ISLAMABAD: Efforts for reviving the reconciliation dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban ran into trouble on Saturday with the main faction of the insurgent group denying it planned to join the process, besides questioning its efficacy.
“We unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorised anyone to participate in this meeting,” said a statement by the Taliban, who officially call themselves ‘Islamic Emirate’ — the moniker they used during the period they ruled Afghanistan.
The statement further reiterated the conditions the group has been stating all along for entering the peace dialogue — exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan, lifting of curbs on Taliban leaders and release of Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails.
Surge in operations by Afghan forces and presence of US troops cited as reasons for the group’s decision
The insurgent group headed by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, which issued the statement, is the dominant militant faction in the Afghan war theatre and is also recognised by the Afghan government as a ‘legitimate interlocutor’. The faction is represented by its Political Office in Doha (Qatar). Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif last month visited Doha for enlisting support of the Qatari leadership for the initiative.
The statement ended hopes of the reconciliation negotiations commencing in the first week of this month — a timeline set by the four countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US — participating in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghan reconciliation.
This is the second time that QCG has missed the deadline. It had initially planned to open the talks in the last week of February.
The reconciliation dialogue with the Taliban has been suspended since July last year when it transpired ahead of the second round of the process being pursued then that the insurgent group’s leader Mullah Omar had been dead for over two years.
The factors cited by the group now for not returning to the negotiation table include intensification of operations by Afghan forces, deployment of US troops to the battlefield and their participation in air strikes and continuing night raids.
“Peace talks will be meaningless in the light of these developments,” the Taliban insist.
Despite the setback, officials engaged in preparations for the meeting that Pakistan is to host say they are still “optimistic” about the process starting very soon.
A top security official saw the statement as a pressure tactic by the Taliban and said that the entire process would not fall apart because of it.
“It is a typical pre-negotiations tactic for setting negotiation agenda. We can only hope that they move away from this stated position,” he stressed.
The QCG had last month adopted a ‘roadmap’, which lays out the various stages and timelines for the process. The official believes the delay would not disturb the roadmap.
“It is important to remember that the roadmap is not an end, only a means. It delineates the process, and there can be adjustments, improvements, retuning as we move ahead,” he said.
The immediate objective before the QCG was to get the process started before the launch of annual spring offensive by the Taliban so that violence could be lowered.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan Hazrat Omer Zakhilwal too is hopeful that the talks would get under way soon. He was quoted by the Voice of America as saying: “There is a lot happening in the background.” He explained that the planned starting date of the first week of March was “indicative” that plans are moving forward.
Pressure on Islamabad
The Taliban’s inflexibility on dialogue can cause problems for Pakistan.
Afghanistan has long been demanding that Pakistan stop providing shelter to the Taliban. But it was the first time that the Pakistan government at the recently concluded round of Strategic Dialogue with the US accepted to not allow the Taliban to use its soil any further.
“Pakistan reaffirmed its commitment to taking action, in line with the country’s National Action Plan, to ensure that the Taliban are unable to operate from Pakistani soil,” the joint statement said.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016