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All in the timing

January 14, 2013

RECENT months have seen a fresh momentum around efforts to get a political reconciliation process in Afghanistan going.

Since the Afghan Taliban pulled out of the US-led Qatar talks in March 2012, there had been little progress on this front. In recent months, however, we have heard that the US-Pakistan “contact” group on ensuring safe passage for amenable Taliban is moving forward, there is more chatter about the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan core group, and last month a US newspaper leaked the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015”, allegedly a plan that seeks to fast-track reconciliation and gives Pakistan a central role in facilitating talks with the Taliban. We have also seen the UN relax restrictions for travel on blacklisted Taliban and Pakistan has released 18 mid-level Taliban leaders within a month’s time.

The tone of the statements coming out of Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul has also been uncharacteristically conciliatory as far as their respective actions on reconciliation are concerned. All sides seem to be suggesting that they are pleased with recent developments and the US seems more comfortable with Afghanistan and Pakistan leading the process than it has been in the past. Officials in Kabul, while continuing to point at Pakistan as a problem, seem reluctant to criticise Islamabad on the peace process any longer.

Not much has been made of these developments in the public domain — perhaps because very many initiatives have been floated and have come to zilch in the past; or because many have simply given up hope and do not see much point in raising expectations.

Of course, there is no guarantee that any progress from now to D-day will be enough. But that is not reason enough to dismiss these developments.

Notwithstanding the fact that we are still discussing preliminaries here — “talking about talking” to the Taliban, that is — there is something different about the latest impetus: the timing.

We are now decidedly approaching the “end of the endgame” in Afghanistan. The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan are agreed on three facts: (i) that the 2014 transition without any political process in place, even a weak one, could push Afghanistan into much greater instability; (ii) that none of the regional actors want such an outcome for fear of negative spillover or a revival of a proxy confrontation; and (iii) that they have hardly anything to show for past efforts at reconciliation.

And all of them are staring a glaring reality in the face: time has all but run out.

Corollary: Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul are in a state of desperation to get something positive going.

It is this desperation that makes the recent developments more hopeful prospects than the ones that have already come and gone. Indeed, not only are we witnessing a softening of public tone on all sides, we are also finding less reluctance to give Pakistan — presented as the poster child of regional problems for some time — space to work its channels to jumpstart the process.

One would expect to see rigidities in respective positions begin to disappear in such a context. And there may be initial signs that they are: some time ago, one wouldn’t have expected a peace plan to explicitly suggest allowing the Taliban to manage a part of the Afghan state without much accountability, as the Roadmap to 2015 does; nor would we have seen willingness from Pakistan to release Taliban prisoners without having a guarantee that its concerns in Afghanistan will be addressed and that it will retain a ringside seat in the process.

On the US side, there is the reality that public opinion is now decidedly against the war and substantial residual military presence in Afghanistan. If the Nato-US coalition wants out without Afghanistan in disarray, if political reconciliation is seen as one of the prerequisites for this, and if past US-led efforts at reconciliation haven’t really delivered, then it holds that any effort with half a chance should be worth a try — and therefore supported.

Moreover, even though red lines wouldn’t disappear, one would expect more flexibility: some non-negotiables would become negotiable — the extent of acceptable revision to the Afghan constitution, “soft” issues in the social/human rights domain etc. being examples.

Finally, while most would perhaps argue that the closer you get to the deadline, the less interested the Taliban would be in negotiating (they would much rather wait it out and then stamp their authority once the US military is gone), this conventional wisdom has been challenged by the Taliban’s signalling in recent times. It is fairly clear — more so if one talks to interlocutors who have some insight into the Taliban’s thinking — that they are looking to engage in talks.

They are war-weary, their ranks are not nearly as cohesive as we make them out to be, and most importantly they desire recognition as a legitimate political force rather than being branded as an insurgent cum militant organisation. We don’t know if they are sincerely seeking compromise but they have calculated rightly that their mere participation in talks legitimises them as a future political force in Afghanistan.

And thus we see them engaging in Qatar, Tokyo and Paris formally and in a number of other discrete settings informally. They realise that the ongoing terminal phase in the current Afghan campaign is their last chance to achieve this.

Surely, there is always the possibility that the current impetus will fizzle out. Already, some argue that plans like the Roadmap to 2015 are wishful. There is also always the possibility of one of these actors overplaying its hand and forcing the process to a grinding halt.

What we can say though is that the incentive to push ahead and compromise is higher on all sides than it has been on previous occasions. Ironically, it stems from the fear of total failure in Afghanistan. The danger is just too clear and present to shy away from any longer.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.