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Will Pakistan continue to play a constructive role in Afghan peace process?

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in late February that sets a timetable for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The negotiations leading up to the deal were long and fraught, and they almost fell apart last September, after President Donald Trump suspended talks and canceled a planned summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David.

But as difficult as the talks were, they pale in comparison to what lies ahead: launching, sustaining and successfully concluding a formal intra-Afghan peace process between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, as well as other Afghan political leaders.

Questions abound about the intra-Afghan dialogue: Will a divided and feuding Afghan political class be able to effectively represent the state? And will the Taliban agree to negotiate a power-sharing deal within a political system that it has long rejected and vowed to overthrow by force?

Another crucial question relates to Afghanistan’s neighbor and rival, Pakistan: What role will it play in intra-Afghan talks after having helped facilitate dialogue between Washington and the Taliban?

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The answer could prove crucial to the future of the peace process. Pakistan has provided sanctuary to the Taliban’s leadership for years, allowing it to sustain its insurgency, and Pakistan’s government enjoys a close relationship with the insurgents. But Islamabad also leveraged those ties to help launch the US-Taliban talks that brought Afghanistan to the cusp of launching its own peace process.

Islamabad’s main achievement in the talks until now was getting the Taliban, including some of its senior figures, to the negotiating table. As part of that effort, the Pakistani government in 2018 released Mullah Baradar, a founding Taliban leader who had been imprisoned in Karachi for more than a decade, so that he could serve as a lead negotiator. Pakistan’s facilitation efforts led to major improvements in US-Pakistan relations, earning Prime Minister Imran Khan an invitation to the White House last year.

The now-finalized US-Taliban deal has generated a sense of triumphalism among many Pakistanis. These observers assert that Islamabad’s longstanding calls for negotiations with the Taliban have finally been vindicated. Some also argue that Pakistan’s close ties to the Taliban, which strained the country’s relations with Kabul and Washington for many of the war years, gave it the leverage to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, setting in motion the negotiations that resulted in the new deal.

This view, however, conveniently ignores the fact that Pakistani safe havens are a main reason why Afghan and US forces have struggled to weaken the insurgents on the battlefield. Studies show that in the post-World War II era, most of the insurgent groups that enjoyed cross-border sanctuaries were not defeated.

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Pakistan’s assistance during the US-Taliban talks also shouldn’t be overstated. The Taliban had long expressed a desire to negotiate a troop withdrawal deal with Washington, and the Trump administration was willing to give the Taliban what it wanted: bilateral negotiations with no involvement from Kabul, and with no insistence on a cease-fire. Instead, during the final phase of talks, US negotiators settled for the more modest formulation of a “reduction in violence.” While Pakistan’s facilitation was undoubtedly important, in a sense it amounted to pushing on a half-open door.

With the peace process now pivoting from the US-Taliban talks to the broader intra-Afghan dialogue, Pakistan’s future role is less clear. Washington will want Islamabad to use its influence with the Taliban to push the insurgents on key demands particularly pressing the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire early on in the intra-Afghan dialogue, and to remain committed to what promises to be a long, hard slog of negotiations.

But while Pakistan will likely stay involved in those talks, it will be limited by its strained relations with Kabul. Afghan government officials and political elites deeply distrust Pakistan. They resent their neighbor for sheltering the Taliban’s leadership and have long accused Islamabad of helping foment the insurgency and backing deadly attacks on Afghan and US forces.

Accordingly, Islamabad’s involvement in an intra-Afghan dialogue even if indirect risks undermining the peace process if Afghanistan-Pakistan tensions remain high. Washington is aware of this danger, and therefore it is likely to encourage Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase their direct engagement in order to defuse tensions. To some extent, this has already happened. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Kabul in both 2017 and 2018, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani went to Islamabad last year, his third visit to Pakistan since taking office in 2014.

Pakistan may also be hampered by limits on its leverage over the Taliban. In recent years, some Taliban messaging including from now-declassified interviews of Taliban detainees conducted by NATO forces and from material on the Taliban’s website has telegraphed frustration with Islamabad and some of its policies toward the group. This suggests Pakistan may not always have the Taliban’s ear during the peace process, especially when making ambitious asks like a cease-fire.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Pakistan, which stands to benefit no matter how the intra-Afghan peace process plays out. If the talks go well and result in a post-war power-sharing deal that involves Pakistan’s Taliban allies, Islamabad will wind up with a friendly government in Kabul.

Alternately, if the peace process falls apart or never gets off the ground, Pakistan would arguably be one of the only regional actors to derive strategic benefits. To be sure, the spillover effects of spiraling instability and conflict in Afghanistan more cross-border terror, increasing refugee flows, an intensifying drug trade would cause trouble for Pakistan. But a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan would strengthen the Taliban and limit the ability of India, Pakistan’s archrival and a close partner of Kabul, to operate in Afghanistan. These are favorable outcomes for Pakistan’s regional interests.

In effect, peace or no peace, Pakistan is positioned to successfully advance its interests in Afghanistan. That’s an unsettling reality for Kabul and New Delhi, both of which have long viewed Islamabad more as a threat than a force for peace.