Given that there is much hanging on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, how seriously should the key stakeholders take recent Taliban pledges to protect the portions running through territory under their control? History is repeating itself. Back in the 1990s, the US was trying to cosy up to Pakistan and the Taliban by supporting American company UNOCAL in its bid to build the TAPI pipeline across Afghanistan. It’s gone bankrupt now and no longer exists. But back then, UNOCAL got the contract to build the pipeline after ousting a Peruvian company. And there, too, the Taliban of course controlled the whole of southern Afghanistan and they said they would guarantee protection. But within a year the Taliban had captured Kabul and committed all these atrocities against women which led to the State Department basically saying they would have nothing to do with them and the whole contract collapsed. ‘The other big tragedy was that there were Taliban who had surrendered to then President Karzai . . . And these elements should have been brought into a political process. But instead they were shipped off to Guantanamo. They were handed over to the Americans by the warlords who were paid handsomely to do so. Thus they lost the chance to make a grand peace, an inclusive peace, and bring everyone in . . . Those who were willing to do so cut a deal with Karzai and fled to Pakistan’ And my lesson here is what it was back then. That is, economic development and contracts do not bring peace. Peace brings peace. And the economics of it follows afterwards. And here, too, we’re doing exactly the same thing. We’re putting the cart before the horse. We’re talking about pipelines and protection when none of this can be guaranteed. And who is going to raise the $8.7 billion [editor’s note: this may eventually rise to $10 billion according to recent Asian Development Bank estimates] to build the pipeline when there is a war going on. So, the first thing is to end the war and make peace by bringing the Afghan factions together — something that Pakistan has utterly failed to do since the 1990s. And, then, after that, the pipeline should be used as a kind of cementing block where both sides will realise that there is a lot to be gained from peace. Is there any truth to claims that the previous attempt to sign off on TAPI, which back then barred India, failed in part because the Taliban wanted the US to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and called on Washington to open up gas for domestic consumption as opposed to the pipeline being an export-only deal? No, I don’t think so. In fact, it was Pakistan that was trying to persuade Turkmenistan not to let this gas project go forward to the Indian border. But when all the economic calculations were made — it turned out that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan were sufficiently large gas consumers make it economically worthwhile. And the only way to make it so was to have India on board to buy this fuel. We seem to have accepted this logic and India is now fully signed up to TAPI. But we’ve found ourselves back to exactly where we were 20 years ago on two or three fronts. The first is, who is going to pay for the pipeline? Back in the 1990s the price-tag was about $4billion; now it’s about $8.7 billion. And, frankly, nobody is going to invest in TAPI until there is peace. So, even though the inauguration took place last month — there was no mention of who is going to foot the bill. Secondly, where exactly is the gas going to come from? Because the Turkmens have been fudging on the issue of gas fields. In essence, they’ve been saying: oh, that gas field is available. And then they go and sell it off to the Chinese. Then they point to another before promptly selling it off to the Russians. And no one is ever sure which gas field has been dedicated to the TAPI pipeline. And you can’t build this project without the investors knowing that there’s a gas field dedicated to them. Thirdly, what about all the potential spoilers of TAPI? Because even if the Taliban are on board there is Al Qaeda; there are Baloch separatists; there are the Pakistani Taliban; and then there there’s ISIS. What is the gameplan for dealing with all these other actors who are not part of any deal? And who can’t be part of any deal because nobody will talk to them. Talking of deals, what is your take on President Ghani’s recent offer of a (largely unconditional) peace package to the Taliban? It’s certainly the most open and comprehensive peace deal that has been offered by any Afghan government over the last 10 years. So, I think Ghani has done a very good job. I mean, he’s willing to open up the Constitution; to do almost everything except address the one demand that the Taliban have had throughout. Namely, the question of the withdrawal of American forces. That is something that Ghani doesn’t concede and something that is obviously very important to the Taliban. And this would be, in my opinion, probably be the first sticking point. And the Taliban, as you know, want to negotiate with the Americans and this is the message they want to get across: we’re not going to talk to Kabul until you first tell us how long you’re staying here for. ‘Who is going to pay for TAPI . . . even at the inauguration there was no mention of who is going to foot the bill. And then where exactly is the gas going to come from? Because the Turkmens have been fudging on the issue of gas fields. In essence, they’ve been saying: oh, that gas field is available. And then they go and sell it off to the Chinese . . . The investors need to know there’s a gas field dedicated to them’ This has been the repeated positon of Daily Times. Meaning that the US needs to get out of Afghanistan as soon as is reasonably possible and also halt the drone programme. Back at the very beginning of the American war effort next door, Colin Powell and Gen Musharraf were talking of including the Taliban ina post-conflict political set-up. Which is where we are today. So, what have the last 17 years been about? Quite frankly, the Americans never accepted a dialogue with the Taliban until 2010, when they met with them in Germany. The period you’re talking about is just after 9/11 and at that time the US committed two monumental mistakes. The first was not to allow Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan, to bring the Taliban on board in terms of the Bonn Agreement in 2001.Washington wouldn’t even allow a nominal Taliban presence. This was a lost opportunity because there could have been a genuine pan-Afghan agreement on the future. And the Taliban had been defeated and were more than willing at that time to come into the picture but they were kicked aside by the Americans. The other big tragedy was that there were Taliban who had surrendered to then President Karzai. When Kandahar fell [in 2001] there were Taliban there and up in the north and in several other places who had actually surrendered. And these elements should have been brought into a political process. But instead they were shipped off to Guantanamo. They were handed over to the Americans by the warlords who were paid handsomely to do so; just as Pakistan was being paid to hand over Al Qaeda and Taliban. Yet instead of realising that now is the chance to make a grand peace, an inclusive peace, and bring everyone in — the Americans threw them all into Guantanamo. So, then the Taliban of course became very reluctant to the idea of surrendering. Those who were willing to do so cut a deal with Karzai. They gave themselves up and then fled to Pakistan and sought sanctuary here. This was the real tragedy of that period. So, this time around, would you say that the US is behind the latest Taliban shuffle? Yes, certainly. It was obviously cleared by the Americans. Trump all along has been in favour of pulling out of Afghanistan. And I think that what his generals and all have told him now is that you can’t pull out without some kind of security guarantee for the Afghan government and that this should take the form of a peace treaty with the Taliban. Trump, of course, is very reluctant because his base will say: we should kill and defeat all Taliban. But the fact is that if he wants to get out of Afghanistan — which I think he does — he’s prepared to go the whole way, including peace talks. And we may see Afghanistan being the only positive bit of foreign policy that Trump does. If you see everywhere else, it’s a disaster; from Syria, Libya, Iraq to Yemen and other places. Meaning that you don’t see this peace package as a failure of Trump Town’s new South Asia vision? ‘I hope that the security establishment realises that this is the last chance . . . the entire world is ganging up on us because the Afghan Taliban and LeT are here. Yet we have the opportunity of supporting an Afghan peace process in which we can play a major role because a lot of the Taliban are here in Pakistan’ No. I mean if it brings about some change in the Taliban attitude, I think it’ll be great. It’ll be an opening. I mean neither Karzai nor Ghani offered anything like this when Obama was around. Even though Obama was the big peace maker. Ghani has offered the Taliban amnesty. And while the US isn’t a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the latter is all set to probe alleged war crimes committed by US forces, the CIA, the Afghan army and, of course, the Taliban. Given that already some 1.7 million Afghans have filed statements that are now before the ICC — what is the potential for this to scupper the peace package? I think we’re very far away from anything like that. There is no question of bringing war crimes against anyone. You can go all the way back to the Soviet invasion that goes back 40 years. So, to open up this Pandora’s Box at this stage would be futile; though frustrating to the victims of atrocities. But for the sake of peace and for the sake of the longevity of the peace process, this is not something that you can do. Continuing with the theme of justice and reconciliation, let’s now turn our attention towards Pakistan. Last year the Senate took up the issue of approaching NATO for compensation for the civilian victims of drones here in this country. Now, the Alliance doesn’t run a programme here but lawmakers point out that it does have a compensation mechanism; while contending that US drones are launched from across the Afghan border in the presence of NATO. What is your take on this? Is this a smart move? Well, US drones were also launched from Pakistan. Musharraf allowed them to use the Jacobabad airbase in Sindh. So, I’m quite sure that the Americans will argue that they had permission from the Pakistani government for the drone programme. And then the matter of compensation raises all sorts of questions, such as: who are the witnesses; who actually suffered; who’s wounded; who’s been killed? And there is no accounting of that. Certainly, Washington didn’t document it. And I doubt if the Pakistanis had that kind of detail. Because so many of these drones, initially at least, were random. And while civilians were killed there is probably very little record of all that. It’s certainly a record that the Americans wouldn’t make public. And you would need that in any kind of compensation deal. Pakistan has said it will fully support the Afghan peace package. Do you think it will honour this commitment? I have no idea but I hope so. I think it’s our last chance to appear as a reasonable neighbour, a good-natured neighbour. Meaning not one is promoting the worst aspects of the Taliban, such as the Haqqani group and others. I hope that the security establishment realises that this is the last chance. On the one hand, you see the entire world community ganging up on Pakistan because of the presence of the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba on Pakistani soil. And on the other, we have the opportunity of supporting an Afghan peace process in which we can play — in which we have to play — a major role because a lot of the Taliban are here in Pakistan. And we should understand that we cannot force other neighbouring countries to give up their national interests for ours. Just as we have to understand that a lot of countries have stakes in Afghanistan, which they’re not going to give up easily. Thus we have to be accommodating and flexible. And this is a major opportunity to do just that. When you say this is the last chance for Pakistan, what do you envisage as being the fallout if Islamabad isn’t sincere about getting behind the Kabul process? Well, there is already much international pressure on Pakistan. We’re already being put on the FATF grey list. There’s a blacklist, too, which is even worse as it involves sanctions. North Korea and Iran are already on it. And if we want to join them we, we can simply not support the Kabul peace process. But then we must keep in mind that the international community is completely united in making sure that Pakistan performs on the anti-terror front. After all, the fact neither the Chinese nor the Saudis voted in our favour at FATF is very telling. And I think it came as a big shock to the military and to everybody else. We have a situation whereby Pakistan must get behind the Taliban peace package. Yet the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is continuing to fund Darul Uloom Haqqania; to the tune of almost Rs600 million since 2016. Imran Khan had also said that he was ready to back Maulana Sami-ul-Haq in last week’s Senate elections. Would you say this is contradictory to supporting Afghan peace? Yes, it is. I don’t think political parties should be involved in funding madrassas, which have traditionally been funded by local communities and by the ulema themselves. For political parties to get into this is to repeat the mistakes that the military intelligence establishment made with the Taliban when it initially allowed them entry. It’s the same mistake it made with Osama Bin Laden back in the 1980s and 1990s. This is not a business that political parties should be involved in. And Imran Khan has had four years in government to bring the 2.5 million madrassa students into the mainstream. Yet what has he done about it? It would have been better to use these funds to overhaul the KP education system. If Pakistan does get behind the peace deal, do you think it will strengthen the military’s hand regarding its militant-mainstreaming project? Well, I hope not. First of all, what needs to happen is that the civilian government has to be strengthened. It needs to play more of a role on the foreign and security policy fronts. Though unfortunately what we have seen is a civilian government that has been totally marginalised — especially over the last year. And until the civilians get in on the act, the Army will continue to go it alone. I mean you’ve got the example of Musharraf who tried to make peace in Kashmir. He didn’t enlist anyone’s help; neither the military nor the civilian leadership. And that venture completely flopped. What is required is national consensus. The public needs to be aware of what is going on. And you can’t do this by running clandestine so-called peace operations. It needs to be a transparent process and this is something that Pakistan has never done before. And if the military does use what’s going on next door to strengthen its hand here — it’ll be a huge mistake. What they really need to do is bring in the civilian leadership as well as civil society. Because what we need is a recalibration of our relationship with all our neighbours; Afghanistan, Iran and India. Pakistan can’t continue on this path of isolation. It’s a suicidal policy that we’re pursuing. All nations need neighbours whom they can trade with and resolve disputes with. They don’t need neighbours to be at war with. And, finally, any last words for advice for Pakistan? I really hope that we see the security establishment change its spots and supports a peace process and does everything possible to persuade the Taliban here in Pakistan to go back and take part in a dialogue with the Kabul government. And not to make excuse after excuse not to do so and allow the war and bloodshed to continue. We need to stop the war. We need a ceasefire. We need the Taliban to agree to it. They won’t get another offer like the one they have just got from Ghani. * The writer is the Deputy Managing Editor, Daily Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @humeiwei Published in Daily Times, March 10th 2018.