Conflicting reports have emerged on where the Afghan reconciliation process currently stands. The situation is murky and it has hard to decipher the positions of the parties involved. Not only that, but to ascertain who is negotiating, and with whom, has also been puzzling. The stakeholders may have deliberately deployed these tactics, to create confusion. So far, the Taliban have proven to be equally adept at playing this game and to conceal its intent. Understanding the aims of various players is the most critical component of the negotiation process.
It is important to know why various parties have agreed to enter a dialogue at this juncture. Equally essential is to understand the bargaining positions of various players, as the compromises are likely to emerge around these. The American narrative explains it’s the military pressure on the Taliban that has convinced them to talk. On the other hand, Taliban claim that years of fighting has proven that they cannot be military defeated, and this has caused the coalition forces to negotiate.
Who Has The Initiative
Consider the following conflicting commentary on the ground reality: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently commented that al-Qaeda still pose a threat despite extermination of its major leaders like Osama bin Laden and US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Panetta’s statement came after President Obama’s State of the Union speech, in which he said al-Qaeda’s back has been broken and the remaining few members are scrambling to escape US’s reach. Meanwhile, a recently leaked NATO report that has used interrogations of thousands of captured Taliban insurgents to build its argument, presents a different picture. It states that Taliban leaders consider victory inevitable as western troops withdraw in 2014 and it has little faith in the peace talks being held under the auspices of the international community. These arguments make it difficult to determine who is negotiating from a position of strength.
Contradictory reports also emerged soon after the Doha talks held last week. British media indicated that the initial US-Taliban talks, on the release of five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay detention center, had failed. Moreover, reports blamed the Taliban for the breakdown by not agreeing to the US demand for ceasefire before the release of prisoners.
On the other hand, Taliban sources have stated that ceasefire will be announced when the foreign forces start withdrawing from Afghanistan. Leon Panetta’s statement this week that US will end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2013 may be related with this Taliban demand. Meanwhile, former minister of vice and virtue for the Taliban, Maulawi Qalamuddin, denied any peace talks were being held and that negotiations were only related to the release of prisoners. However, he expressed his willingness to strengthen the talks by creating an environment of trust. Furthermore, Taliban have indicated that holding of talks does not mean they accept the Afghan constitution, which is a key US-Afghan condition.
Who Is On Board
Now lets examine if Afghanistan or Pakistan are on board with the present peace process. Both have claimed, at one point or the other, that the US has sidelined them in talks with the Taliban.
The US ambassador in Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, stated last month that US supports Afghan led peace process and has no secret plan for dividing the country or replacing the current government. Commenting on the recent visit of Special Representative Marc Grossman, Crocker informed that Grossman has engaged in a comprehensive discussion with Karzai and the leaders of High Peace Council to map the way forward. Ambassador Crocker added that Karzai has supported the opening of Taliban office in Qatar and that it is imperative that Afghans talk to Afghans for the success of the peace process. He clarified that meetings underway in Qatar support the central government and its efforts to build a strong, stable and secure state.
As Hina Rabbani Khar visited Kabul this week, she stressed that Pakistan is ready to do whatever the Afghans want to end the decade long war with Taliban. When asked whether the country will push Haqqani network into negotiations, she stopped short of mentioning the group and commenting further. However, the American’s had indicated recently that the group has been included in the talks. Khar also indicated that an effective peace process is still far-fetched; but it should be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, Afghan-driven”. She added that once the way forward is decided, Pakistan will assist in all possible ways. Meanwhile, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasoul emphasized the key role of Pakistan in the peace process and hoped for the strengthening of relationship between the two countries.
Just before the Doha talks, media reports appearing in Pakistan pointed out that Taliban have shared with Pakistani officials the ‘functional blueprint’ for talks with the US. The purpose of informing the country was said to make it comfortable on the agenda for talks. Meanwhile, former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, showed his disapproval of Pakistan’s engagement in the peace talks. He said this would encourage Iran, India and other neighbors to also get involved in rivalry, which Afghanistan cannot afford. He thinks the country should be allowed to make the decision independently, while others should extend their support to the Afghan-led peace process.
While Taliban is talking to the Americans and Pakistan, it has refused to parley with the Afghan government. Thus, it was strange when Afghan officials first indicated and later rejected reports about holding talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. It suggests that a faction other than the one involved in discussions in Doha, is ready to negotiate with Afghan government in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Hezb-i-Islami (HIA) Afghanistan, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, claimed last month that it has held meetings with the government recently. The HIA has proposed the withdrawal of foreign troops, ceasefire, transfer of the security responsibility to Afghan forces, and holding presidential, parliamentary, and provincial polls. The reports further indicated that President Karzai expressed willingness to continue talks with the party’s representatives from Pakistan, with whom he had conversed earlier.
From the above discussion, it’s clear that there is a perception the peace talks are being spearheaded by the US, and it wants to avoid giving any opportunity to Afghanistan and Pakistan to exploit. Pakistan and Afghanistan are in turn feeling the pressure of being sidelined, and this may result in more cooperation between the two. In fact, media reports indicate that tripartite talks are scheduled to be held in Islamabad by mid-February, between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
It is also obvious that various Taliban factions are not unanimous in their views and these groups are talking to different countries. This division is probably being used to keep the dominant Taliban group in line during the talks.
The present ambiguity helps the stakeholders to maneuver around their publicly stated positions. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) seemed to have failed for the time being, as represented by increasing attacks on Pakistani security forces in FATA.