Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s four-nation tour has seemingly got off to a good start. For according to local media reports the Foreign Minister has confirmed that the Taliban are now open to negotiating directly with Kabul. This represents an enormous breakthrough and comes hot on the heels of the anticipated drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan by the Trump administration. It now remains to be seen how the Ghani government responds to the group’s pre-condition for talks. These include establishing a caretaker set-up and the immediate release of prominent leaders. But the most contentious issue by far is the Taliban demand to cancel the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). This, of course, was signed by Kabul and Washington and came into effect back in January 2015. It represents the accord that continues to govern the presence of US troops on Afghan soil after the latter concluded combat operations at the end of 2014. Moreover, in its own words, it is not scheduled to expire “until the end of 2024 and beyond”. Though either side can tear up the agreement; conditional upon a two-year notice period. NATO forces are governed by the separate Status of Forces Agreement. It is not hard to understand why the Taliban want to see the BSA scrapped. For not only does it legitimise an ongoing American military presence as part of a bilateral commitment to strengthening state institutions and encouraging regional cooperation; while safeguarding Afghanistan from internal and external threats to its sovereignty. It crucially affords US soldiers immunity from Afghan law; prompting then president Hamid Karzai to refuse signing off on the accord. Thus the idea of doing away with the BSA could well prove a red line for both the Ghani regime and the White House. Not least because of the possible impetus this might give to current moves to haul American troops as well as CIA operatives before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible war crimes. Though the Afghan Parliament did vote to revisit the terms and conditions of the BSA back in September; with some going as far as calling for it to be repealed. The issue of permanent military bases could be another potential sticking point for the US. The BSA caters for the maintenance of existing facilities and the construction of new ones provided both sides agree. During his tenure, Karzai insisted that the US was interested in keeping nine military bases in the country. And while Washington has repeatedly rubbished these claims — the relentless rumours of Chinese ambitions towards this end offer yet another reason why Ghani and Trump will likely stall on the BSA question. This is to say nothing of similar reports of Beijing eyeing Pakistan as a military outpost destination. For both of these eventualities would render an American exit from the Afghan quagmire nigh on impossible. Thus Pakistan must tread very carefully. For it has not gone unnoticed in Washington that the Ghani government does not entirely welcome Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s approach to Afghan peace. Namely, his willingness to hold bilateral talks with the Taliban as well as centre-staging Islamabad in the reconciliation process. Thereby prompting pundits to begin cautioning that the proposed Trump drawdown symbolises not so much the offering of a longed-for carrot to the group but, rather, a warning to Kabul. And it is one that goes something like this: if the latter is not willing to play ball then the US will cut and run and leave the government to battle the Taliban without American assistance. Though such a scenario is what the militants have been hankering after all along. The flip side to this, however, is that analysts predict that venturing down this path is to deliver Afghanistan to this country. That is, a return to the status quo whereby the Taliban are back in power — albeit by way of a power-sharing deal this time — and the new set-up is fully supported by those at the helm over on this side of the Durand Line. All of which means that with such tentative progress comes much hard work. And Pakistan must ensure that it is not scapegoated once more if things go awry. In other words, it is imperative that the ruling PTI does not get carried away with the notion that it alone has succeeded where previous governments failed. For solid pragmatism is what is urgently required. While keeping in mind that none of the actors in the Afghan theatre of war is in possession of any sort of vision extending beyond a negotiated peace; not the Kabul regime, not the Americans and not the Taliban. Thus Prime Minister Imran Khan must ensure that an Afghan-led peace process remains just that. * Published in Daily Times, December 26th 2018.