Path to peace

A milestone agreement on peace talks in Afghanistan is the beginning of a long journey

Path to peace
The four-nation initiative for peace in Afghanistan reached a milestone with an agreement on the roadmap for the process and extension of invitation to all Taliban factions to join the dialogue. But it is just the start of a long and arduous journey.

The announcement by Quadrilateral Coordination Committee of the peace initiative – comprising senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States – that plans were afoot for opening direct talks between the representatives of Afghan government and Taliban factions in the last week of this month reflected the group’s confidence about the move. But, at the same time, it showed the importance of lowering violence particularly in view of Taliban’s looming annual Spring Offensive, which could further worsen the security situation there. Last year, Afghanistan witnessed the worst violence since Taliban were ousted, and unprecedentedly, there was no break in winter either.

Taliban have, meanwhile, continued to stage attacks. The group has claimed attacks in Balkh, Paktika, and Nangarhar. The US has cautioned that militants were planning more attacks in Kabul. The attacks at this juncture could possibly be an attempt by the insurgents to increase pressure on the other side before the planned start of negotiations, if not to reject them.

A Taliban representative expressed reservations about the initiative in background discussion, saying it was a “one-sided affair in the midst of presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan”. But the group has so far avoided making any formal reaction to the invitation for talks. Their response will dictate the future course of the process.

The Afghan government too is yet to disclose what confidence building measures it is taking to lure Taliban to the talks.
The list of expected participants is much stronger than that of the Murree Process

The quadrilateral group would review the progress made towards holding the talks when it meets next in Kabul on February 23. A formal date for the government-Taliban talks and the venue are expected to be announced after the quadrilateral meeting.

A Western diplomat, who is closely following the process, disclosed that the four sides have also reached an understanding about which Taliban factions would be brought on board as priority, even as the invitation remains open for “all” parties interested in negotiations. The diplomat wouldn’t say which groups are being focused on, but noted that the list of expected participants was much stronger than the one for the Murree Process, which faltered just weeks after its start following the disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death.

Another source, meanwhile, hinted that Taliban’s Doha Office would be represented at the talks.

The quadrilateral group after some intense discussions also agreed to accept representatives of Haqqani Network at the table. Afghan officials initially had reservations about accepting the Haqqani Network at the talks, but others persuaded it against objecting to their presence. The network’s leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is currently the deputy emir of Taliban.

Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, it should be recalled, had at the third meeting of the quadrilateral group in Islamabad called for “persuading maximum number of Taliban groups to join the peace talks” to make the process more broad-based and “shrinking the space for the irreconcilables”.

Taliban had splintered after Mullah Omar’s death became public last year. Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who succeeded Omar, has consolidated his hold on the movement and the faction led by him is the dominant group on the battlefield. Under Mansoor, Taliban insurgency has become stronger and fiercer and expanded its territorial presence. The faction has at the same time successfully taken on the rival group led by Mullah Rasool in Zabul, Ghazni, Nimroz and some other southern provinces.

Improvements in Pakistan-Afghan relations manifested by increased military to military coordination and a first-time visit by the chief of National Directorate of Security – the Afghan premier intelligence agency – to Pakistan for intelligence dialogue, have provided the much needed momentum to the peace effort. The quadrilateral group placed special emphasis on addressing friction in relations between the two neighbours and the accompanying mutual mistrust, which in the past had been the biggest obstacle in reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan.

It may be too early to predict how the process would progress over the next few months, but it would be important for all sides not to unrealistically raise expectations.

One mistake being committed by the Afghan authorities is that of giving an impression to its people that Pakistan had committed to take action against the Taliban factions and elements that would not join the process. There is definitely an agreement on developing a joint strategy, but Pakistani officials insist that no commitment had been given to Afghans about such action as yet.

Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, while speaking at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said that in the first phase, all efforts should be directed towards reconciliation.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr