The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Last week’s meeting in Islamabad of the ‘trilateral core group’ comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US was more about process than substance. Aimed at cooperation to promote Afghan reconciliation that can lead to a political resolution of the war, the sixth core group meeting ended by the usual expression of support for the Afghan peace process.
It was decided to set up two working groups: to explore modalities to facilitate ‘safe passage’ for Taliban leaders willing to join the reconciliation effort and coordinate de-listing of individuals from the UN Security Council’s sanctions list.
This hardly obscured the reality that preliminary talks that started last year between American and Taliban representatives – to establish the so-called Qatar process – have ground to a halt. US special representative, Ambassador Marc Grossman acknowledged this during the trilateral meeting. But he was not pressed to address the key question of whether the nascent peace dialogue had now become hostage to American presidential politics in addition to being riddled with other unresolved complications and difficulties.
If that is the case, it means serious efforts or meaningful progress towards a political solution will have to wait until after the US elections in November. This would represent a missed opportunity. Prolonged delay could diminish even scotch the chance of securing a negotiated settlement that could pave the way for an orderly withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
‘Quiet’ US efforts to put in place formal peace negotiations with the Taliban have faltered due to several factors. They include inherent difficulties in starting such a process, divisions in Washington over such talks, and the Obama administration’s inability to put its weight behind its own policy of seeking a peaceful end to the war. The slide in Pakistan-US relations and lack of trust and transparency between members of the ‘core group’ have also slowed efforts. As have reported differences within the Taliban movement between those who favour negotiations and those who don’t.
But the reason for suspension of the talks – which US officials believe is tactical on the Taliban’s part – was Washington’s inability to implement a good-faith opening gesture as part of confidence building measures that the Taliban were being persuaded to accept by making reciprocal moves. Agreement on a CBMs package was to precede the formal opening of a Taliban office in Doha.
The initial US plan was to announce the office at the Bonn conference last December. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai was furious at being shut out of secret contacts between American officials and Taliban representatives during the course of 2011. Pakistan too was not happy at being bypassed but expressed readiness to support these efforts. It was Karzai’s opposition to the Qatar process that scuttled any Bonn announcement. This led to the loss of initial momentum. By January when Karzai was persuaded to accept the idea, other problems surfaced and talks struggled to regain momentum.
The Taliban had insisted on the transfer of five prisoners from Guantanamo prison to Qatar before initiation of formal negotiations. In return the US expected Taliban statements denouncing ‘international terrorism’ and declaring support for a dialogue with ‘other Afghans’ (meaning the Karzai government).
In February US officials expected to accomplish this before the Nato summit in Chicago in May. The plan to announce the commencement of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban at Chicago has now been shelved for lack of progress. Washington has been unable to move the prisoners in the face of Congressional opposition, lack of consensus within the administration and disagreement with Taliban representatives over a travel ban on detainees after they are moved to Qatar. The administration has to give Congress thirty days notice before transferring any prisoner from Guantanamo. The political risk that Republican opponents would pounce on this and turn it into an election issue deterred US officials from movement on this front.
From media accounts citing Taliban representatives, lack of movement on the prisoners has been accompanied by an American effort to change the sequence of CBM steps. The Taliban were asked before any prisoner transfer to announce joining ‘other Afghans’ in a peace dialogue and disavow ‘international terrorism’. Construing these as “new demands” the Taliban rejected them. Taliban representatives were apparently prepared to consider these moves only after concluding the deal on detainees.
In March Taliban spokesmen cited the ‘new conditions’ and Washington’s “inexplicable delay” on prisoners to break off talks. They accused the US of failing to deliver on promises and reiterated their refusal to talk to Karzai’s government. By then the environment for dialogue also deteriorated. A string of violent incidents triggered by the burning of copies of the Holy Quran by US servicemen made it politically untenable for the Taliban to continue the talks. Last month’s announcement of the draft strategic partnership agreement between Kabul and Washington also drew the Taliban’s strong condemnation.
So far US efforts to revive the stalled dialogue have not succeeded. There is some media speculation that the US might now consider a limited prisoner release to coax the Taliban back to talks. One of the five detainees that the Taliban wanted released, Khairullah Khairkhwa, is being named in leaked reports for possible transfer to the Afghan government’s custody. A former governor and interior minister, he was among those that the Afghan government’s High Peace Council asked to be released some time ago.
If this does take place will it be enough to urge the Taliban to resume talks? Unlikely. In statements last week the Taliban dismissed the outcome of the core group meeting and reiterated that talks will not resume “until the Americans fulfil promises agreed upon for confidence building”, a reference to the original detainees undertaking.
Efforts to revive talks will now also have to address the growing suspicion that each side is dragging out the dialogue and not negotiating in good faith. Many among the Taliban see this as a deliberate effort to divide rather than negotiate with them. This has accentuated widely reported tensions between younger Taliban commanders on the ground and those who favour talks. A heated debate is said to be raging about how and who to talk to.
The Taliban’s coordinated attacks on Kabul and three provinces in April may well have been part of an effort to resolve these tensions and show that its capacity to sustain the insurgency remains intact. It also signalled that if the US wanted to fight and talk, the Taliban could do so too.
All of this raises many questions about the fate of the Afghan peace process. The most important question is whether Washington really wants to pursue a negotiated settlement and is prepared to make necessary compromises and expend political capital to achieve this. Or is it looking for a face saving way out of a war that has little purpose now that America has determined that Al- Qaeda’s threat has receded in the region – and which its public no longer supports.
If Washington is serious about finding a negotiated end to the war, hesitation and further delay can prove fateful. It can put the very feasibility of a peace process at risk by reducing the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate while diminishing US leverage as 2014 approaches. Time then is a big challenge.
For Pakistan, which has the most to lose from a messy Afghan outcome, the costs of a delayed peace process are high. This confronts Islamabad with hard choices. To help facilitate a process whose details are not fully shared and which is driven by American time lines and election-year political considerations? Or sit back and watch events play out to a possibly chaotic outcome? Such an outcome would jeopordise Pakistan’s long-term interest to secure peace and stability in its western neighbourhood. These choices have to be made in a vexed context in which all three members of the ‘core group’ harbour deep suspicions about each other’s intentions despite the pageantry of trilateral meetings and cooperative assurances.