Talk­ing the Afghan talks

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

CON­FU­SION and un­cer­tainty sur­round the re­sump­tion of di­rect talks be­tween the Kabul govern­ment and the in­sur­gents. The war­ring Afghan sides were sup­posed to re­turn to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble next week af­ter a hia­tus of more than eight months. But it is still not cer­tain whether the Afghan Tal­iban are will­ing to join the intra-Afghan di­a­logue. The in­vite has also been ex­tended to other Afghan in­sur­gent groups, widen­ing the size of the ta­ble. It is not clear, how­ever, who else would be join­ing the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process.

It is ap­par­ent that the Tal­iban are not will­ing to join the talks with­out some pre­con­di­tions. They want some pre­lim­i­nary steps to be taken prior to the talks that in­clude recog­ni­tion as an Is­lamic emi­rate, re­moval of their of­fi­cials from the black list, lift­ing of travel re­stric­tions, re­lease of pris­on­ers and un­freez­ing of their funds.

It is cer­tainly a tall or­der for both the Kabul govern­ment and the US to ac­cept th­ese with­out a de­crease in in­sur­gent hos­til­i­ties. What in­cen­tives can be of­fered to the in­sur­gents buoyed by their re­cent suc­cesses in the bat­tle­field to bring them to the ta­ble, how­ever, re­mains the ques­tion.

Surely the Quadri­lat­eral Co­or­di­na­tion Group (QCG) made up of top of­fi­cials from Afghanistan, Pak­istan, the United States and China, have been able to draw up some kind of a road map for peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. But that does not seem enough to get the process started. There is still a lot of ground to cover be­fore one can ex­pect the war­ring sides to en­gage in more se­ri­ous and sub­stan­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions on the fu­ture of the strife-torn coun­try

There is deep scep­ti­cism in Kabul as well as among the Tal­iban lead­er­ship about the frame­work of the talks for en­tirely dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Dr Naeem Wardag, the Tal­iban spokesper­son in Qatar, says that the group is not aware of the QCG's dis­cus­sions.

Un­like the pre­vi­ous Mur­ree meet­ing, where rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Afghan govern­ment and the Tal­iban were en­gaged in di­rect talks in the pres­ence of ob­servers from the US and China, this time the in­vi­ta­tion has been ex­tended to var­i­ous fac­tions of the Tal­iban and Hezb-i-Is­lami led by Gul­bud­din Hek­mat­yar. The frac­tious group that does not seem to have much in­flu­ence in Afghanistan any­more has re­sponded pos­i­tively to the in­vite. What it brings to the ta­ble is an­other mat­ter.

Ini­tially, the Kabul govern­ment had not been very en­thu­si­as­tic about the QCG, but it re­luc­tantly ac­cepted the fo­rum to fa­cil­i­tate a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. Many in the Kabul govern­ment wanted the group to be ex­panded by in­clud­ing some other neigh­bour­ing and re­gional coun­tries. But that would have added to the com­plex­i­ties of the Afghan cri­sis.

China's grow­ing in­volve­ment in Afghan peace ef­forts has cer­tainly been a very pos­i­tive in­flu­ence. One ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion of the QCG is that it has helped in the im­prove­ment of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions be­tween Is­lam­abad and Kabul that had nose­dived last year af­ter the se­cond round of the Mur­ree talks were can­celled fol­low­ing the news of the death of Mul­lah Omar. Surely re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries are crit­i­cal for the peace ini­tia­tive to work. Still, there are sources of ten­sion and dis­trust that con­tinue to cast a long shadow over the process.

One stick­ing point in the in­traAfghan talks is the in­sis­tence of the Tal­iban to use the ban­ner of 'Is­lamic Emi­rate' that is un­ac­cept­able to the Kabul govern­ment. The is­sue has also led to Amer­i­can of­fi­cials call­ing off the Doha talks with the Tal­iban af­ter a strong protest by the then Afghan pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai.

Most ob­servers, how­ever, be­lieve the is­sue could be side­lined if an agree­ment is reached on some in­cen­tives for the in­sur­gent group. For sure, the Afghan mili­tia has al­ready been le­git­imised af­ter be­ing in­vited for talks. There is al­ready a sug­ges­tion to de­clare the mili­tia a "do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion" rather than an in­sur­gent out­fit. Such a clas­si­fi­ca­tion is cer­tainly not ac­cept­able to the Kabul govern­ment, at least not for now.

Per­haps, the most se­ri­ous is­sue cloud­ing the pro­posed talks is the es­ca­la­tion in the Tal­iban of­fen­sive and the marked in­crease in in­sur­gent vi­o­lence tak­ing a very heavy toll on Afghan se­cu­rity forces and the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. Last year was the blood­i­est since the 2001 US in­va­sion of Afghanistan. The Tal­iban have also been able to ex­tend their of­fen­sive to the north­ern Afghan provinces where the mili­tia did not have much of a sup­port base in the past. The vi­o­lence is likely to es­ca­late fur­ther.

A ma­jor de­mand of the Kabul govern­ment is the ces­sa­tion of in­sur­gent vi­o­lence in or­der to cre­ate a favourable en­vi­ron­ment. That may also bring Pak­istan un­der pres­sure to act more ef­fec­tively to stop the Tal­iban at­tacks. Is­lam­abad had failed to dis­suade the Tal­iban in the past and it is highly un­likely that it could suc­ceed this time when the mili­tia ap­pears much more pow­er­ful. For sure, Mul­lah Akhtar Man­sour has con­sol­i­dated his lead­er­ship, with most of the dis­si­dents now fall­ing in line and pledg­ing al­le­giance to the new supreme leader. Yet there is still a strong rebel fac­tion led by Mul­lah Ra­sool, The QCG has also in­vited him to the meet­ing, adding to the con­fu­sion. How wise is the move re­mains to be seen. Al­though it is not clear whether the rebel fac­tion would ac­cept the in­vite, it will cer­tainly add to the con­fu­sion. Even if the Tal­iban ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion there is a big ques­tion mark on who will rep­re­sent the group at the meet­ing. Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, the Kabul govern­ment has given a list of the in­sur­gent lead­ers who it wants to par­tic­i­pate in the meet­ing. Pak­istan and Afghanistan have also de­cided to con­sti­tute a bi­lat­eral joint work­ing group to work with cred­i­ble mem­bers of the clergy in Afghanistan and Pak­istan for their sup­port to the peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process.

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