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Muscat moot breaks the ice on stalled Afghan talks

Updated October 17, 2017

ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON: Representatives of Pakistan, Afgha­n­istan, China and the US gathered in Muscat on Monday to rejuvenate the stalled Quadril­ateral Coordi­nation Group (QCG) working to restore peace in Afghanistan.

However, sources said that the summit was a “symbolic gathering” that was meant to set the ball rolling for the four-state forum that has been inactive for over a year now.

No official statement was issued after the meeting, the sixth such session of the QCG process, which was stalled after Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike in May last year.

Examine: The problems with our Afghanistan policy

Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, US Assistant Seceratry of State Alice Wells and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai led their respective delegations.

Although bringing the Afghan government and insurgents to the negotiating table was one of the main objectives of the QCG, the Taliban had already indicated that they would not participate in the Muscat meeting.

In a statement, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said that the quadrilateral meeting would improve Kabul and Islamabad’s relationship.

“Afghanistan-Pakistan relations will be discussed at the meeting and the results will be released,” Tolo News quoted him as saying.

US engagement seen as tacit endorsement of Islamabad’s plans to find political solution to Afghan quagmire

The outlet also quoted a spokesperson for the Afghan foreign ministry as saying that Kabul expected “that specific goals should be set for the fulfillment of the promises made in the past meetings and also for the peace roadmap”.

The resumption of four-way talks also underlines the US interest in reviving the stalled mechanism for engaging the Taliban, according to diplomatic observers in Washington.

But they are quick to point out that the Taliban’s absence reduces the already slim chances of any breakthrough.

Senior South Asian diplomats, however, insist that the talks do indicate a “softening” in the Trump administration’s attitude towards Pakistan, which President Donald Trump accused of harbouring dangerous terrorists in his Aug 21speech.

The new South Asia policy that he announced also downplayed the importance of immediate talks with Taliban, insisting instead on weakening the militants in the battlefield before resuming talks with them.

“By agreeing to participate in a process that aims to resume talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration is also showing that it’s not entirely focused on the military option,” a diplomat told Dawn.

“We were encouraged, just this week, with General Bajwa’s visit to Afghanistan… he had very good meetings with Afghan leadership. Our leadership was engaged in those meetings as well,” Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford told the US Congress recently.

The change in President’s Trump’s tone came a day after Pakistani security forces rescued a Canadian-American family from the clutches of their terrorist captors.

After the rescue operation, the US president said that in the past, he had openly criticised Pakistan for taking “tremendous advantage of our country for many years, but we’re starting to have a real relationship with Pakistan, and they’re starting to respect us as a nation again”.

Apparently, it was to encourage this change that the Trump administration decided to back Pakistan’s efforts to revive the four-nation talks.

In Washington, the talks are being viewed as significant not because they could lead to an immediate truce with the Taliban, but rather because they provide an opportunity to Islamabad and Washington to iron out their differences over a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2017