Turns, twists of Afghan peace process

Iqbal Khan

FOREIGN Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi visited Afghanistan on September 15. Statement by the Foreign Office is quite optimistic about outcome. “He assured the Afghan leadership that Pakistan, along with other partners of Afghanistan, remained ready to play constructive role in facilitating an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and reconciliation. He underscored the importance of cooperation and coordination between the two countries in the areas of counter-terrorism and security and offered to train Afghan police and law enforcement agencies in Pakistani institutions”.
According to Indian Express, Dr Abdullah Abdullah has expressed optimism over Pakistan being able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the US. In the meanwhile, Pakistan has closed its Consulate in Jalalabad citing security concerns and undue intervention by Governor Hayatullah. While Afghan peace process is at cross roads, Afghanistan should refrain from interfering in the functioning of Pakistan Mission in Afghanistan. Such interference is a blatant violation of Vienna Convention of the Consular Relations 1963. It is time for Afghanistan to look inwards towards its own deplorable state of law and order. The two Foreign Ministers have spoken on the issue and matter is likely to be resolved amicably, but it speaks of spoiler mindset.
Sustained direct Taliban-US talks are the current reality of Afghan peace process, though to the chagrin of Afghan government which had been insisting to remain the front face of peace negotiations. At least for now, it is Taliban steered peace course. Latest inputs indicate that Taliban are preparing to send a delegation for further talks with the US officials about ending the conflict in Afghanistan, this would be the second round where Taliban are likely to put forward substantive proposals. Supposedly lot of mileage was covered during three sessions of the first round. Taliban are ready for a second round, possibly this month, which is likely to focus on prisoner exchanges, confidence building measures, and ways to move from back-door meetings to formal negotiations, said Taliban officials in separate interviews. Taliban leaders are in a preparatory session to discuss the delegation composition consisting of 3-4 persons, alongside finalization of discussion points. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, the head of the group’s Qatar-based political office is likely to lead the Taliban side. He was deputed in the Qatar office on acting charge basis. And top leadership is now planning to appoint someone else in his place. Taliban awould discuss the lingering issue of exchange of prisoners and could hold another meeting soon if the other side showed seriousness in talks by releasing prisoners. Upcoming meeting is also expected to define the framework for further talks.
First round of talks was held in Doha in July, where Taliban officials had met Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US for South and Central Asia. Prospects of peace talks were later stuttered due failure to agree a repeat of Eid ceasefire in June that saw unarmed Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in Kabul and other cities. Though Afghan government announced a ceasefire, Taliban leadership declined to go along.
Upcoming talks reflect a noteworthy shift in Washington’s approach which hitherto had always pushed for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue in such peace talks. At the same time Afghan government has reconciled to centrality of Taliban. And through these talks, former Afghan President Sibghatullah Mujaddadi wants a review of Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US. The call by Afghanistan’s influential politicians and some political parties to review the BSA with the US has been met with mixed reactions by the Afghan government, members of parliament and political experts. Among those who defend the BSA is General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of southern Kandahar province who said that the BSA had been approved by over 5,000 members of the Loya Jirga who represented the people of Afghanistan from all provinces. First vice-president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, said on September 13 that the ongoing war in Afghanistan was “in no one’s interest and called for a responsible end to the conflict”.
Reportedly, negotiations are stuck over the issue of maintenance of US military bases in the country, according to Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official in Kabul. The “U.S. wants the Taliban to accept at least two military bases, Bagram and Shorabak. High-level sources in Washington have confirmed that maintenance of certain military bases in Afghanistan was a top priority for the US government. Christopher Kolenda, a retired colonel and former Pentagon adviser who held informal talks this year with the Taliban in Doha, said the insurgent group considers US combat troops an occupying force and wants them out. “Their No. 1 reason for war, their casus belli, if you will, is the occupation. So, they’re not going to just simply say, ‘We’re OK with US combat troops running around Afghanistan.’
Because that’s what they’re fighting to prevent, from their point of view.” He said Taliban did show some willingness to allow foreign troops to train Afghan forces, but only if a new government formed after a negotiated settlement, that would likely include the Taliban, agreed to their presence. The third major demand, an implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, is more for the optics. The Taliban accept 80 percent or more of the current Afghan constitution, he added but think that current constitution was formed under what they term the US occupation of Afghanistan. Whether or not the peace talks will gain momentum in the midst of increasing violence in Kabul remains an open question. Negotiating peace, reconstruction and a stable polity in Afghanistan amid a raging violent conflict continues to be an uphill accomplishment.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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