Another chance for peace

January 24, 2016

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group is the best mechanism established to-date to steer the peace talks for ending the long drawn out Afghan conflict but will the Taliban give up their agenda

Another chance for peace

Two quadrilateral meetings have already been held and the third is scheduled to take place on January 25 in Islamabad as high-ranking officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States continue their deliberations to prepare the roadmap for revival of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The beleaguered Afghan government is in a hurry as it wants some breakthrough in its stalemated peace and reconciliation process before the end of winter and the start of spring when the Taliban launch their annual military campaign by intensifying attacks in Afghanistan. It wants the so-called spring and summer offensive to be aborted to avoid the heavy casualties its security forces suffered last year and also to create the right atmosphere for the peace talks.

The Afghan government made a similar effort in the spring of 2015 by asking Pakistan to persuade the Taliban not to launch their yearly military campaign, but it didn’t work and the operation named "Azm" was undertaken with an unusually strong resolve as it was the Taliban’s first spring offensive post-2014 when most US-led foreign forces had pulled out of Afghanistan. The fighting caused record casualties to all sides of the conflict, but civilians suffered the most as almost 5,000 died in the first half of 2015 and the civilian casualties subsequently registered 50 per cent-plus increase. Figures also showed that nearly 30,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed from 2009 to mid-2015.

Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, who is former president Hamid Karzai’s cousin and is leading the government team at the quadrilateral meetings, publicly talked about an ambitious two-month target for making progress in the peace process as he felt the patience of his people was running out due to the rise in Taliban-directed violence across Afghanistan. He was clearly aiming at a possible ceasefire if direct talks with the Taliban start or at least thwarting their plans for the new spring offensive by bringing them under pressure through Pakistan. Kabul is also hoping that China would use its considerable clout with Pakistan to make this happen. It is needless to say that such optimism on the part of the Afghan government is wishful.

Hekmat Karzai, by the way, is likely to make room for a political figure or the chief of the High Peace Council, which has been without a head for more than a year since the appointment of Salahuddin Rabbani as foreign minister, to lead the Afghan government delegation at the talks with Taliban.

President Ashraf Ghani would have to carefully select the members of his negotiating team as he did the last time when one round of talks with Taliban facilitated by Pakistan were held in Murree on July 7 last year. He gave representation to all political and ethnic groups that are part of his sometimes dysfunctional unity government formed with his presidential election rival Dr Abdullah, presently the chief executive officer, as a result of the US pressure after the inclusive polls in 2014.

This is important considering the fact that there are divisions in the Afghan government and its supporters on holding a dialogue with the Taliban and the kind of concessions to be offered to them and whether all this should be done by giving Pakistan the leading role in the process.

The Taliban too are divided not only organisationally, but also on the question of entering into peace talks with the Afghan government as they have been claiming it is a powerless, US-dictated regime. The death of their supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar, who founded and led the Taliban movement for nearly 20 years, predictably triggered a battle of succession and eventually resulted in a split. The dominant Taliban faction headed by Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor and the splinter group led by Mulla Mohammad Rasool have even fought each other and the casualties suffered by both sides, particularly the killing of Mulla Rasool faction’s most powerful military commander Mansoor Dadullah in Zabul province, have fuelled blood-feuds that won’t be easy to resolve.

Though a ceasefire was reached through the efforts of pro-Taliban clerics and tribal elders after the internecine fighting in Zabul and Herat provinces and prisoners in custody of the two Taliban factions were swapped, their dispute is far from over and could prove a hurdle in starting the peace talks and making the process a success.

Though Sartaj Aziz didn’t explain the incentives, these include delisting names of Taliban leaders from the UN Security Council ‘black’ list, releasing Taliban members being held in the US prison at Guantanamo and in Afghan jails, setting up a formal Taliban office in Qatar and enabling Taliban to transform from an armed group into a political movement.

Both factions have yet to signal their willingness to join the talks and have instead been putting up difficult conditions such as complete withdrawal of all US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan and enforcement of Shariah. There has also been talk of offering incentives to the Taliban to persuade them to give up fighting and it was echoed also by Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who said use of force could jeopardise the peace process. Though he didn’t explain the incentives that might be offered to the Taliban, these are known and could include delisting names of Taliban leaders and negotiators from the UN Security Council ‘black’ list, releasing Taliban members being held in the US prison at Guantanamo and in Afghan jails, setting up a formal Taliban office in Qatar and eventually enabling Taliban to transform from an armed group into a political movement.

However, putting up conditions whether done by the Afghan government or Taliban would make it difficult to even start the peace talks and it is widely understood by all sides that this won’t be allowed to happen and stall the process.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, or the Quad as it is sometimes referred to, is the best mechanism established to-date to steer the peace talks for ending the long drawn out Afghan conflict. Afghanistan has to be there as the issue concerns the war-ravaged country while Pakistan has been playing a key role in Afghan affairs for 37 years as the crucial supporter of the Afghan mujahideen and Taliban and as the biggest place of refuge for displaced Afghans and lifeline for the battered Afghan economy.

The US and China are part of the Quadrilateral arrangement because the former has decisive influence on the Afghan government in its capacity as its biggest military and economic backer and the latter on Pakistan and they would be expected to use their clout in Kabul and Islamabad to steer the peace talks to a positive conclusion and guarantee the implementation of an agreement in case one is somehow reached.

Pakistan would be expected to do the most. It would be asked to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table and ensure that whatever is agreed is implemented. Though the Pakistani officials, particularly those in the army, are confident of convincing the Taliban leaders to join the peace talks, the effort is like jumping into a landmine as the resurgent Taliban won’t easily give up their agenda for which they have offered sacrifices for the past 14 years. Also making things work in Afghanistan is an almost impossible task as other bigger and more resourceful powers than Pakistan have found out at a huge cost in the past.

Another chance for peace