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Parleys amid a race against time


After the Doha fiasco, both Afghan officials and Taliban look eager to restart the peace process all over again, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: August 18, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Afghanistan war | Taliban | US troops | John Kerry | Hamid Karzai | Barack Obama |

Weeks ago, when the scheduled talks in Qatar between Afghanistan, the West and Taliban were summarily aborted, the capitals in South Asia became pregnant with speculation. After all, it was for the first time since the years that President Hamid Karzai actually showed who is in command in Kabul. At least notionally. Taliban's insistence on hoisting the ‘Islamic Emirate’ flag at their office in Doha was too much for Karzai who, sources say, dwells a lot on symbolism or the lack of it.

However, Leviathan seems to have started moving again, albeit slowly. News is in that Taliban has entered into hitherto secret talks with members of the administration of President Karzai in order to restart the peace process. The news has separately been confirmed by an Afghan official and a senior negotiator from Taliban side.

“The Afghan government certainly is in contact with certain leaders and certain figures among the Taliban,” Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Musazai said. On the other hand, Habibullah Fauzi, a former Taliban negotiator who later joined the High Peace Council, too confirmed the news but refused to give away the details. It was speculated that the meeting might have taken place in Saudi Arabia where representatives had gone to perform Umrah.

The meeting, for all practical purposes, was informal and was meant only to thrash out some details that will help restart the official talks. Following the Doha fiasco, both the sides had put some preconditions to the talks that were largely seen as rhetorical, symbolic and a hurdle in the process. However, this informal meeting suggests that there is willingness on both sides to carry the process forward.

Another representative of Taliban, Mullah Abbas Stanikzai, also met with a member of High Peace Council in Dubai to chalk out the future course of action. This particular meeting also saw some detailed discussions on the preconditions. Stanikzai, on his part, stressed that Taliban is opposed to Council Chairman Salahuddin Rabbani, who is son of Burhanuddin Rabbani, an anti-Taliban fighter and former president of whom Taliban assassinated in 2011.

On the other hand, sources say that Taliban showed some flexibility towards Afghan constitution and maintained that they were ready to accept it with certain changes, which would include striking off three clauses that Taliban does not agree with. What are the clauses and why were they unacceptable was not known immediately.

Meanwhile, Afghan High Peace Council seems to have taken the cue and has started sounding right notes. “There should be no tough pre-conditions from any side and let the peace talks start first,” Maulvi Shehzada Shahid, spokesman for High Peace Council was reported as saying.

“We want both sides to show flexibility. We are talking to all sides that have influence on the Taliban. We want Pakistan to free all Taliban prisoners, including [Mullah Omar’s deputy] Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar… that will be a big push to the reconciliation. I am hopeful that Pakistan will cooperate as Pakistan and the whole world is interested in Afghan peace,” he further added.

On the other hand, President Obama appears desperate to have the talks started as he needs the remaining political capital to invest in internal policies. A withdrawal without negotiation will be seen as a defeat as Kissinger's days of “declare victory and run” are gone for good. And not to forget the April elections. Mullah Omar, in his pre-Eid statement, has already termed the proposed election as “useless”, confirming that any Presidential Election without a negotiation with Taliban will be held null and void.

It is also interesting to note what Pakistan has for itself in this. Considering the events of the last five years if not more, Pakistan finds itself in the most desirable position in all these years. India's position of not talking with Taliban has now no takers as even Tehran and Moscow have come around to the Pakistani position lately.

Only this week top military commanders from Pakistan and Russia discussed the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan. There were several points of convergence but the most important was their distrust towards long-term US presence in their neighbourhood. The meeting between army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and his Russian counterpart Col General Vladimir V Chirkin at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi sent some uncomfortable signals to Washington DC which is in no position to influence the bonhomie. On the other hand, John Kerry stopped just short of begging Pakistan to felicitate the talks.

“Kerry has given the Nawaz government six months to ‘get their act together’ as the ‘strategic dialogue’ dangles before them as the ultimate reward. And getting their ‘act together’ doesn’t mean forming a counterterrorism policy under the illustrious Chaudhry Nisar. Instead, Pakistan must make a visible effort to resuscitate the dead dialogue between the US, Afghanistan and the Taliban, courtesy its assumed influence over the Taliban. Pakistan will cede its right to be at the table via a stupidly coined ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ rubric, and act as a facilitator only. This will keep Pakistan out of its subsequent fate,” says Shahzad Chaudhry, noted Security expert based in Islamabad.

The negotiations will be hastened in the weeks following Eid. However, it is still not clear if the officials of High Peace Council will manage to convince Karzai to shed some preconditions. Time is running out for him as well.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017