A new beginning in Kabul

Peace talks will begin 'by the first week of March'

A new beginning in Kabul
The four-nation initiative for restarting the Afghanistan peace talks is finally on the verge of opening direct dialogue between Kabul and the insurgents. But optimism about sustainable peace in Afghanistan is cautious at best.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), consisting of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US, agreed at its fourth meeting in Kabul this week on Pakistan being the venue of the first round of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the militants – more specifically factions of the Taliban.

Importantly, however, there is no announcement of a date, except for a vague timeframe that the talks are “expected to take place by the first week of March 2016.”

The QCG had previously hoped to be able to start the talks by the end of February, but that deadline has now been stretched. This change could be minor, but reflects the difficulties in the process ahead.

“Obstacles would always be expected. It is no secret that it is a very complex process that we are embarking on,” a Western diplomat associated with effort told me.

It would be the first time in about seven months that Afghan government representatives and Taliban insurgents would be sitting face to face discussing the way towards ending violence. The reconciliation dialogue made a promising start in Murree last July, but faltered weeks later because of the revelation about Mullah Omar’s death.
Pakistan, China and the US will play supportive roles

Since then, a lot has changed. The breakdown of talks was followed by a sharp rise in violence in Afghanistan. Taliban as an organization underwent transition and splintering, and finally a new approach for getting back to the dialogue table emerged in the form of the Quadrilateral Framework. Additionally, there is an all-round realization that dialogue is the only and the surest way to resolving the protracted conflict. Support for the peace process has grown inside Afghanistan, which witnessed last year some of the worst violence since 2009. Of the about 11,000 casualties in 2015, both injured and dead, 62% were caused by “anti-government” elements, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan.

One of the major achievements of the Quadrilateral Framework is that it addressed some of the underlying issues in Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations that had been holding back the efforts for peace. The improvement in ties between Islamabad and Kabul, manifested by military and intelligence exchanges between Pakistan and Afghanistan and reduction in mutual accusations, are the outcomes of that effort.

Now that the Quadrilateral Process has brought the peace initiative to the starting line, the real and the hard part begins. Who would be at the table and what is being offered to the insurgents in return for giving up violence? And how would the process play out? These are some of the questions that many seem to be asking.

No details about the talks have been made public as yet. There is little doubt that reasonable compromises by the Afghan government – which one may also call Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) – have to be the keystone of this effort. But, there is no word about that, and whatever Kabul may be planning to offer is being kept highly confidential.

Afghanistan’s envoy to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal insists that the QCG had agreed that there will be “no pre-conditions for peace talks” – a reference to the CBMs before the dialogue.

Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif’s visit to Doha for soliciting the support of the Qatari leadership is also extremely important in this regard. Qatar’s support is important because the Political Office of Taliban (Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s faction) is based there and the Qataris have strong influence over the group as well.

The very fact that the military itself announced that Gen Sharif had visited Doha for the Afghan reconciliation process is an indicator that the attempt to use Qatar’s good offices has met some success.

Therefore, one could reasonably expect that the Akhtar Mansour faction would be represented at the dialogue.

The QCG statement, meanwhile, specifically named Hizb-e-Islami, a major insurgent outfit, as one of the groups that is being invited. Hizb-e-Islami too has said that it would seriously consider the invitation.

Who else is expected could be anyone’s guess. Some minor factions are likely to take the offer, but it would be interesting to watch what the Haqqani Network and Taliban’s Mullah Rasool faction (the anti-Mansour group) does.

Haqqani Network’s Sirajuddin Haqqani is presently the deputy chief of the Akhtar Mansour faction and is logically expected to follow the group’s decision. Nevertheless, there is considerable interest in their response because they are one of the main groups on the battleground.

The US has consistently been maintaining pressure on Pakistan because of the Haqqani Network. At the time of the disbursement of the Coalition Support Funds, it did not certify that Pakistani actions in North Waziristan had downgraded the group. Then, there was a Congressional hold on the financing of the sale of F-16s to Pakistan through the Foreign Military Financing process.

The Haqqani Network was represented at the July 7 meeting in Murree.

Once the dialogue starts, the Afghan government would be in the lead role in negotiating with the insurgents. The other three partners – Pakistan, China and the US –  will play a supportive role in the process. Each partner’s roles have been clearly defined in a roadmap adopted by the QCG at its February 6 meeting in Islamabad.

In a related development, the Afghan government has brought in a new leadership in the High Peace Council. Pir Syed Ahmad Gilani has been made the chairman of the council. The slot had been vacant since Mr Salahuddin Rabbani became the foreign minister almost a year ago. Karim Khalili would be his deputy.

The appointment of the new leadership just ahead of the impending talks indicates that the Afghan government may be considering an active role for the council in the process.

The writer is a free-lance journalist

based in Islamabad

Email: mamoonarubab@gmail.com

Twitter: @bokhari_mr