AHEAD of the recently concluded ‘Doha III’ talks on Afghanistan, the United Nations was in a bind.

Bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table was their primary goal, but it would require a deft touch and many balancing acts.

Issues such as human rights, women’s treatment and education, as well as the resurgence of terror groups weighed heavily on the conscience of diplomats participating in these meetings of Special Envoys on Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban had very strict ‘red lines’ on issues they would and wouldn’t like to talk about. The regime in Kabul had already refused to join the ‘Doha II’ round of talks in February this year, and it was considered essential to have Kabul’s emissaries at this round, if they were to make any progress.

Although organisations such as Amnesty International and other groups representing Afghan civil society criticised the decision to ‘sanitise’ the agenda of the talks, background conversations with diplomats and officials who were part of the ‘Doha III’ process revealed that some envoys did try to raise these difficult subjects with Taliban officials.

Insiders say regional players such as China, Russia and Pakistan ‘kept the peace’ by overruling Western envoys who tried to raise ‘red line’ issues

“It was a candid discussion with the Taliban, the first time they have met the international community collectively since the fall of Kabul,” a Doha-based Western diplomat told Dawn.

He claimed that human rights, especially for women and girls, were discussed extensively.

But in some cases, regional players such as China, Russia and even Pakistan had to intervene to keep the talks on track by opposing discussion on issues that were not on the official agenda.

For example, one delegate said that at the concluding session, some Western envoys wanted to bring in agenda items based on the demands of civil society. “Regional countries led by China objected to it. So their plan remained unsuccessful,” he said.

An Afghan delegate shared how Rina Amiri, the US Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights, proposed the formation of a special group on human rights, which was opposed by several envoys, including Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia.

Observers said that the agenda-setting was carried out expediently; topics such as political inclusivity, human rights (including women’s issues), as well as discussions on security and terrorism, could have become highly politicised and polarised the meetings.

Both the UN and Taliban “showed great maturity” in not taking that route, but kept themselves confined to the goal of establishing formal channels of communication through discussions on issues of a humanitarian nature, as well as talking about mitigating climate and natural disaster-related impacts on Afghanistan.

In addition, the international community showed a great deal of flexibility over discussions on issues such as combating drugs, searching for alternative livelihoods, developing the private sector and boosting trade and the economy to contribute to Afghanistan’s development.

The lifting of sanctions on the Afghan Central Bank also came under discussion, according to those privy to the talks.

After the talks, Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid — who led Kabul’s Doha delegation — had seemed quite upbeat, saying that the conference was held in accordance with the conditions set by the Kabul regime.

One of their main conditions — that only they represent Afghanistan and no one else — was also accepted as the UN did not invite any Afghans to the meeting. In fact, a number of special envoys held a special session with several members of Afghan civil society on July 2 to hear their concerns.

Pakistan’s dinner diplomacy

Bilateral meetings, especially those between the Afghan and Pakistani delegations, were held behind closed doors and there was very little officially released about the nature of these confabs.

Although it was a two-point agenda, delegates including Pakistani special envoy Asif Khan Durrani also pointed out other issues of concern, according to people familiar with those discussions.

Safe havens for the proscribed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups also raised and Ambassador Durrani reportedly pressed the Afghan side to take measures against armed organisations.

The so-called Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militant group, which has recently spread its tentacles to countries such as Russia, also came under discussion.

The issue of Afghan refugees, was also raised, with the ambassador reportedly urging sponsor countries, who have pledged to accept Afghan nationals, to expedite their processes and resettle them without further delay.

In view of recent statements emanating from Islamabad and Kabul, the dinner hosted at the residence of the Pakistani ambassador to Qatar was seen as a major breakthrough.

The Taliban delegation, led by Mujahid, attended the dinner, which many saw as a rather unusual gesture.

“The [dinner] invitation to the Taliban delegation reflects a deep desire of Pakistan to develop useful understanding with Afghans for mutual benefit of the two countries,” a Pakistani official said.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2024

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