The two-day event hosted by the Pugwash International Conference on Science and World Affairs on May 2-3 at Doha, capital of Qatar, created a lot of excitement and caused media hype as an eight-member delegation of the Afghan Taliban movement also attended the event.
The conference was wrongly portrayed as peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. Both sides denied these reports. To repudiate the reports further, the Taliban made it clear that their eight representatives at the conference were attending it in their personal capacity. The Afghan government maintained that Afghans invited to the Pugwash conference didn’t represent it even if they are part of the government or are members of its High Peace Council.
On its part, Pugwash never said that it was hosting peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In fact, the longstanding secretary general of this international organisation, Prof Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, had to make sustained efforts to make the Taliban agree to attend the conference. In the process, the Taliban demands regarding the list of participants and the conference agenda had to be changed a few times to accommodate them and ensure their participation. Besides, Doha was chosen as the venue primarily to facilitate the Taliban as almost all members of their political commission are living in Qatar and some cannot travel outside because they are on the UN ‘black list’ of wanted militants and terrorists. Taliban insistence on holding the conference in Qatar despite the fact that other venues such as Turkey were also considered could be aimed at appeasing the Qatari government as it has been generously hosting and protecting more than a dozen important Taliban figures in Doha for the last many years. In fact, Qatar enjoys arguably the highest degree of trust among the Taliban leaders.
Around 37 Afghans, including the eight Taliban representatives, were eventually invited to attend the conference in a secluded place outside Doha. A few didn’t or couldn’t come. Among them was the former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Motawakil, who has been living in Kabul after being released by the US military from its custody in Afghanistan. Motawakil isn’t in the good books of the Taliban because he surrendered to the US forces in Kandahar several years ago without consulting the Taliban leadership.
The eight Taliban representatives at the conference included the delegation head Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Qari Deen Mohammad Hanif, Abdul Salam Hanafi, Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, Jan Mohammad Madani, Shahabuddin Delawar, Syed Rasool Halim and Hafiz Azizur Rahman. Some of them had served as ministers and ambassadors in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
From Kabul, the prominent participants included Attaullah Lodin, who until last month was the governor of Nangarhar province, Shahzada Shahid who is a member of the National Assembly from Kunar province and is spokesman of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council set up to run the peace process by involving the armed groups such as the Taliban, former minister Anwarul Haq Ahadi, former member of parliament Sayed Ishaq Gailani, and a number of mujahideen figures who fought against the Soviet occupying forces.
Former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami was represented at the conference by Dr Ghairat Baheer and Qaribur Rahman Saeed. Dr Abdul Qayyum Kochi, an uncle of President Dr Ashraf Ghani, was also among the invitees.
The UN officials hailing from a few countries were present at the conference. The UN had reportedly assisted Pugwash in organising the event. As the hospitality was lavish, some of the participants said the government of Qatar bore the expenses. In any case, it could not have been held without Qatar’s agreement and assistance.
Three women — Lina Shinwari, Malalai Shinwari and Bibi Wazhma Hazratzai — also managed to attend the event. Reports said Taliban didn’t object to their presence because they had been highlighting the cases of detained Taliban members.
If Pugwash had its way and in case the Taliban and the Afghan government had agreed, certain pro-government Afghans who had served on important positions too would have been invited to the conference in Qatar. Its secretary general Prof Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, who is an Italian, had been trying for the last few years to organise a gathering of Afghans of different political persuasion so that they could discuss the Afghanistan situation and ways and means of ending the Afghan conflict.
For more than two days, the Taliban and other Afghans made speeches, listened to each other with patience and interacted informally at tea and lunches. There were no formal meetings and the informal chats didn’t lead to any serious dialogue. Whatever was said at the conference table was deemed the official line of the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar) or the personal views of other Afghans attending the event. Proposals were made about regularly holding such conference and organising one in two weeks’ time, but no decision was made when and where to meet again.
There was no breakthrough in the conference with regard to a ceasefire in Afghanistan or holding of peace talks. All sides repeated their known positions. It was obvious that the gulf between them is still wide and seemingly unbridgeable. This could only mean continuation of the conflict and more violence. However, the good part of the conference was the ability of the Afghans to sit together despite their disagreements and listen to each other’s divergent views. They would now be better informed about each other’s views, though such conferences held earlier in France and Japan didn’t lead to any meaningful peace process.
Hezb-i-Islami’s Dr Ghairat Baheer doubted if the US forces would ever fully leave Afghanistan and termed presence of foreign troops as the root-cause of the war in the country. He opined that Afghans are capable of resolving their disputes on their own provided foreigners left them alone.
On behalf of the Taliban, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai reiterated their previous demands including complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Linking reconciliation with withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, Taliban said the foreign forces should bring an end to the occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban said the peace process should be pushed forward by impartial and sincere people.
Terming the presence of foreigners, imposing sanctions on the Taliban and declaring the Taliban as terrorists, is creating hurdles in the peace process. The Taliban demanded removal of these factors. Taliban said signing strategic and security agreement pacts, holding peace talks with neighbouring countries instead of Taliban and opposition of the Afghan government to the Taliban’s Qatar office were the “internal factors” that were hurdles towards peace process.
The statement demanded removal of Taliban names from the UN’s ‘black list’ and withdrawal of head money on the Taliban members. The Taliban also demanded setting up an office for their use to facilitate contacts with whoever wanted to reach them. They made it clear that they would only accept Afghanistan’s existing constitution if it is based on Shariah and is able to protect the national interest.
Taliban held the Afghan government responsible for all ills, saying it has no peace plan or strategy and was instead deceiving the Afghan nation. The statement vowed that Taliban would not suffer defeat at the military front. Taliban said the security forces were posing threat to the lives, property and honour of the people and insisted that their ongoing resistance was a legitimate national resistance and jihad. Taliban said their Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women guaranteed by Islam.
Taliban urged the international community to accept the rights of Afghans and bring an end to the “drama being staged in the name of terrorism” and play impartial role in the Afghan peace process. Taliban conceded they made some mistakes during their rule in Afghanistan due to lack of experience.
As is clear, the position of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami hasn’t changed while those on the Afghan government side too are willing to concede little. Such conferences are useful as these bring together Afghans opposed to each other and provide a platform when there is none, but these are unlikely to achieve much in terms of making Afghanistan peaceful and stable.