There is some glimmer of hope for peace as China is preparing to host a fresh initiative for bringing together Afghan political leaders, including government representatives and Taliban for talks over ending the 18-year-long conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The talks are expected later this month, and according to one diplomatic source around November 21. There have been a couple of significant confidence building measures taken by both sides – the release of high profile Haqqani Network prisoners by Afghan government in exchange for two Western professors held hostage by Taliban and marked reduction in battlefield violence in Afghanistan.
Key Haqqani Network commanders – Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Haqqani network chief and Taliban second in command Sirajuddin Haqqani; Haji Mali Khan, Siraj’s uncle and Haqqani clan elder; and Hafiz Rashid, were released in exchange for two American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) professors Kevin King (US) and Timothy Weeks (Australia). Anas and Rashid were captured in 2014, whereas Mali had been in custody since 2011. The AUAF professors were, meanwhile, kidnapped in 2016.
The exchange has taken place after protracted negotiations which were facilitated by Pakistan. The release of the AUAF professors remained on top of US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Amb Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent visits to the region. It should be recalled that Prime Minister Imran Khan had hinted at their release during his maiden visit to Washington in 2011. The precise role played by Pakistan in the parleys, however, is unclear, but the release of Taliban prisoners happened on a day when ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and Foreign Secretary Suhail Mahmood were visiting Kabul. Officials insist that they had travelled to Kabul for talks on a bilateral agenda.
Notwithstanding the details of the exchange deal and who played what role in securing it, the swap is being seen as a very important confidence building measure especially at a time when all the stakeholders are focused on getting the peace talks back on track after President Trump on September 9 decided to dump the process and end contacts with the insurgent group. US and Taliban were then said to be close to a deal that would have paved the way for withdrawal of US troops in return for counter-terrorism assurances by Taliban and would have also led to start of the intra-Afghan process.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, while announcing the release of Haqqani Network commanders in Kabul, said it was done with the “aim of facilitating face-to-face talks with the Taliban” for a peace settlement. He termed it a “tough but important decision,” and at the same time said that it was a signal to the US that his government was ready to cooperate.
US welcomed the swap. US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, in a statement, said: “This is the latest in a series of courageous steps that President Ghani and the Afghan government have taken to respond to the Afghan people’s overwhelming desire for peace.”
At the same time, Afghan observers contend that violence, especially the battlefield skirmishes between Taliban and Afghan forces, have reduced over the past few week although insurgent attacks and operations by Afghan forces have continued.
These developments form a rather encouraging backdrop for the upcoming meeting between Afghan leaders and Taliban in China.
China, it may be remembered, had proposed to host the talks at a quadrilateral meeting on Afghan peace and reconciliation involving US, Russia, China and Pakistan. The quadrilateral meeting, while endorsing the initiative, had called for the reduction of violence and mutual release of prisoners for facilitating the negotiating process as pre-requisites for progress.
The meeting in China would be the second such session in five months. The earlier one was hosted by Germany and Qatar in Doha in July in which the Afghan political leaders and Taliban had agreed on a “roadmap for peace,” and the statement had called on all the warring sides to stop attacking schools, religious centers, mosques and hospitals. Many of those commitments were non-binding and had then appeared to be contingent upon US-Taliban deal being successfully concluded. However, things did not go as planned and much of the progress made at the Qatar meeting could not materialize. It nevertheless created an opening on which China is seeking to capitalize.
The talks being hosted by China were originally scheduled to be held last month but were then delayed on the request of the Afghan government. It appears that the new dates for the meeting would present a better opportunity not only because of the confidence building measures taken by the two sides, but also because of the fact that results of presidential elections are scheduled to be announced on November 14, which would give a greater clarity about the future course of political developments in Afghanistan.
The meeting Beijing is meant to “build upon the past efforts and move the peace process forward with an aim to end the bloodshed as soon as possible.”
China, many analysts believe, holds better chance than any other country, to push all parties to reach a settlement of the long running dispute because it has good relations with both sides of the conflict, besides having goodwill among all of Afghan neighbours. Taliban delegations have visited Beijing for meetings with Chinese officials over the past few months. China has equally strong relations with other Afghan politicians, including those in the government.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “China is in communication with all parties in Afghanistan on convening the intra-Afghan meeting in China, including the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.”
He reaffirmed China’s support to a “broad and inclusive process of peace and reconciliation” and said: “We are ready to provide a platform for dialogue and exchange and facilitate the peace and reconciliation process on the basis of respecting the will of all Afghan parties.”
China is also keeping Pakistan engaged on the planned meeting. China’s Special Envoy on Afghan Affairs, Ambassador Deng Xijun, who visited Islamabad this week for consultations, told Foreign Secretary Suhail Mahmood that “close cooperation between China and Pakistan was essential to ensuring that the Afghan peace and reconciliation process continued to move forward constructively”. He said China believes that Pakistan had “an important and unique role in the promotion of Afghan peace process”, and China work together with Pakistan on this issue.
China has been closely following the Afghan peace process for over several years and quite prominently for the last seven years. Its interest in Afghanistan is because of its shared border with Afghanistan, although a short one that is nearly 76 kms long. China, moreover, wants to prevent Uighur insurgents in Xinjiang province from taking advantage of the volatile situation in Afghanistan. Beijing too would be interested in seeing US and other extra-regional forces leave its neighbourhood.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org