There are times when we hear incessant talk about peace talks with the Taliban, but nowadays this is an almost forgotten subject.
As all previous efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban failed, those wishing to mediate or facilitate such a dialogue think hard and long before taking the plunge.
Saudi Arabia is a prime example as it burned its fingers trying to resolve disputes at different periods of time between the Afghan mujahideen, Taliban and the government in Kabul. It even arranged once for the leaders of the warring mujahideen groups fighting the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan to meet at Makkah near Islam’s holiest place, Khana-i-Ka’aba, and resolve their disagreements. Like many other agreements aimed at ending disputes between the mujahideen factions, this too was violated. So bitter were Saudi Arabia’s experiences that it is now reluctant to play the role of a peacemaker in Afghanistan.
Pakistan too has seen its intentions questioned and its role as a possible peacemaker challenged whenever it tried to arrange peace talks between the rival Afghan armed and political groups. Its latest efforts to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan Government and Taliban are going nowhere.
In fact, President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government publicly stated some months ago that it won’t ask Pakistan again to arrange peace talks with the Taliban. Kabul is so angry with Islamabad that it no longer trusts it to do anything good in Afghanistan. On its part, Pakistan has gradually realised that it cannot contribute positively to restoring peace in Afghanistan unless the two sides — Afghan government and Taliban — start trusting it and ask it to become the peacemaker.
Presently, no peace initiative is underway to try and bring the Afghan conflict to an end. Rather, the Afghan government and Taliban are engaged in some of the most intense and brutal fighting even during the winter months when the cold weather and snowfall make it difficult to fight and undertake attacks. This is an ominous sign that the fighting would intensify now that the Taliban’s annual spring offensive is a few weeks away.
Recently there were reports that the US had engaged the Taliban in exploratory peace talks in Qatar where the latter’s Political Commission has maintained an office for the last several years. The US apparently wanted to convince the Taliban to enter into formal peace talks with the Afghan government. In accordance with their long-standing policy, Taliban refused to talk to the Afghan government and instead insisted on talking to the US as they consider it the real power behind the regime in Kabul. The Americans also have to be careful not to upset the Afghan government by engaging directly in talks with the Taliban.
A major initiative was undertaken in late 2015 and early 2016 when the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US held several meetings in Kabul and Islamabad to come up with a framework for facilitating peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. Pakistan and China in particular tried to persuade the Taliban leadership to enter into peace talks with Kabul.
While refusing to talk to the Afghan government, Taliban as usual highlighted the need for creating the right conditions for peace negotiations by first removing the names of their members from the UN Security Council’s ‘black-list’ and releasing their men imprisoned in the US prison in Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban also reiterated their major demands, which include complete withdrawal of all US-led foreign forces and enforcement of Shariah. The Afghan government made it clear that it won’t accept any pre-conditions for holding the peace talks.
Certain happenings also made the Taliban rigid in their stance of refusing to join the peace process. The assassination of the Taliban supreme leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in a US drone strike in Balochistan in May last year was one such happening. Taliban vowed revenge and increased their attacks against the US-led Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. The recent killing of the well-known Taliban ‘shadow’ governor of the northern Kunduz province in another US drone attack could also stiffen their opposition to peace talks.
The Afghan government’s demand for putting the name of the new Taliban supreme leader Mulla Haibatullah Akhundzada in UN ‘black-list’ and classifying him as a sanctioned and wanted terrorist is also among Taliban circles as a move detrimental to any prospects of peace talks.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group hasn’t been disbanded, but it is presently non-functional. Perhaps it could be used in future as a platform for facilitating and guaranteeing the peace process in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when and how this could happen. There has been talk of expanding this group by including other concerned countries such as Iran, India and Russia in it, but it won’t be easy getting the existing four members to agree on its future composition. Besides, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group isn’t operational and doesn’t offer any real hope to take up the onerous challenge of making war-torn Afghanistan peaceful and stable again.
Russia has recently undertaken its own campaign to seek a regional solution for ending the long drawn out Afghan conflict. It first hosted a trilateral meeting by inviting China and Pakistan to Moscow and then expanded the consultative process by issuing invitation to Afghanistan, Iran and India for attending the second session on February 15.
The first Moscow meeting made the significant proposal that the names of Taliban leaders be deleted from the UN ‘black-list’ so that sanctions against them are lifted and they are made part of the peace process. Taliban promptly welcomed this proposal as it met one of their pre-conditions for joining the peace process. It showed that confidence-building measures would have to be taken to reassure the stakeholders, including the Taliban, that their concerns were being addressed during the process for pursuing peace in Afghanistan.
The Russian peace initiative is still in its early stages. Also, it won’t make much headway without making the US part of the process. The US is providing the biggest economic and military assistance to Afghanistan and its support is crucial in sustaining the Afghan government in power.