maim scores each week.

In an interview with The National, Dr Abdullah said his discussions with Pakistan's political and military leadership had left him optimistic that the neighbours had turned a corner in their relations.

“Things have evolved in the region, there have been changes in the region, in the geopolitics of the region.

“The leadership here in Pakistan, the whole establishment, are speaking with a much more unified message. The need for peace is perhaps sensed more than any other time today here. This is an opportunity.”

Pakistan supported the Taliban from the movement's birth in the 1990s, in what was seen as part of its wider regional competition with India. Afghan and Nato generals have long accused Islamabad of allowing the Taliban to operate from Pakistani soil and aiding the militants' resurgence after they were ousted in 2001.

Yet the cost to Pakistan of fighting domestic terrorism that spilled over from the Afghan conflict, as well as the prospect of increased peacetime trade with Central Asia has prompted a reassessment in recent years, diplomats believe.

Pakistan has been applauded by Washington and Kabul for its role getting the militants to the negotiation table. Islamabad's help has repeatedly been sought when discussions have stalled.

A Pentagon assessment released in March said Pakistan still “likely views increased Taliban influence in Afghanistan as supporting its overall objectives”.

It “has encouraged the Afghan Taliban to participate in peace talks, but refrained from applying coercive pressure that would seriously threaten its relationship”.

Dr Abdullah said Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's chief of army staff, had personally told him he wanted to secure peace and economic prosperity for the neighbours.

Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister, said he had enjoyed meeting Dr Abdullah and advised Afghanistan not to dwell on the past.

“We had a very interesting conversation, the theme being the past is an invaluable teacher to learn from, but not to live in. We must look forward towards the future. I wish him all the success in his mission,” Mr Khan tweeted.

Talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have become bogged down in setting the ground rules. The Taliban, who are Sunni hardliners, had insisted on strict adherence to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, but government negotiators worry this could be used to discriminate against Shia minorities. The Taliban also refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government as part of a talks framework.

A ceasefire to halt bloodshed is top of the government's agenda, although it is thought the Taliban will be unlikely to give up the military pressure which serves as their biggest bargaining chip.

Dr Abdullah said: “The fact that the suffering of the people continues, that the level of violence is so high, that's not sustainable forever; we need to look at it with urgency.”