Afghan government and the Taliban are poised to hold face-to-face talks following behind the scenes encouragement by Pakistan, America and other stakeholders. The two sides—Taliban and Afghan government have been in informal contact with each other for some time, however, this is the first time that they plan to publically share a table to converse about future political landscape of Afghanistan. Committees for the proposed talks on both the sides are engaged in affairs like discussing agendas for talks and other issues, however, as of now no direct meeting has taken place.
America is encouraging Pakistan and China to support President Ghani’s reconciliation efforts. President Obama’s special envoy, Daniel F Feldman, has visited Islamabad and held important talks. He met Army Chief General Raheel Sharif as well. Regional situation was discussed during these meetings. Feldman appreciated Pakistan’s positive role for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Feldman’s visit was aimed at discussing the prospects of a peace deal in the backdrop of the latest initiatives. Afghan Taliban talks with the government in Kabul are likely to take place soon, though certain sticky issues are yet to be finalized; for example, Islamabad, Beijing, Kabul and Dubai have been shortlisted as possible venues; however, efforts are being made to arrange the talks in Kabul in an effort to show that the process is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
President Obama held a video conference with President Ashraf Ghani, on March 13, and discussed the peace process and commended the regime’s efforts to improve relationship with Pakistan. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah Abdullah also participated in the conference call. “The President commended President Ghani and Dr Abdullah on their leadership in promoting an Afghan peace process to end the conflict in Afghanistan and their initiative to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan relations,” the White House said.
Debate is going on the issue of presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan; spokesman of Afghan Taliban Zabihullah Mujahid has commented in a message that no doubt that Afghans want peace, but this is possible after the foreign forces stop aggression and allow sovereignty to Afghans. The Taliban leadership is not out-rightly rejecting the prospect of talks with the Afghan government. China’s foreign minister last month said during a visit to Islamabad that Beijing was willing to help mediate talks to end the Afghan war.
Reportedly, China has held rounds of talks with the Taliban and asked them to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. The Chinese have held “one, two or three” rounds of talks with the Taliban in the past few months, Dr Abdullah Abdullah said at a conference organized by an Indian media group. “They asked the Taliban to have talks directly with the Afghan government, that’s a good message,” Abdullah said, adding that he did not know what the outcome would be of China’s efforts. Abdullah, speaking at the India Today Conclave 2015 in New Delhi, did not say where the meetings took place. Abdullah’s backing of the nascent process is crucial because many of his supporters represent the anti-Taliban sentiment.
The Taliban side is silent over the Afghan government’s willingness to give share to them in power and also accept their demands within constitutional framework. Taliban are accepting that their members visit certain countries for various issues and have traditional links with several countries. An Afghan government official has said that the issues about which Taliban have concerns could be discussed and sorted out once the talk process starts. The next few days are very crucial. It is a make-or-break situation. All sides are very much aware of the fact that the breakthrough has to be achieved before the Taliban’s spring offensive. All stakeholders are pushing for a formal ceasefire in order to pave the way for meaningful talks before the Afghan Taliban begin their spring offensive in May. The first round of talks will focus on striking a deal on a ceasefire. China is to act as a ‘guarantor’ for any peace deal between the insurgents and the Afghan government. Pakistan and Afghanistan have agreed to set up a joint committee to work out a mechanism for documentation of unregistered Afghan nationals in Pakistan.
While talking to Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Sayed Balkhi, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif has said that building stable and cooperative relations with all countries of the region including Afghanistan is part of his vision of a peaceful neighbourhood, adding that Pakistan is fully committed to the internationally endorsed Solution Strategy for Afghan Refugees. During the London Conference on Afghanistan, in December 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz had called upon the international community to support Afghanistan to bring back Afghan refugees living abroad, by helping to create conducive conditions for their sustainable reintegration in their homeland. Pakistan respects the principle of voluntary return and feels encouraged that the Afghan government is creating pull factors to incentivize the return of refugees. Balkhi said an inter-ministerial Board has been formed in Afghanistan for overseeing return of Afghan refugees which is being chaired by Presidential Ashraf Ghani. Balkhi said it is the desire of the Afghan people to focus on economic development and not to hear the sound of gunshots again.
With the change of leadership in Afghanistan, the two countries have commenced a historic new phase in bilateral relations. Now focus is on enhanced political engagement, security and counter-terrorism cooperation, trade and economic partnership, and regional cooperation. Terrorism is a common enemy of the two countries and it requires common endeavours to defeat it. Both the countries have paid a very heavy price at the hands of terrorism and now Pakistan has launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb which has broken the backbone of terrorist network in the country. Pakistan has a commitment, not to allow its territories to be used against other countries. Pakistan is in favour of an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process.
Both sides—Taliban and the Afghan government—are deeply suspicious of each other. Taliban representatives have indicated that, should talks begin, they would make demands including the immediate departure of all foreign troops. A senior aide to Ghani said anticipated Taliban demands, which may also include re-imposing the harsh interpretation of Islamic law would be unacceptable. The aide said Pakistani intermediaries were “working to find middle ground”, but so far reported no change in the Taliban stance. “If these demands are not softened,” the aide said, “the first day of talks could become the last day of talks.”
Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz has also confirmed that the Afghan government and the Taliban were preparing to hold negotiations. Pakistan has always supported such a process, and re-emphasized it to be transparent, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. The process of intra-Afghan negotiations is likely to be painstakingly slow, progress could be akin to one step forward and two backwards. At this critical time, a caution is due for Pakistan that it should not get involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, even if officially invited by the Afghan government, it should only facilitate the process to the extent requested by Afghan government and Taliban. The interlocutors of Afghan peace and reconciliation process should look for strong guarantors to the anticipated agreement. No single country could bear such burden; however it would be appropriate if all permanent members of UNSC and all six immediate neighbours of Afghanistan jointly underwrite the forthcoming political arrangement in Afghanistan. Above all, America, the real power yielder in Afghanistan’ owes it to the Afghan people and the international community to make the process of intra-Afghan negotiations a success.
The Nation March 16, 2015
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer, and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.