WASHINGTON: Mullah Omar’s death has complicated efforts for reconciliation between Taliban and the Afghan government, a senior US official said on Thursday.
Dan Feldman, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also acknowledged Islamabad’s critical role in this process, saying: “It is clear that there can be no long-term stability in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support.”
Mr Feldman told a gathering of US policy-makers and think-tank experts at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington that Pakistan had taken unprecedented actions this year to facilitate a discussion between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
He noted that Pakistan’s efforts resulted in the Murree meeting on July 7, the first time that senior Taliban representatives “openly and with permission from their leadership” met an official and representative Afghan government delegation.
“Needless to say, the news of Mullah Omar’s death last week has complicated this picture. But I believe it may be an important opportunity,” said the US official.
The second round of Murree talks, scheduled last Friday, had to be postponed after Kabul announced Mullah Omar’s death. The announcement led to a power-struggle within the Taliban movement as two factions fought for the top slot.
But Mr Feldman urged the Taliban to resume the reconciliation talks.
“The Taliban think of themselves as a movement that emerged to end a civil war. Now they have to decide whether to continue to fight, or to finally end the violence that has stunted Afghanistan’s development,” he said.
The Taliban, he said, still had the opportunity to become part of the legitimate political system of a sovereign, united Afghanistan.
In his paper on “successes and challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Mr Feldman noted that the US relationship with Pakistan had moved “from a tumultuous nadir” several years ago to its current “strengthened and stable position, based on a more honest and realistic set of expectations.”
He described the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue as the principal vehicle for this recovery, which allowed both sides to hone in on key areas of strategic alignment to deliver results. These include countering terrorism, addressing nuclear concerns, and promoting stability through economic reforms and trade, energy initiatives, and educational opportunities.
“This evolving dynamic has produced some notable progress, particularly in targeting Al Qaeda leadership and countering the threat posed by IEDs,” he said.
Mr Feldman noted that Pakistan was making a renewed effort to bring greater security throughout the country, as demonstrated by the ambitious undertaking of the North Waziristan operation just a year ago. The operation has been accelerated in the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre last December, he added.
Mr Feldman said that while US assistance had been of great value, there was a potential for an economic relationship between the two countries if Pakistan continued progress on its reform agenda.
The US official described the US-Pakistan ties as a “complex and yet crucial” relationship, which still faced challenges.
But the two allies now discussed those challenges “in a transparent manner befitting real partners”, he added.
“We continue to have concerns about Pakistan’s history of using proxies against perceived foes in the region,” he said.
Mr Feldman noted that while Pakistan had taken concrete actions to more clearly establish the writ of sovereignty, “the military and civilian leadership must make good on their commitments not to differentiate between terrorist groups”.
Just as Pakistan had vigorously pursued the Pakistani Taliban, they must take “equally forceful actions against groups like the Haqqani Network, which pose serious threats to American (and Afghan) lives and resources, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has the potential to destabilise the region,” he said.
Mr Feldman rejected the impression that the US was ambivalent about democracy in Pakistan.
“We realise that the process of strengthening and embedding democratic rule will be gradual – but it is critical to Pakistan’s future, and I know this is also understood by both Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership,” he said.
He noted that while a year ago, the Nawaz Sharif government was beset by protests that fed rumours of a coup, “but today, it appears that civilian and military leadership have come to an important modus vivendi, as preserving the centrality of civilian led, democratic institutions, is critical to Pakistan’s future”.