Afghanistan’s elusive peace!

Iqbal Khan

Pakistan is keen to have a peaceful Afghanistan, because there are genuine concerns about spill over effect of reigning volatility in Afghanistan. Dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees is another issue on Pakistan’s mind. It is only when rural Afghanistan falls effectively under writ of Afghan govt, Pakistan would be safe from cross-border attacks and other disruptive activities. Then Pakistan could hold Afghan government accountable for such activities, including those whose trails lead to Modi’s den of criminals.
Pakistan is doing whatever it could to persuade all Taliban factions to become part of the peace process and indications are that many of them are now interested in doing so. Immediately after the recent Doha contacts between the Taliban and Afghan government, three senior Middle East based Afghan Taliban leaders, Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, Maulvi Salam Hanafi and Jan Muhammad, visited Pakistan, once again raising hopes for re-railing the stalled peace process. They apprised Pakistani officials of their interaction with Afghan and the US government officials in Qatar. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the delegation from the Qatar office had arrived in Pakistan, but ruled out any chance of peace talks.
“Our delegation has travelled from Qatar to Pakistan to discuss the problem of Afghan refugees and some seminaries recently closed there,” he said. “The Taliban leadership asked the Qatar office to send a delegation to Pakistan to discuss the recent arrest of some Taliban leaders,” said a Taliban leader. Growing pressure from Pakistan on the Taliban has forced its leadership to ask Qatar office representatives to visit Pakistan for exploratory meetings. Recent arrest of key Taliban leaders was seen by analysts as a message to Taliban leadership to review their policy vis-à-vis peace talks.
Another Taliban leader said possible revival of peace negotiations would be the main talking point in the interactions of the Qatar office leaders with Pakistani officials. Afghan foreign office said it was unaware that the Taliban delegation is in Pakistan. “The Taliban should be banned from travelling to regional countries. But if they have done so to pursue peace, this should be explained,” ministry spokesman Shekib Mustakhni said. It is encouraging that Afghan government and Taliban leadership are, once again, in talks, in Doha. Two rounds have already taken place beginning September. Though multiple sources have confirmed the formal contacts, available details about the content of these parleys are only scanty.
US State Department Spokesperson has said in a recent statement that US has no role in Doha talks between Afghan Taliban and Afghan Government. If US has no role in it then there is also no role of QCG in it, may be it is Afghan government’s solo effort through Hikmat Yar. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman and a leading member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council have also said that they had no knowledge. Nevertheless, reportedly, face-to-face talks “went positively” and were held “in a trouble-free atmosphere.” Billion dollar question is: Has Pakistan been by-passed or is it purposefully staying away from the process, at least for the time being? It will take some time to unfold accurate answer to this critical question. Pakistan losing its leverage with Taliban is likely to have many implications. One time favourite— Gulbadin Hikmatyar— has already taken a solo flight. Such a failure with regard to other Taliban groups would haunt Pakistan for years to come, as Pakistan’s reaction would meltdown to welcoming the fait accompli as Taliban splinters gravitate to ‘puppet’ Afghan govt one by one. However, given the track record of Afghan peace process since Soviet days, chances of occurrence of such a proposition are only remote.
Middle East based Afghan Taliban officials revealed that the talks had not yielded much, and only the previously stated positions were reemphasized. These sources also added that US officials were part of the process, although they did not specify whether they were directly involved in the talks. Peace deal between Afghan Govt and Hizb-e-Islami, was welcomed by Pakistan, and it considers, at least ostensibly, that this deal could serve as a model for talks with Taliban. Since Bonn I days, Pakistan has maintained a principled stance on establishment of lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan, which is “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process”.
During recent Doha parleys, Afghan and US officials demanded of Taliban a ceasefire declaration, laying down of arms and starting formal peace talks. And in response, Talibanside demanded that group be officially recognised as a political movement, its leaders’ names be removed from a UN blacklist and all prisoners be released. “Like our previous meetings, it was a waste of time and resources, as we could not achieve anything from meeting,” he went on to say. Taliban’s direct meeting with Afghan and US officials is, however, a departure from their previous stance on issue. What is important to note is that lines of communications have been established, while apparently bypassing Pakistan.
With or without Pakistan, any engagement with Afghan government could pose problems for the Taliban if the talks don’t deliver any tangible outcome any time soon; and that is highly doubtful. If these talks continue without any signs of real progress, the Kabul regime could use the interregnum to establish links and try to wean away some swing Taliban activists from the mainstream, led by Ameer Haibatulla Akhunzada. The factions that do not support contacts with the government may, in the event of prolonged and protracted negotiations, ask the leadership to walk away from the stalemated process. Militarily, Taliban have gathered strength over the past two years, carrying out major attacks in Kabul and taking over swaths of territory for the first time since being ousted during the 2001 US-led military intervention.
A former Taliban leader recently opined: “Some Taliban favour [direct] talks with the Americans because the key to resolving the Afghan conundrum rests with the United States.” The Taliban have long been seeking direct talks with the United States to discuss a timeframe for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. “Since the Americans had toppled our government and the invading forces are still stationed in Afghanistan; therefore we would like to have talks with them first,” another Taliban leader stated.
However, as of now, there are no immediate prospects for any significant development in the reconciliation endeavours. Each side could embark on zero sum articulations to demonstrate that it has achieved a degree of success at the expense of other side. It is unclear where the current fight and talk strategy would lead. From Pakistan’s perspective, resumption of peace process irrespective of venue, is a welcome sign. However, for any process to succeed: Afghan government needs to understand that no intra-Afghan reconciliation process could succeed without Pakistan’s participation; likewise, the US has to resist the temptations of staying in Afghanistan for an indefinite period, and it should stop creating pretexts in this regard.
— The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and strategic response.

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