The South Asia Channel

Putting peace talks on pause

Putting peace talks on pause

Progress with the Afghan reconciliation process, still in "exploratory" mode, and involving a diverse set of actors and conflicting agendas, has been excruciatingly slow and wrapped in uncertainty. Testy exchanges, described as "hard talk" that occurred at an Afghanistan-Pakistan summit a few days ago in Islamabad, are a case in point. What is sorely needed at this stage is a slight pause, to allow for an evaluation and re-think in order to give this highly sensitive process more coherence and a chance to better define the Afghan end-state.

Islamabad’s position on the peace talks was revealed when Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, publicly scoffed at an Afghan request to facilitate talks between Kabul and the members of the Taliban Quetta Shura (leadership council). The Afghan side had sought clarification on the whereabouts of Afghan insurgent leaders reported to have disappeared in Pakistan. Khar said it was "preposterous" to think that her government could deliver Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, and warned Kabul against "unrealistic, almost ridiculous expectations" about peace talks.

For its part, Kabul expressed optimism for having detected "a big change among Pakistanis." Sounding enthusiastic, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman said "the atmosphere is much better… we are more optimistic than before that they will support us." Karzai himself went a step further and asked the Taliban to engage in direct talks and, once more, urged Pakistan to facilitate negotiation efforts.

A week later, in an about face, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani urged all Afghan rebel groups to take part in peace talks. This amounted to a tacit acknowledgement that the country’s civilian government was sending a message to insurgent leaders based in Pakistan, asking that they engage in talks with Kabul.

The Taliban agreed last year to establish an office in Qatar for preliminary talks between the U.S. and Quetta Shura emissaries as part of "confidence-building measures" that aim to secure the release of a handful of top leaders from U.S. custody in Guantanamo, and reduce U.N.-imposed bans on a number of blacklisted commanders in exile. It is not known what type of realistic quid pro quo, if any, is expected of the Taliban within that framework. Karzai, not too keen on the Qatar peace track, has grudgingly endorsed the Taliban office there as an "address," hoping that real talks would be held as part of a preferred separate process, whilst the Taliban insist that they will not talk to the Afghan government.  Minister Khar, during a visit to the United Kingdom last week, complained that despite her government’s intentions to help the process move forward, the message from Kabul was confusing because "Karzai was still unclear whether his government really wanted to negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar."

While Pakistan is also leery of the Qatar process, and prefers to sit on the margins, it has thus far facilitated Taliban travel and engaged both the Americans and the Qataris on logistical matters. But, because of their special relationship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistanis are partial to Saudi mediation efforts and prefer to downplay the contacts underway in Qatar.

Recent reports out of Saudi Arabia say that the Kingdom has hinted that it is willing to facilitate talks if the Taliban 1) renounce al-Qaeda, 2) lay down their arms, and 3) join the Afghan political arena, or in other words, agree to a power-sharing arrangement. Karzai has also hinted at times that he feels more comfortable with the Saudi track, which partially explains his reservations about the Qatar process.

Much of Afghanistan’s loyal political opposition, women’s rights groups and civil society not only feel marginalized, but  are also increasingly concerned about a re-Talibanization of the country as a result of misplaced reconciliation priorities. There are calls for putting the current initiatives on hold, reforming the High Peace Council tasked to manage the reconciliation process, and reinforcing the government’s negotiating baseline by getting more relevant social and political groups involved in the process.

With the unfortunate Quran burning dilemma causing deep anguish over the past week, it is too early to tell what impact it might have on the Afghan mission, at a time when the stakes for seeking a negotiated settlement are in high gear. Not only would a pause on peace negotiations during the Quran burning debacle allow all sides to engage in necessary damage control, but it would also provide a break to review strategic imperatives, consult on the way forward, and recommit. 

If true, promising new channels of communications said to have opened between local officials and Taliban mediators as part of a fresh Afghan-to-Afghan initiative, could prove useful. However, the recent gruesome beheadings of four innocent civilians in Helmand and a popular radio station owner in Paktika Province are stark reminders of the cruel side of an insurgency that is pretending to recast itself as moderate. If the Taliban do not put a stop to such carnage and duplicity, the peace process will lose the support of even larger numbers of Afghans. Frankly, trying to appease elements that have no qualms about such egregious human rights violations cannot be conducive to lasting peace.  

Given the current foray of activities, and spins and counter-spins, policy lines are being drawn by the following main actors, none of whom can be ignored or sidelined if there is to be a meaningful process:

1.      The Afghan Government: Since Karzai’s political preference seems to be the so-called Saudi formula, he has been reluctant to fully embrace the Qatar track, where Pakistan also remains a peripheral actor. He is aware, though, that the Taliban are not yet ready for direct talks. Recognizing the growing internal challenges he faces, his dual approach of candid talk and friendly overtures vis-a-vis Pakistan is seen as a dangerous wager by many Afghans who are asking for more transparency, consultation and verification. Meanwhile, Karzai rightly expects the U.S. to keep him in the inner loop, and is eager to see the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership finalized soon. How the Quaran burning disaster might impact the work in progress is still unclear. With a critical 2014 political transition ahead, Karzai may be inclined to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with the armed opposition that would not undermine his political base. This could translate into blurring established red-lines on gains made in the domains of democratic governance and constitutional rights, including gender rights. To strengthen its negotiating position, Kabul should implement reconciliation process reforms that would expand its support base through consultations and inclusivity. Afghans should agree on negotiation red-lines and stand by them. Furthermore, the next three years offer an opportunity to push for real change to improve governance, promote rule of law, especially on the judicial and prosecutorial sides, and implement electoral reforms that assure institutional independence and systemic transparency. These changes should also aim to provide the necessary space to draw the Taliban (or at least those independently inclined to do so) into a legitimate political arena, following a demobilization, disarmament and reintegration program.

2.      The Taliban: Given their access to a support infrastructure, including sanctuaries inside and outside Afghanistan, the core decision-making bodies, based in Quetta and in North Waziristan, continue to hold the levers of power. However, trying to sideline the Afghan government and portray it as a puppet regime may prove to be a shallow tactic that will not find much support among ordinary Afghans. The Taliban’s immediate objective is to secure the release of their top operatives from Guantanamo via the Qatar track. Thereafter, escalating the fighting as seasonal snows melt, while keeping all sides preoccupied with a tactical mix of peace overtures and psychological wearing-down ploys, may prove to be the most convenient distraction. Eventually, depending on the matrix of political progress, some fighters may favor a power-sharing arrangement, while others will invariably pursue a zero-sum game, either for ideological reasons or at the behest of foreign patrons, which will determine whether they will fracture or morph into a smaller yet more lethal opponent. Under a power-sharing arrangement, all measures need to be taken to see improvement on the security front, and prevent the fundamental weakening of the constitutional order and basic rights. The ultimate goal should be to integrate the reconcilable opponents into the political mainstream as seamlessly as possible, and let them compete for votes.

3.      The United States: Having decided to disengage from the lengthy Afghan campaign, albeit maintaining some degree of responsibility and continuity (as is envisaged in the strategic partnership), the US aims to "work itself out of a job." The question is how fast, to what degree and with what end-state in mind? What seems to escape some policy advisors and pundits, who would have us perversely believe that we are witnessing some miraculous Taliban-style perestroika and glasnost moment, is the simple fact that Afghanistan remains the epicenter of the most dangerous and most security-relevant neighborhood in the world. There are no discernible indications that the forces that want to pursue a violent adversarial confrontation have as of late had a change of heart. As the U.S. tries to avoid another blowback effect (as experienced by the neglect of the 1990s) by seeking a reasonable negotiated agreement, it should also aim to protect the accomplishments of the last decade, and help define, with Afghans and other allies the logical end-state that assures real prospects for a durable and just peace that has the backing of major segments of Afghan society. Actively engaging all sides to shift to a new regional cooperation paradigm would also need to be a cornerstone of such an end-state strategy. The timeline for agreeing and putting such initiatives into effect is now as the 2014 withdrawal dateline approaches.

4.      Pakistan: From an Afghan perspective, Pakistan (and to some extent Iran) has a strategic choice to make as a key player: use its influence to help forge a durable and just peace in Afghanistan, to help promote regional stability and economic development, pay lip service, or covertly use radicalism and duplicity to achieve its outdated militaristic objectives. The good news is that some among Pakistan’s leadership now claim that they do not want a return to the chaotic Afghan conditions of the 1990s, are no longer obsessed with the "strategic depth" imperative to counter-balance India, or even a power grab by the stalwart Taliban. Pakistani leaders are now advocating "power-sharing" as a preferred option. As part of a new diplomatic offensive, visiting officials recently made an effort in Kabul to engage those Afghan political groups and personalities they usually consider adversaries. These indicators, if substantiated, need to be taken seriously as they could offer a glimpse of real change underway in Pakistani strategic calculus. However, if the crux of the matter still remains a perception that Indians are too close to Afghans, and the only way to offset this historic relationship is to impose the Taliban or other proxies into the body-politics of Afghanistan, then the reasoning is fundamentally flawed, because Indian-Afghan relations are by and large based on soft-power supply and demand dynamics, not on an anti-Pakistan predisposition. Regardless, the solution cannot be sought in continued bloodshed and promotion of proxy radicalism. The answer lies in separating the Afghan card from the Indian deck, and to have a broader and deeper understanding of a neighbor that has over the years bent backward to convey a message of peace and cooperation to Islamabad.

5.      The role of other fringe actors, i.e. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union, Japan and even Qatar, are not inconsequential. They can use their good offices to facilitate and advocate for a just and durable peace, using their diplomatic and economic clout in as coordinated and coherent a manner possible to help the process move in the right direction.

The complex, and at times frustrating, reconciliation process proposed by the Afghan government at the international London Conference in 2010 is now in its third year, with almost no tangible results in sight.  Thousands more lives have been lost on all sides, and billions of dollars later – partly to pay for a useful yet inconclusive surge – we have collectively failed to convince those who promote war that peace is the only option. Today’s Afghanistan is no longer the country rescued from the clutches of terrorism in 2001. It is a very different place. The hard-earned gains (possible red-line items) in terms of education, health, gender rights, civil society and media development, income generation, infrastructure and institution building can neither be ignored nor should be traded off.

At a conference this week in Morocco, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expressing outrage for the burning of the Qurans, clearly defined the U.S. policy objective when she said, "… the hard work of trying to build a more peaceful, prosperous and secure Afghanistan must continue." However, what worries Afghans the most is a lack of clarity about the end-state and contingency planning; what is plan B in case these efforts fail, or if Afghans find themselves in a perilous situation post 2014? These fundamental questions need to be answered now, not later, as part of a pause and re-think that are crucial to carve the right way forward.

Omar Samad is a Senior Afghanistan Expert in residence at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. D.C. He was Afghanistan’s ambassador to France (2009-2011), to Canada (2004-2009), and spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004). This article reflects his personal opinion.