AMID stepped-up diplomacy and ferocious fighting in many parts of Afghanistan, national unity government leaders have agreed after a year of political wrangling on catapulting Pir Syed Ahmad Gilani to the helm of the High Peace Council. A respected spiritual figure, Gilani will have to go flat out to breathe new life into a panel that has come to be derided as a dead horse.
Since early 2015, when Salahuddin Rabbani was nominated as foreign minister, the peace body had been without a leader. Analysts thus had good reason to dub the council - with a dismal track record - as a rudderless ship. Frustrated by the hiatus and snail-paced peace endeavour, the international community cut off aid to it a month back. Tasked with negotiating peace with the Taliban, HPC has failed to achieve any breakthrough in paving the ground for national reconciliation. Ever since its formation in mid-2010, the presidentially appointed panel has been unable to prove its neutrality, much less end the conflict or win public confidence. Even on ex-president Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani's watch, HPC was scorned as a rainbow coalition of warlords, most of them inimical to a particular rebel group. After his assassination in 2011, the sitting foreign minister picked up the mantle from his father. Although he was not personally involved in the conflict, he could not convince the warring factions of his impartiality.
Despite the huge financial support it received over the past six years, HPC did not get a leader with the savvy to wean mil- itants away from the battlefield to the negotiating table. Since many of its members harboured unconcealed antagonism towards the Afghan Taliban, the whole peace strategy predictably went pearshaped. It is largely because of the 70member council's flawed composition that peace parleys remain elusive to date.
Gilani's nomination came two days ahead of four-nation consultations in Kabul on a road map for peace talks in coming weeks. The fourth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, involving representatives from Afghanistan, the US, Pakistan and China, will give the final touches to a new plan for constructive engagement between the Taliban and Kabul.
If he is serious about fast-tracking the reconciliation process, the new chief negotiator will be well-advised to learn from the flip-flops of his predecessors. First, he has to work on the council's image makeover to lend it a semblance of reliability as an honest peace-broker. To be in a position to deliver, his team must be seen as genuinely interested in an end to the war and independent in taking painful decisions on issues that can no longer be put on the backburner.
Since his inauguration in 2014, President Ashraf Ghani has been pursuing dialogue with his armed opponents. In a bid to realise this objective, he has laid on the line his political career in reaching out to Pakistan that Afghans often blast for aiding and sheltering the Taliban. However, the president remains unmoved by opposition on the domestic front to his fence-mending initiative. Proponents of a military settlement and opponents of concessions to the insurgents have made the peace drive a polarising issue among the Afghans. Additionally, the quartet has not yet dropped a hint at the incentives the Taliban may be offered. Many of the president's detractors fear gains of the past decade and a half will be undone by a quid pro quo with the rebels.
For the incoming HPC chief, silencing critics of reconciliation will be tough. Thus promoting the peace process will be a litmus test of his negotiating skills. He must not fall for the nostrum that a deal could not be sealed due to factionalism within the insurgent movement and that an outright military victory is in sight. Such assertions have produced a diametrically opposite effect in recent years in the form of escalating violence. The Taliban may not be a monolithic organisation, but recent clashes in Kunduz, Baghlan and Badakhshan provinces demonstrate their fighting prowess. They control more territory than at any time since the US-led invasion in 2001, mounting pressure on security forces in Helmand and several other places. Unsurprisingly, much is being read into the security forces' withdrawal from Musa Qala district last week.
Under Gilani's leadership, the forum must cease to be viewed as a toothless entity manned by the government's cronies. Once the dialogue gets under way, more and more factions could jump on the reconciliation bandwagon. Being a pragmatic politician, he is fully conscious of popular aspirations for stability. He will hopefully do the job he has been entrusted with. Under no circumstance can he afford to allow a recurrence of tactical failures that often lead to strategic defeat.