Twists and turns

Will Taliban's new 'pre-negotiation tactic' stall the Afghan peace process?

Twists and turns
Like a TV soap opera, the Afghan reconciliation process has dramatic twists and turns that are not likely to end any time soon.

The latest setback to the efforts to end the insurgency in Afghanistan came in the shape of a refusal by Taliban to attend the peace talks with the Afghan government. The talks are being facilitated by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprised of Pakistan, the US, China and Afghanistan. The Taliban declined to come to the table citing the intensification of operations by Afghan security forces, continuing night raids, and the participation of foreign forces in airstrikes and their deployment in the battlefield. The militant group conditioned joining the peace process to the exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the removal of UN curbs on its leaders, and the release of Taliban prisoners being held by Afghan government.

When the QCG announced its plans last month for opening direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban by the first week of March, the skepticism was virtually universal. The Taliban statement has proven the skeptics right, but it is important that the rejection has not rendered the process dead and hopes remain. It has nevertheless underscored the complexity and sensitivity of the task.

The latest word is that the process will be back on track soon. Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz says progress towards convening the reconciliation meeting was expected “in coming days”.

From the Afghan government’s perspective, the Taliban’s move is nothing but a typical pre-negotiation tactic. The top Afghan negotiator in the process and the deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai told reporters in Kabul that his government considers “the stance adopted by Taliban as a tactical stance and not their core position.”

The Afghan assessment may be correct, because delaying the process is in the interest of the Taliban, who are well aware that it is Kabul that is running short of time with the next fighting season looming large. The Ghani administration would desperately try to avoid a repetition of the what happened last year, when the country witnessed the worst violence since 2009, in which 11,000 people were dead and injured.
Afghans will remember the candid admission that we have been hosting Taliban leaders

That urgency was also manifest in the QCG statement on beginning direct talks by the first week of March. The thinking behind the planned schedule was clearly an effort to pre-empt the start of Taliban’s annual Spring Offensive. It would have been much better if the QCG had not fixed the timeframe for the talks until a back-channel understanding was reached with the insurgent groups. It was equally important that the Afghan government should have announced Confidence Building Measures to lure the militants to the dialogue.

Moreover, the timing of the offer was not right. The momentum in the battlefield is in favour of the militants, who have a series of military successes in 2015 on their back – a trend that is continuing.

In this context, the failure to meet the deadline, not once but twice (the QCG had earlier said that talks would commence by the end of February) has given additional advantage to the Taliban, who have successfully underscored their centrality to the process.

Once the fighting season begins and violence escalates, it is feared that complicating factors – particularly the chances of deterioration in Pakistan-Afghanistan ties, currently on an even keel – may further delay the talks.

The Kabul-Islamabad relationship may turn tense in the event of pressure returning on Pakistan to do more to nudge Taliban to join the process.

So far, the Pakistan government is rejecting this perception and claims that getting the process started and making Taliban join it is a “shared responsibility” of all the four QCG countries. Pakistan has, moreover, been insisting that there are limits to its influence on Taliban – a line that Mr Aziz took in the Senate on Tuesday recalling how the group defied Islamabad in the past.

But if things begin to go bad, this argument will lose weight and the Afghans will recall Mr Aziz’s candid admission that Pakistan has been hosting the Taliban leadership. There will also be references to the statement issued at the conclusion of the Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue in which Pakistan committed to not allowing Taliban to use its soil.

One can only hope that Pakistan will be able to avoid such a situation, and ensure that the optimism being shown by the QCG countries prevails.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr