Supported by Pakistan, China and the United States, Afghanistan initiated a fresh attempt this week at reviving the reconciliation dialogue for a political settlement of Afghan conflict, amidst concern that there is a very narrow window of opportunity for reaching a deal with Taliban on ending violence.
The quadrilateral arrangement for pushing the reconciliation process was formed last month on the margins of the Heart of Asia Conference, which Pakistan hosted. The four countries had established a coordination body, named the ‘Quadrilateral Contact Group’, to oversee the process. The committee’s inaugural session was held in Islamabad on January 11, and the next meeting has been scheduled for January 18 in Kabul. This quadrilateral forum will meet regularly.
The presence of US and China in the dialogue gives confidence to the Afghans
At the first meeting, the four sides held preliminary discussions and shared their respective positions on the process, besides agreeing on the terms of reference for the quadrilateral body that would also serve as its operational framework. The terms of reference detail the tasks the participating countries would have to undertake. The only substantive decisions taken in Islamabad were on continuing the four-way cooperation and calling for direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban.
Detailed discussions on how the process would play out are expected to take place when the quadrilateral forum convenes again in Kabul.
The quadrilateral arrangement is the most important new initiative taken for the resumption of reconciliation process that stalled just after one meeting in Murree last July, after the revelation that Taliban chief Mullah Omar had been dead for over two years.
Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, who is leading the Afghan side in the quadrilateral forum, has looked upbeat about the progress made by the group as yet, and told journalists that developments were expected soon.
He said a roadmap has been shared by Afghanistan with the other three partners, which entails a three staged process under which direct negotiations with the Taliban would take place in the second phase.
Although there are no set deadlines for the process, the outgoing Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Janan Mosazai, while speaking at Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, said an understanding has been reached that lowering of violence has to be achieved before the start of the next spring, when Taliban start their annual offensive. The spring timeframe may be a notional one, given that violence continued unabated during winter last year. The group is using it as reference point for sequencing its engagement with the militants.
Mosazai says “tangible results” are expected in the next couple of months. By tangible, he means significant lowering of violence even though a final political settlement may take much longer to come through.
The formal presence of US and China in the newly instituted format, the ambassador said, gave confidence to the Afghans about achieving those tangible results. He recalled that Pakistan and Afghanistan, during the 2014 visit of President Ashraf Ghani, had agreed on “specific and time bound” steps to prevent the spring offensive of 2015, but that did not happen. The highest level of violence was witnessed in Afghanistan during that year.
Missing this narrow opportunity, the Afghan envoy warned, could be costly not just for Afghanistan, but the region at large.
The four sides appear to be on the same page on how to take the process forward, which is otherwise an indispensable requirement for its success. But a closer look at their publicly stated positions reveals operational differences between how Pakistan and Afghanistan look at it.
Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz, while opening the four-nation talks on Afghan reconciliation, asked the Afghans not to set any preconditions for Taliban to join the process and avoid threats of use of force against the irreconcilables. He had described these as “important elements”.
But Afghan officials seemed to be rejecting the advice in their statements after the meeting. President Ghani’s deputy spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashmi said it was for Taliban to join negotiations without any preconditions. “The Afghan government as a legal and elected institution is required to implement Afghanistan’s constitution,” he said, “and all our steps, including the peace process, should be in accordance with the constitution.”
Hekmat Karzai said that Afghanistan’s security forces would continue to fight out the insurgents who would not give up violence.
These differences may appear minor, but could have strong bearing on the efforts to engage the militants in dialogue.
The writer is a freelance journalist
based in Islamabad