A sudden surge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan this week – days ahead of the planned second round of peace dialogue between the insurgent group and Afghan government that is being hosted by Pakistan – has clouded the process that began earlier this month for ending the protracted conflict.
Taliban fighters have not only made significant advances over the past few days capturing Kohistanat district in Sar-e-Pul province and several villages in Kunduz province to build on their recent successes they have also begun adopting more barbaric tactics like mutilation of the bodies of fallen Afghan security men. Clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces have, meanwhile, continued in other parts of the war ravaged country.
This unfortunately forms the grim backdrop of the upcoming round as compared to the optimism generated by the brief lull in fighting during Eid days, Taliban Chief Mullah Omar’s public endorsement of the process in his annual Eid message, and reports of friendly atmosphere at the first round held in Murree on July 7.
Taliban fighters have made significant advances over the past few days
But, at the same time this context makes it clear that the top item on the agenda of the meeting scheduled to be held on Friday would be to explore the possibility of a ceasefire before the negotiators from both sides could progress to discuss steps for building confidence. Although there are no preconditions from the Afghan side, but the worsening security situation and rising casualty figure makes it imperative for Kabul to first seek a break in hostilities.
Afghans are right in saying that peace talks and violence cannot go together. The Afghan government delegation headed by deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai had at the first round also insisted on a ceasefire, but there was no agreement on it.
As one High Peace Council member Shahzada Shahid puts it, the reconciliation process would not be credible without Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire.
Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir, while speaking over the phone from Kabul, also underscored that lowering of violence was essential for the continuity of the process.
“It is very important that some agreement on lowering of violence is reached. Unfortunately the violence has increased. Therefore, some tangible outcome is required to get political support for this process. President Ghani, who has been heavily criticized at home for improving ties with Pakistan, needs to show the gains to convince his people that why the process needs to be continued,” he said.
But, Pakistani analyst Asad Munir believes that it would be premature to expect a ceasefire at the Friday (July 31) meeting.
“Expecting agreement on any of the CBMs (including ceasefire) I think may be too early. Taliban have shown flexibility in their previous stance of not negotiating till the exit of foreign forces by attending the first meeting in Murree and it is now time for the Afghan government to reciprocate by talking about the amendments that could be made in the 2004 constitution for addressing Taliban concerns,” Mr Munir commented.
Munir believes that the Friday meeting would be more of an agenda setting session.
Besides, the ceasefire issue, the two sides are expected to talk about the other CBMs including Taliban’s demand for lifting of UN sanctions, better treatment/release of Taliban prisoners. But, as noted above progress on ceasefire could only guarantee any forward movement.
Pakistan’s role in this regard, as the host and the facilitator of the process, is nevertheless very crucial. Afghans think that Islamabad has enough influence over the insurgent group to compel them to agree to a ceasefire.
Pakistani officials always insist that they have very limited influence, which they are using to further the reconciliation process.
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, said: “We (Pakistan) will continue to use our influence [with the Taliban], limited as it is, in furthering deeper engagement between the Taliban and the Kabul government.”
Mr Munir too vouches for the limits to Pakistan’s influence over Taliban.
“Since most of the top leadership of Taliban took refuge here post 9/11, therefore, Pakistan can play a significant role but cannot dictate terms to the Taliban,” he maintains.
“Pakistan won’t be able to keep the Taliban united”
But, the way Pakistan is conducting the process has drawn criticism from Afghans. Many believe that by insisting on being the host of the dialogue, dubbed as the Murree Process, Islamabad has over played its hand.
The differences over the venue came to fore when Afghan officials claimed that upcoming round being held on July 31 would take place in China, but Pakistani officials soon afterwards said that they were the hosts.
It is all the more important that Islamabad takes a backseat during the dialogue to dismiss the perception that it was controlling the process. The reconciliation should by all means appear to be Afghan led and Afghan owned, otherwise analysts warn that it could lose legitimacy.
Mir says: “It is believed that presence of Pakistan officials in the meeting exerts pressure on Taliban and they cannot negotiate with an open mind. When the talks progress to a phase where discussion on substantive issues begins, there should be a venue where there is no pressure on the Taliban”.
Beyond the debate over Pakistan’s role there are several other challenges also, particularly the reports of continuing rift within Taliban over the negotiations despite Mullah Omar’s endorsement. Efforts have been on to convince the opposing commanders and members of the political office in Doha, who are supposedly still not on board. One such attempt reported by Afghan media was a meeting between Afghan officials and representatives of Doha office in Saudi Arabia.
The delegation that Taliban bring for the Friday meeting would only tell if that rift had been healed.
Another complicating factor is the speculation if Mullah Omar is even alive.
Recent reports in Afghan media have claimed that Mullah Omar was no more alive and questioned the authenticity of his Eid statement.
“In all probability Mullah Omar is no more alive. The day it is officially announced there are going to be groupings in the Taliban. Pakistan never had that kind of influence on Taliban as is believed by the world. Pakistan won’t be able to keep the Taliban united,” Mr Munir said.
There has been lot of debate about the implications of emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan for the nascent peace process. Some believe that Taliban agreed to join the reconciliation process for fear of being overwhelmed by ISIS, which is expanding its footprint in previously Taliban held territories, while others contend that ISIS factor was inhibiting Taliban from freely negotiating at the table because they know that a deal deemed unfavourable by their ranks could accelerate defections to ISIS.
It is, however, a fact that ISIS fear is pre-occupying the minds of Taliban leaders. In what we have as Mullah Omar’s Eid message there is emphasis on avoiding divisions, besides a veiled criticism of ISIS, whom he had referred to as “notorious figures of our society” and “mercenary forces trained by foreign intelligence agencies.”
But Munir believes that ISIS factor would truly come into play once it is confirmed that Mullah Omar is no more.
“There are already factions in Taliban, each faction is trying to gain influence, those who are against Mullah Mansoor Akhtar or Mullah Omar’s son Yaqub or have been expelled from Taliban ranks will for survival swear allegiance to ISIS,” he said.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad