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Reconciliation efforts

June 26, 2013

MY article on Afghanistan last week, written two days before it was published, was essentially an analysis of publicly available information on prospects for the commencement of the Afghan reconciliation process.

The developments on the two days that elapsed between the writing of the article and its publication made it anticlimactic rather than prophetic. One can only hope that the same fate does not await this article, which will seek to advise on what we and other parties should do to prevent the demise of the resurrected process.

The Karzai reaction to the Taliban terming their office in Doha as the office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and flying the flag of the Islamic Emirate was to be expected. It was, in fairness to Karzai, a direct contradiction of the assurances he had sought and obtained at least in part that the office in Doha would be an office only for negotiations with Kabul and prohibited from being used for any other purpose.

Allegations that the Americans were involved in allowing the Taliban to use these symbols are open to question. The US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said in Kabul on June 24 after his “positive and upbeat” meeting with President Karzai, that the Taliban actions were “incompatible with what had been understood to be the arrangement”. Secretary Kerry addressing the same subject while in New Delhi said that “We are working very closely with President Karzai, as is entirely appropriate and really required, because we’re talking about Afghanistan, and he is the president of Afghanistan. So this is an Afghan-led process, and it is an Afghan-led process that will only negotiate under certain conditions”.

In other words the Americans are at least publicly committed to letting Karzai take the lead in determining the conditions for the negotiations.

This does not mean, however, that the Americans have given up on the fact that there do have to be separate negotiations between the Taliban and the Americans to negotiate the release of the one American prisoner the Taliban are holding in exchange for the five Taliban in Guantanamo that the Taliban want released.

This is the necessary first step for confidence-building and getting the Afghan Taliban to renounce clearly their connections with international militant organisations specifically Al Qaeda. This alone would give real meaning to the pledge made in their statement that “The Islamic Emirate never wants to pose harms to other countries from its soil, nor will it allow anyone to cause a threat to the security of countries from the soil of Afghanistan”.

It appears that after James Dobbin’s visit to Kabul, Karzai will be ready to commence negotiations in Doha. Whether he has agreed that meetings between the Taliban and the Karzai nominated High Peace Council should be preceded by the US-Taliban talks is not clear but it would be the logical thing for Karzai to do since he, along with the Taliban, has long pleaded for the release of the Taliban currently held in Guantanamo. This he knows cannot come without US-Taliban negotiations.

Some rather disturbing articles clearly based on official briefings have appeared in our press suggesting that for reconciliation to proceed Karzai would have to be dispensed with. Pakistan, such articles maintain, sees Karzai as the impediment to reconciliation and that Islamabad would not want the Afghan president to refuse to avail of a golden opportunity to establish broad-based peace. Such statements, if they are not the figment of a writer’s imagination, are a clear denial of the reality on the ground.

Karzai for all his erratic ways and his anti-Pakistan and anti-American diatribes is the legitimate president and will remain so until the April 2014 elections. Absent a coup, which would create another crisis in Afghanistan, there is no way that anyone other than his representatives can hold negotiations with the Taliban.

Pakistan and all other well-wishers of Afghanistan should focus on ensuring the High Peace Council nominees talk to the Taliban on the basis of a brief accepted not just by Karzai but also by the “loyal opposition”. In other words, before negotiations Salahuddin Rabbani as the head of the High Peace Council must live up to the commitment he made on June 5 to build a consensus by talking to the political parties, civil society etc.

For its part, Pakistan should eschew such provocative and unwise briefings and maintain the position taken by our Foreign Office, which is that Pakistan recognises the Karzai administration as the legitimate government of Afghanistan but also believes that a successful reconciliation process requires an all-inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue.

Immediately after the Chequers summit Pakistan had publicly stated that it intended releasing all the Afghan Taliban presently in its custody and would do so after informing the Afghans. Karzai’s creation of a border dispute and accusations against Pakistan brought that to a halt. Now we should live up to that commitment.

It is now not enough to say, as is apparently being said, that Ghani Baradar is advancing reconciliation while being in Pakistan’s custody. Baradar may well decide that he does not want to talk to Karzai’s representatives but he should do so as a free man.

We must continue to maintain contact with the “loyal opposition” and persuade them to prepare alongside Karzai a sensible mandate for the High Peace Council, in which they are well represented, to use as the brief for negotiations with the Taliban. It would perhaps be useful if they also discussed and agreed upon the road map that Rabbani had reportedly presented to Pakistan in November last year.

The situation is critical not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. Foreign tourists have been killed at the foot of the Nanga Parbat. An attack on the presidential palace in Kabul has been thwarted but the Taliban did manage to get within shooting range. To suggest that these are unrelated is naive. Reconciliation is needed to help bring such things under control not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.