ISLAMABAD, June 19: The biggest breakthrough in moves for reconciliation in Afghanistan in the shape of opening of a Taliban office in Doha and agreement between the insurgent group and the US on formal talks happened because of help from Pakistan which had long been looked upon sceptically for its role in the war-torn country.
The Foreign Office was first to claim credit for the development, but shortly afterwards the US too acknowledged Pakistan’s contribution.
“Pakistan has played a constructive and positive role in helping accomplish this important milestone in support of a peace process for Afghanistan,” FO spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry said in a reaction to the setting up of Taliban office in Doha.
No-one would actually say how it all happened, but the broader line from Western diplomats based in Islamabad was that Pakistan had encouraged the insurgent group to engage in dialogue.
“The way Taliban responded … message must have been communicated by Pakistani establishment on getting involved in the process,” a senior Western diplomat said at a background briefing on Wednesday.
He expressed the hope that the “Pakistani establishment” would keep passing messages of desirability of the process and explaining the US position to insurgents’ leadership.
Nevertheless, there is recognition that it is a major step forward. “It has been difficult to get to this point,” the diplomat noted.
Getting the long talked about Taliban’s Doha office become functional, Pakistan security officials say, has been a protracted exercise in which Pakistan extensively engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations for months with various stakeholders – the US, Taliban, Haqqani network and the Afghan government.
The timeline of events leading to the developments is not clear, but the first big step by Islamabad was hosting the Afghan High Peace Council in November last year and releasing 26 Taliban fighters detained in Pakistani jails. The release of Taliban detainees in two batches created goodwill between Islamabad and Kabul, but shortly afterwards the Afghan government felt losing control over the process and sought greater say over the choice of Taliban to be freed in future. Pakistan agreed to the new mechanism at the Chequers Summit in February, but no further releases could take place due to border tensions that revived acrimony between the two countries.
Pakistan, moreover, facilitated the travel of Taliban representatives to Doha. Many of them reportedly travelled to Qatar on Pakistani documents.
Pakistan also used its involvement in various international processes on Afghanistan to lobby for talks with the insurgents.
A Pakistani diplomat hoped that other groups, more specifically the erstwhile Northern Alliance, would soon join the negotiations with Taliban.
“Groundwork in this regard is almost complete,” a Pakistani security official claimed.
Supporting an “intra-Afghan dialogue” has been Pakistan’s longstanding position on the reconciliation process.
SCEPTICISM: Notwithstanding the immense excitement about the progress, both Pakistani officials and Western diplomats are cautious about its prospects.
“It is just the start of the process,” a Pakistani official commented.
The Western diplomat, in his background briefing, said he was “broadly optimistic”, but not certain about its future. “These contacts may eventually lead to real negotiations,” he hoped.
Failure of some of the previous efforts for dialogue is one of the major causes of scepticism.
Only last year, Taliban and the US appeared close to a prisoners swap deal, but the talks collapsed. Taliban had in March last year suspended the talks, saying the US was “shaky, erratic and vague”. The US had on the other hand blamed rifts within Taliban ranks for the stalemate.
There is, however, a consensus in Islamabad and Western capitals that the biggest threat to the process was from the Karzai government itself.
President Hamid Karzai, who is feeling insecure because of the renewed contacts with Taliban, first lashed out at the Pakistan Army and ISI in a TV interview for treating Afghanistan as a client state and later suspended talks with the US over a security pact, accusing Washington of giving mixed signals on talks with the insurgents.
The Western diplomat said the Taliban appeared to be interested in talking, but not necessarily in peace. “They want to see what they can get out of negotiations, but are not confident about their prospects,” he said while sharing his assessment based on some contacts made by officials from his country with Taliban in Doha in the lead-up to the opening of the office.
The Taliban might not be defeatable, but they knew that they weren’t in a winnable position either, the diplomat said.