The heightened interest in the Afghan peace process is evident from the flurry of activities related to efforts to end the long drawn out conflict in Afghanistan.
The seventh round of peace talks between the Taliban and the US began in Doha, Qatar, on June 29 amid hopes of progress. The two sides had earlier reached an understanding on US willingness to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees that the Afghan soil would not be used for terrorist attacks against America and other countries. Both sides are keen to continue talking despite deep-seated mistrust of each other and divergent perspectives on how to achieve peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban refusal to agree on a ceasefire at this stage or hold direct talks with the government in Kabul has frustrated the US government. President Donald Trump has raised the bar by stating recently that the US would keep an anti-terrorism force in Afghanistan even after withdrawal of its troops or at least maintain an intelligence presence to tackle the threat from transnational terrorist groups. Taliban are unlikely to accept this American demand as they have time and again demanded complete pullout of all US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Taliban leaders have indicated that normal relations with the US are planned once the troops have been withdrawn. Afghanistan, they acknowledge would
need American assistance for reconstruction and development.
It was widely believed until recently that, in keeping with his campaign promise, President Trump was in a hurry to bring the American soldiers home before the next presidential election. His latest statements on Afghanistan could however, become a hurdle in moving forward the peace process as nothing is more important to the Taliban than a complete withdrawal of foreign forces. Taliban view the foreigners as occupiers and aggressors against Afghanistan. Therefore, they insist that occupation should end before Afghans can sit together to chart out the country’s future.
An important development in the peace process is the forthcoming intra-Afghan meeting scheduled to be held in Qatar on July 7-8. It took Qatar and Germany, the joint sponsors of the meeting, more than two months to organise this meeting after the one planned in April had to be called off following Taliban objection to the 250-member strong delegation coming from Afghanistan to attend the event. Taliban were also angry that the Kabul government, which they have refused to recognise, sought to name all the participants. There were reports that the Taliban were also unhappy about the nomination of around 50 Afghan women for participation in the Doha meeting. Taliban had issued a denial and said that they had not objected to presence of women at the previous intra-Afghan meetings.
This time about 40 prominent Afghans, all opposed to Taliban, would be attending the intra-Afghan meeting in Doha. Among them are officials of the Afghan government, though they would be attending the meeting in an individual capacity. It is obvious that Taliban are dictating terms for engaging in peace talks. First the US in July 2018 agreed to hold talks with the Taliban after having argued all along that they should talk directly to the Afghan government. Others have followed suit as Afghan opposition politicians and now members of President Ashraf Ghani’s government have accepted the Taliban demand that they claim to represent themselves. Russia too, had earlier accepted this position and other conditions put up by the Taliban when it hosted two intra-Afghan dialogues in Moscow in February and June this year.
The landmark Moscow meetings were the precursor for the Doha meeting. The idea was to bring Afghans of all political persuasions, ethnicities and backgrounds to interact with the Taliban. The Doha meeting would be an improvement on the Moscow process as Afghan government functionaries would get to interact directly with the Taliban negotiators first-hand. Such intra-Afghan meetings being arranged with the mediation and assistance of Afghanistan’s well-wishers are important to overcome disagreements and bring durable peace to the country.
Pakistan is already playing the role of a facilitator for the Afghan peace process. It organised its own intra-Afghan meeting at Bhurban in Murree in the last week of June. Taliban weren’t invited to the conference, which became known as the Lahore Process because it was sponsored by the Lahore Centre for Peace and Research headed by former foreign affairs secretary, Shamshad Ahmad Khan, with the blessings of the Pakistan government. The Afghan government was invited and Umar Daudzai, an aide to President Ashraf Ghani, said he initially planned to attend. Later, he changed his mind and instead travelled to Istanbul to take part in another conference on Afghanistan. It is obvious that Kabul didn’t want to attend a conference that was going to be dominated by Afghan opposition leaders, including presidential candidates Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Wali Masood and Abdul Latif Pedram. However, the Afghan government didn’t openly oppose the conference. This spared Pakistan a dispute with Kabul.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai was invited, but he declined to come. He reportedly demanded high protocol, which Pakistan couldn’t or didn’t want to extend to him. Other important Afghan politicians who attended the Murree event included Atta Mohammad Noor, Ismail Khan, Mohammad Mohaqqiq, Yunas Qanooni, Fozia Kofi and Karim Khalili. Most of them have been critical of Pakistan for pursuing a pro-Taliban policy. It was therefore, remarkable that they accepted the invitation to attend the conference. Some of them praised Pakistan’s constructive role for facilitating the Afghan peace process.
More rounds of intra-Afghan dialogue are needed, though it would be better if all such initiatives are coordinated to avoid confusion. These initiatives should complement the earlier ones and build upon the consensus reached in earlier meetings. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was right when he noted that the Murree meeting was complementary to the Doha, Moscow and other tracks as the idea was to facilitate interaction among Afghans in a bid to promote the peace process.