The keenly awaited Afghan reconciliation finally took off this week with a meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban in Murree in the presence of officials from Pakistan, United States and China. The development after several false starts and years of wait provides ray of light and glimmer of hope not only for Afghanistan, which has been battered by decades of war, violence and instability, but for the entire region.
The talks, which Pakistani officials categorically say mark the formal start of the reconciliation process, are path breaking in the sense that they are the first known direct contact between the Afghan government and Taliban even though the two have held a number of informal private meetings, particularly over the past few months in different world cities.
“This is not an exploratory session as being depicted by some quarters in the media. This is a formal and direct contact. The fact that they are together in one room, sitting on the table face to face means they are talking,” a highly placed Pakistani official said at a background briefing and recalled how difficult it had been to get them there.
Islamabad had unequivocally conveyed to Taliban leaders the consequences of not talking
“It is a historic breakthrough …. an ice-breaker,” he remarked.
Mr Sartaj Aziz, adviser to prime minister on foreign affairs and national security, had hinted at this meeting almost a fortnight ago when he had in his testimony before the Senate foreign affairs committee said that a meeting between Afghan government and Taliban was being planned, but still the meeting surprised the onlookers particularly because of the broad-based representation from both sides (the government and Taliban); the international backing for the process; and the positive sentiments expressed during the initial rounds despite the grim situation on the ground where deadly violence rages on.
Looking at the delegations, the government side has representation from both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s camps. Afghan deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, a cousin of the former President Hamid Karzai, is leading the government delegation and is assisted by personal aides of Mr Ghani (Haji Din Muhammad) and Mr Abdullah (Mr Muhammad Natiqi). Meanwhile, the Taliban are represented through former Taliban era chief law officer Mullah Abbas Durrani. The Taliban delegation is said to include representation of all the factions. The exact composition of Taliban delegation remains unknown.
The presence of US and China on the table was more than symbolic
“All groups were represented,” the official said.
The presence of US and China on the table was more than symbolic. It was instead a clear indication that the two considered themselves as stakeholders in the process and would contribute to its success. US, which led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that battled Taliban for over a decade, has been supporting the dialogue initiative, while the Chinese government has increasingly sought to play a bigger role in Afghanistan over the past year and hosted at least two informal meetings of Afghan officials and Taliban. Some reports indicated that other countries like Norway and Qatar that had also helped in the contacts in the past were also part of this initiative.
Not much was immediately known about what happened at the two sessions held on Tuesday night and early hours of Wednesday. But, a Pakistani source privy to the negotiations noted “positive atmosphere” during the talks.
Pakistani officials have been modestly optimistic.
“The very fact that the talks have started is progress. It is a very complicated matter and we should not be expecting immediate results. It would be indeed a big success if both sides at least agree to remaining engaged,” an official said and added that having high expectations from the first meeting would be unrealistic.
That’s exactly what came out in communiqué issued by Pakistan’s foreign ministry at the conclusion of the meeting. “The participants recognized the need to develop confidence building measures to engender trust among all stakeholders. The participants agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive for peace and reconciliation process. The next meeting will be held at mutually convenient date after Ramazan,” it said.
There are several sticking points – Afghan government’s demand that Taliban accept the Constitution, honour rights of women and minorities, and renounce violence, whereas Taliban have been demanding full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The US-led NATO coalition still has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, who are tasked with training and advising the Afghan army and police. The remaining foreign forces are to remain there till end of 2016.
But, a bigger problem is the splintering within Taliban and the weakening authority of the central Taliban leadership over the field commanders, who are said to be inclined to continuing the fight.
Even before the start of the talks, Afghan side had raised the question of relevance of the Taliban negotiators. Their fears proved true to some extent. Although Taliban representation at the talks was broad based, but shortly after the start of the talks one of the groups, through a statement mailed to Western media, distanced itself from the process.
Therefore, it is very much clear to all that the beginning of the talks would not immediately translate into reduced violence within Afghanistan. It would rather take time for the two sides to build confidence and the Taliban leadership engaged in talks to convince the fighters to end violence.
One worry for Pakistan is that the detractors of the process would attempt to sabotage it. “Anti-Pakistan elements would intensify their efforts to drive a wedge between us and Kabul,” the official feared. It is not the first time that Pakistani officials are warning of the detractors. Similar fears were also expressed in a statement issued by ISPR back in February, which was meant to confirm that Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif had told the Afghan leadership that Taliban were ready for talks. “We hope all stake holders will continue to act with responsibility not to allow detractors of peace to succeed,” ISPR had then said.
There are several explanations as to why the Taliban have agreed to enter into peace talks. One commonly cited reason is that there is a realization in Taliban’s political cadre that fighting was not an option for a longer period. Then there was the Pakistani pressure to open the dialogue channel. At least one Pakistani source claimed that Islamabad had unequivocally conveyed to Taliban leaders the consequences of not talking. Though, there was no immediate confirmation of the claim, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s pronouncements in Kabul during his last visit that future Taliban violence would be treated as terrorism and Afghanistan’s enemy can’t be Pakistan’s friends sent the message loud and clear to the Taliban, who long relied on Pakistani hospitality.
The challenge faced at home by Taliban from ‘Islamic State’ (also known as Dai’sh) may have also compelled the insurgent leadership to review its strategy.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad