Afghan peace obstacles

Published March 7, 2016

The road to a peace settlement in Afghanistan is likely to be a rough one and the Afghan Taliban have provided yet another example of why.

Ostensibly rejecting what were believed to be imminent talks with the Afghan government, the Mansour Akhtar faction of the Taliban have returned to familiar preconditions: withdrawal of all foreign troops; removing Taliban leaders from international blacklists, which impeded travel; and the release of Taliban prisoners.

Also read: Taliban refusal puts talks in jeopardy

The familiarity of those demands suggest that the likelihood of talks has not evaporated, but that the Taliban are trying to win some concessions that would give them a political and military advantage while they pursue their strategy of fighting and talking.

The relatively restrained reaction of the Afghan government appears to indicate that talks will restart soon — President Ashraf Ghani addressed the opening of parliament yesterday and saved his strongest words for elements of the militant Islamic State group in Afghanistan.

Similarly, a video conference between Mr Ghani and President Barack Obama on Friday yielded a White House readout that spoke in positive terms about the reconciliation process.

The US president is unlikely to express support for a process that was on the verge of collapse. What the Taliban demands may do, however, is exacerbate tensions inside the Quadrilateral Coordination Group scheduled to meet in Islamabad soon.

The Afghan government has wanted Pakistan to take stronger action against Pakistan-based Taliban factions that are reluctant to engage in talks.

Pakistan has resisted the Afghan government demands on the sensible grounds that to exclude certain groups from talks at the outset would undermine an eventual, broad-based political settlement.

Yet, Taliban intransigence does present a problem for Pakistan – and the QCG by extension. Having last week acknowledged the presence of Taliban leaders in Pakistan and outlined the leverage that the Pakistani state has over the Taliban, the government and the security establishment will come under pressure in the QCG.

It may come down to the American and Chinese representatives in the QCG to try and keep the situation from spiralling out of control.

Perhaps what will be needed is a bit of calm perspective from Afghan and Pakistani officials, difficult as that may be.

As Mr Ghani has told The Hindu newspaper, “We have no other hope for peace” — a reference to the QCG-guided peace process. Similarly, Pakistan must consider that the cost of not doing its utmost to nudge the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table could result in a regional security meltdown.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2016

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