New ne­go­tia­tor

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - S. Mu­das­sir Ali Shah

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.

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