Press Release – Third working session of the Islamabad Conclave titled, ‘Afghanistan: Road to Durable Peace’

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Press Release
Third working session of the Islamabad Conclave titled, ‘Afghanistan: Road to Durable Peace’
December 9, 2021

The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI)  hosted the third working session of the Islamabad Conclave titled, ‘Afghanistan: Road to Durable Peace.’ The session was moderated by Director CAMEA, Ms. Amina Khan and the keynote speaker at the occasion was Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. Other distinguished speakers included, Ms. Tamanna Salikuddin, Director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Ms. Elizabeth Threlkeld, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, Dr. Sultan Barakat, Founding Director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies and Professor at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Ambassador Jawed Ludin, President Heart of Asia Society.

The working session was moderated by Ms. Amina Khan, Director CAMEA.  While giving her introductory remarks she stated that since the Taliban takeover and subsequent US withdrawal, circumstances in Afghanistan has drastically evolved. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, it was clear that while a takeover by the Taliban was expected, the manner and the speed in which the group did so was certainly not anticipated. Even within the confines of the current interim set up,  the real test for the Taliban has only just begun – which is by no means limited to securing power, but revolves around addressing  questions regarding governance, political freedom, human/women rights,  regional peace and stability and more importantly addressing  issues pertaining to CT assurances will determine their rule.  She went on to say that if the Taliban are not able to consolidate their position,  and ensure some semblance of stability, the fear is not so much of a civil war emanating but rather of transnational terrorist elements taking advantage of the situation – hence it is imperative that the international community remains engaged with the group. She went on to say that with every passing day, Afghanistan is inching closer to a humanitarian crisis with its economy rapidly degenerating. The provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by regional countries is certainly reassuring; however, it is not enough to stabilize the economy let alone sustain the Afghan population. She further said that there is no doubt that a peaceful and prosperous South Asia or in fact the world cannot be attained without sustainable peace in Afghanistan which has time and again been referred to as the Heart of Asia. Therefore, Instead of viewing Afghanistan as a regional issue, it is time to view Afghanistan as a shared and collective responsibility.

Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq, while giving his keynote address was of the view that Afghanistan has undergone tremendous transformation and it is not related to the takeover of August 15th, 2021. This change has materialized in the last twenty years, as  there is a large number of young people who live in Afghanistan. Similarly, ethnicities in Afghanistan are becoming empowered and the dominance of one ethnicity over the other can be seen. He went on to say that since Afghanistan is a multiethnic society, power sharing does not come naturally and inclusivity is also a big issue. While giving a detailed overview of the challenges faced by Afghanistan, Ambassador Sadiq said that the ground reality in the country speaks of a very poor rural population frozen into a different timeframe. He said that Afghanistan was a war economy and 45 percent of the GDP comprised of this and 75 percent of public spending came from foreign funds. While talking about the hurdles regarding economic challenges in Afghanistan, he stated that the sanctions regime is a big hurdle and 10 billion dollars of foreign exchange reserves are frozen and due to which no banking transaction can be made. As a result, humanitarian aid cannot be transferred to Afghanistan, which is a very big dilemma. Due to the banking system in a quandary, cash liquidity is a big problem and there is no economic activity. He further remarked that transit trade has come to a standstill and the economy is on the verge of a collapse. Owing to the situation in Afghanistan and the threat of a civil war or a protracted humanitarian crisis, Pakistan is likely to be affected he said. Ambassador Sadiq also said that international community needs to think about all the challenges.

Speaking on the first subtheme, ‘Challenges to Peace and Stability in Afghanistan’, Ms. Tammana Salikuddin, stated that we may have near term peace and stability in Afghanistan as there is no ongoing war in the country. She went on to say that the challenges are enduring and that the country has entered a new phase and that there is no explicit understanding of the war in Afghanistan in the United States. There is some humility and engagement in the US but there is no willingness to recognize the government in Afghanistan. Recognition, engagement and at least defacto recognition are least required. The Taliban regime remains unacceptable in the US she stated. Talking about the humanitarian crisis, she said that there are growing concerns regarding this and while engagement is limited, people in the US want to help the people of Afghanistan. She further said that Taliban’s inability to govern is also an important factor in the current situation and the Taliban are also shocked at the speed at which they attained power. They do not have the capacity to run the country as much of the human capacity has already left Afghanistan. She went on to say that the experience of twenty years and the current stand on inclusivity is viewed as highly problematic in the US. The challenges of internal divisions within the Taliban as well as the danger of external spoilers like the ISKP remain a big challenge she stated.

Dr. Elizabeth Threlkeld, speaking on the second subtheme, ‘Role of International Community,’ was of the view that on the question of political will, the threat of a worst outcome needs to be considered by the international community. She also talked about the humanitarian crisis and said that if we continue like this then the situation in Afghanistan might spillover to total devastation. Threat of a worse outcome and its implications for international community needs to be addressed more articulately and stabilizing the region without losing leverage on the Taliban is one of the most important concerns of the international as well as the regional players.   Humanitarian aid alone would not solve the crisis in Afghanistan and there’s a possibility of state collapse, terrorism and refugee flow which would be a terrible outcome for the people of the region. She also said that the people who have worked with the previous governments in Afghanistan could help avert the crisis and therefore need to be engaged.  Catastrophe and chaos is impending in Afghanistan and providing economic aid alone will not address the challenge, therefore a workable compromise should be agreed on.

Dr. Sultan Barakat, speaking on the third subtheme, ‘Role of Regional  Players,’ was of the view that after two decades, the large scale of violence that used to exist in the country has come to an end. The world is adopting the policy of wait and see in Afghanistan, but the people of Afghanistan are facing a different situation and the country is at the verge of a humanitarian crisis. He also stated that at this stage world and region should realize that Afghanistan needs attention and waiting for the United States to recognize Afghanistan first will be a big mistake.

He further said that given the geographical nature of the country, and due to being landlocked; there is no way but to have a relationship with the region. He was of the view that there should be a regional approach towards Afghanistan and the region should develop its own agenda to deal with Afghanistan. The region must take lead and initiate negotiations and dialogue to deal with the situation in Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan was best placed to play this role and should be encouraged to do so.  He opined that education and food security are the major concerns which should be addressed immediately and conclusively all regional countries should engage to help the Taliban to move forward he said. He also said that the Taliban had evolved and that it was necessary to engage with them.

Ambassador Jawed Ludin, while speaking on the fourth subtheme, ‘Pak-Afghan Bilateral Relationship,’ was of the view that relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have remained under several challenges during the past two decades. However, at this stage both countries are at the defining moment relations can be reset in light of the new emerging realities. He stated that now the Taliban are a reality in Afghanistan but at this stage, the real victory will be dealing with the looming humanitarian crisis. While talking about an inclusive government, he said that inclusivity is something that does not come naturally and it will be difficult for the Taliban because it is about opening up  a system that is fragile and complex. Another important concern for the Taliban will be to deliver on their commitments and assurances which they have made with international community. If Taliban fail to deliver on their commitments, the country will become a safe haven for terrorist organizations like the ISKP. While talking about Pakistan he said Pakistan has a huge responsibility and can influence the Taliban. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan need to expand their ties, engage in   meaningful diplomatic overtures and address outstanding bilateral irritants in order to restore peace.