Talking the Afghan talks

Published March 2, 2016
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

CONFUSION and uncertainty surround the resumption of direct talks between the Kabul government and the insurgents. The warring Afghan sides were supposed to return to the negotiating table next week after a hiatus of more than eight months. But it is still not certain whether the Afghan Taliban are willing to join the intra-Afghan dialogue. The invite has also been extended to other Afghan insurgent groups, widening the size of the table. It is not clear, however, who else would be joining the reconciliation process.

It is apparent that the Taliban are not willing to join the talks without some preconditions. They want some preliminary steps to be taken prior to the talks that include recognition as an Islamic emirate, removal of their officials from the black list, lifting of travel restrictions, release of prisoners and unfreezing of their funds.

It is certainly a tall order for both the Kabul government and the US to accept these without a decrease in insurgent hostilities. What incentives can be offered to the insurgents buoyed by their recent successes in the battlefield to bring them to the table, however, remains the question.

It is apparent that the Taliban are not willing to join the talks without some preconditions being met.

Surely the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) made up of top officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China, have been able to draw up some kind of a road map for peace negotiations. But that does not seem enough to get the process started. There is still a lot of ground to cover before one can expect the warring sides to engage in more serious and substantive negotiations on the future of the strife-torn country

There is deep scepticism in Kabul as well as among the Taliban leadership about the framework of the talks for entirely different reasons. Dr Naeem Wardag, the Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, says that the group is not aware of the QCG’s discussions.

Unlike the previous Murree meeting, where representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were engaged in direct talks in the presence of observers from the US and China, this time the invitation has been extended to various factions of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The fractious group that does not seem to have much influence in Afghanistan anymore has responded positively to the invite. What it brings to the table is another matter.

Initially, the Kabul government had not been very enthusiastic about the QCG, but it reluctantly accepted the forum to facilitate a reconciliation process. Many in the Kabul government wanted the group to be expanded by including some other neighbouring and regional countries. But that would have added to the complexities of the Afghan crisis.

China’s growing involvement in Afghan peace efforts has certainly been a very positive influence. One major contribution of the QCG is that it has helped in the improvement of bilateral relations between Islamabad and Kabul that had nosedived last year after the second round of the Murree talks were cancelled following the news of the death of Mullah Omar. Surely relations between the two countries are critical for the peace initiative to work. Still, there are sources of tension and distrust that continue to cast a long shadow over the process.

One sticking point in the intra-Afghan talks is the insistence of the Taliban to use the banner of ‘Islamic Emirate’ that is unacceptable to the Kabul government. The issue has also led to American officials calling off the Doha talks with the Taliban after a strong protest by the then Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Most observers, however, believe the issue could be sidelined if an agreement is reached on some incentives for the insurgent group. For sure, the Afghan militia has already been legitimised after being invited for talks. There is already a suggestion to declare the militia a “domestic opposition” rather than an insurgent outfit. Such a classification is certainly not acceptable to the Kabul government, at least not for now.

Perhaps, the most serious issue clouding the proposed talks is the escalation in the Taliban offensive and the marked increase in insurgent violence taking a very heavy toll on Afghan security forces and the civilian population. Last year was the bloodiest since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban have also been able to extend their offensive to the northern Afghan provinces where the militia did not have much of a support base in the past. The violence is likely to escalate further.

A major demand of the Kabul government is the cessation of insurgent violence in order to create a favourable environment. That may also bring Pakistan under pressure to act more effectively to stop the Taliban attacks. Islamabad had failed to dissuade the Taliban in the past and it is highly unlikely that it could succeed this time when the militia appears much more powerful.

For sure, Mullah Akhtar Mansour has consolidated his leadership, with most of the dissidents now falling in line and pledging allegiance to the new supreme leader. Yet there is still a strong rebel faction led by Mullah Rasool, The QCG has also invited him to the meeting, adding to the confusion. How wise is the move remains to be seen. Although it is not clear whether the rebel faction would accept the invite, it will certainly add to the confusion.

Even if the Taliban accepted the invitation there is a big question mark on who will represent the group at the meeting. According to some reports, the Kabul government has given a list of the insurgent leaders who it wants to participate in the meeting. Pakistan and Afghanistan have also decided to constitute a bilateral joint working group to work with credible members of the clergy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for their support to the peace and reconciliation process.

As in the Murree talks, Pakistan may do some arm-twisting to force the Taliban to come to negotiating table. It surely can work as most of the Taliban leaders and their families reside in Pakistan. But it cannot guarantee a positive outcome.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2016



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