Anadi Naik

The Nawaz Sharif Government of Pakistan released last week some of the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan from its custody. Some of these men are known to be eager for a settlement with the present government of their country. Both the Obama administration and the administration of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, want the Taliban members to become a part of the political process and contest in elections. In Islamabad, such thinking for some time has been running counter to Pakistan’s own thinking. Those who attack foreign embassies, workers engaged in development projects, policemen, schools, offices and girls in schools inside Afghanistan find refuge next door in Pakistan. As if Pakistan wants trouble to continue next door.

Last month Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Islamabad to request the release of Taliban leaders imprisoned in Pakistan. Over several days of stay, he talked to Prime Minister Sharif and others. Mr. Karzai returned empty handed. But Pakistani leaders assured him of continuous support for Afghanistan in its march toward progress and prosperity. Several weeks later, now came the release of some of the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan. All of them are not in favor of a negotiated settlement as Mr. Karzai would like. Therefore, upon release a handful of them rejoining their old buddies and fighting the Afghan Government remains a possibility. Both the Karzai Government and the Taliban are trying to talk to each other in Doha, Qatar. There are many small and big sticky issues between them. But the desire to settle through negotiation rather than blowing each other up on a battlefield is a welcome development. For an entire generation the people of Afghanistan have endured war and destruction. The desire for peace at all levels seems to be genuine. Yet, the way to achieve such a goal seems to be quite distant and full of booby traps, literally.

Now, almost at the end of his final term, President Karzai has every reason to be worried about his legacy. Come 2014 American soldiers will leave his country. Afghanistan will have a new President. Should there be no clear understanding between the Taliban and the government, Afghanistan will remain mired in an endless war. Mr. Karzai wants to see a clear path toward peace and prosperity for his people. He wants to be remembered as the man who created a modern Afghanistan. However, that is precisely what some of the Taliban members do not want to see. Many in Pakistan also echo their sentiment.

So far, the thinking in Pakistan, dominated by the brass, has been that India is trying to create problems for Pakistan and that should Afghanistan cozy up to India it will be disastrous for the country. Therefore, both India and Afghanistan should remain under attack. The Pakistani Taliban will attack India whereas the Afghan Taliban will attack Afghanistan. In the past both groups remained an asset of Pakistan. However, the equation did not always work as planned. The air attacks by the United States, the death of Benazir Bhutto, the lack of American trust in Pakistan and the eventual democratization of the Pakistan Government played significant roles. Now the Sharif Government seems to see things differently. The Taliban has become a liability. Trade and commerce with India have become beneficial. Pakistan, a broke and broken country, cannot maintain a warlike mind set forever. Economic development must take precedence over “We must take back Kashmir.” Throughout its existence, Pakistan seems to have survived on the American largesse. Now that the war in Afghanistan is ending and the Americans are no longer trusting Pakistan, the country and its leaders cannot count on American generosity forever. Something has to change. Any attack from India, it feels, is unlikely.

The best thing for Pakistan is that its military has willingly accepted the superiority of the elected civilian leaders. Civilian leaders calculate the cost of war from a very different angle for which public opinion and economic loss play a vital role. Like any other people in a democratic world the Pakistanis do not want a war. And the Sharif Government’s action reflects that.

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