Playing the honest broker
The meeting brokered by Pakistan last Tuesday in Murree between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban was the first one in which the two sides in the Afghan civil war met formally and directly in an effort to get peace negotiations going. The last attempt to start peace
The meeting brokered by Pakistan last Tuesday in Murree between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban was the first one in which the two sides in the Afghan civil war met formally and directly in an effort to get peace negotiations going. The last attempt to start peace talks ended in fiasco at Doha in 2013.
The Murree meeting followed a series of less formal contacts between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar, Norway and China in recent months. Pakistan acted as a facilitator in arranging the meeting in China, held in Urumqi last May, which was significant also for the reason that it signalled a more public Chinese role in paving the way for peace talks between the two sides in the Afghan conflict.
The most important outcome of last week’s meeting in Murree was that the Taliban gave up their previous opposition to direct talks with the Afghan government and agreed to hold further talks with Kabul. According to Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, who led the Afghan government delegation at the talks, the Taliban negotiators raised the issue of foreign troops. But there was apparently no repetition of the demand that foreign troops must leave Afghanistan as a precondition for talks. The Taliban also brought up the question of Taliban prisoners and the blacklisting of their leadership by the UN. A statement issued by the Pakistan foreign ministry after the meeting said that the participants recognised the need to “develop confidence-building measures”, possibly a reference to a suspension of the Taliban offensive and reciprocal steps by Kabul.
The Pakistani statement also stated that the participants had “agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive for a peace and reconciliation process”. The next meeting will be held on mutually convenient dates after Ramazan. According to unconfirmed reports, it is provisionally planned for August 15 and 16 in Doha. Afghan government negotiator Din Mohammad said in Kabul that the aim at the next round was to have more substantive talks on ending the fighting. “In that meeting, a detailed discussion will be focused on preventing bloodshed in Afghanistan,” he told reporters in Kabul.
It is probably overhasty at this stage to say, as Nawaz did, that the Murree talks amount to a ‘breakthrough’ in bringing peace to Afghanistan. In background briefings, Pakistani officials themselves have cautioned against “outsized expectations” and pointed out that a very long and complicated process lies ahead. Nevertheless, the meeting brokered by Pakistan is the most promising initiative so far in bringing a negotiated end to the 13-year conflict between the Kabul government and the Taliban.
Pakistani officials had earlier privately called on Taliban leaders to call off their ongoing military offensive and focus on peace talks. During his visit to Kabul in May, Nawaz Sharif went further and publicly censured the Taliban for having launched their offensive against government forces. Both the private appeals and the public rebuke went unheeded, however, and the Taliban launched two suicide attacks in Kabul just hours before the meeting in Murree. The Taliban were however obviously more receptive to Pakistani appeals to the Taliban leadership that they should join the peace process.
But Pakistani influence, which in any case has diminished over the years, was not the only factor in persuading the Taliban to enter into talks with the Afghan Government. It was probably not even the main consideration. The emergence of the Islamic State (Daesh) in Afghanistan has also played an important part.
Some Taliban fighters have already defected to the Islamic State and the Taliban leadership is worried that others might follow the same path. There have also been reports of fighting between Taliban and Islamic State militants mostly in eastern Afghanistan. Taliban concern about the rise of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan was specifically mentioned in a statement issued by the Pugwash Conference after an informal meeting arranged by them between Afghan civil and political leaders and the Taliban in Qatar last May. The statement said: “The model of the so-called Islamic State is alien to the tradition and the desires of the Afghan people.
It is expected that the role played by Pakistan in facilitating the meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban will now help build mutual trust between the two countries. It is certainly a vindication of Ashraf Ghani’s policy of pushing for peace talks with the Taliban to end the war and to rebuild bridges with Pakistan that the Karzai government had pulled down. Nevertheless, India’s penetration of Afghanistan during the Karzai years was so extensive that Ghani’s policy continues to have sceptics in Afghanistan. Besides, there are many vested interests which stand to lose from a rapprochement with Pakistan. They have not been silenced but their voice has been muted, at least temporarily.
A positive sign is that the press release of the Afghan foreign ministry on the talks in Murree has expressed thanks to the Pakistani leadership for facilitating the meeting. At his meeting last week with Nawaz at Ufa, the Afghan president also thanked the prime minister for hosting talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban.
Appreciation for Pakistan’s role has been expressed also by the US and the UN secretary general. Delhi of course is far from being thrilled. It regards Afghanistan as a country falling within its sphere of influence and is deeply worried that the position of advantage it has built up in Afghanistan during the Karzai years in order to destabilise Pakistan could be lost if there is peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Besides, Delhi is concerned that the Pakistani Taliban could lose their sanctuaries in Afghanistan if peace returns to the country.
If Delhi has so far kept a discreet public silence on the incipient talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it is because it stands completely isolated in opposing the peace process. Not only have the UN, US and China publicly supported it, the US and China are also participating in these meetings.
India has decided to bide its time but has not changed its goals. It is likely to attempt to subvert the process through its proxies in Afghanistan, as it did successfully in effectively sabotaging the agreement on intelligence-sharing between the ISI and its Afghan counterpart, the National Directorate of Security. The same elements then pointed their fingers at Pakistan for the terrorist attack on the premises of the Afghan parliament last month.
In playing the role of an honest broker in facilitating intra-Afghan dialogue, Pakistan will also be called upon to use its influence to bridge multiple differences between various Afghan factions. The original leadership of the Taliban under Mullah Omar seems to have split during its years in exile because of personal rivalries and differences over the approach to talks with Kabul. It is also no secret that there are divisions over the peace process between young battle commanders in Afghanistan who favour continued fighting and the older leadership which mostly lives abroad and is more inclined to a negotiated solution. There are also apparently differences between the Taliban representatives in Islamabad and the Taliban political office in Qatar over the question which is authorised to allowed participation in peace talks.
Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai sought to play down these differences, saying that this was a matter for the Taliban and that Kabul was not concerned. He added that the Taliban delegation was approved by the group’s political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who speaks for Mullah Omar. “The people we met did have permission from the Taliban leadership and were representing the Quetta Shura,” Karzai said.
The Pakistani statement on the talks also sought to sidestep this question, saying that the participants in the meeting “were duly mandated by their respective leadership”. But the Pakistani spokesman refused to name the Taliban representatives at the talks. There is also continuing speculation about Mullah Omar, who has not been seen for years even by some senior Taliban members. These are questions that will have to be clarified for the peace process to move forward.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.