Disruption of second round of Murree peace process in July 2015 was a strategic setback for the Afghan peace process. Ever since, Pakistan has been doing its best to bring together vital nuts and bolts to jumpstart the circus. Hours before representatives of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) were to assemble for the fourth round of talks in Kabul, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif dashed to Doha and discussed the role of the Afghan Taliban’s office in Doha. His meetings focussed on matters relating to regional security and facilitation of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan by Doha office, through Qatari leadership. Army chief’s visit to Doha was part of Pakistan’s efforts to persuade all Taliban groups to return to the negotiating table.
During the fourth round, the QCG agreed to continue joint endeavours as part of their shared commitments to advance the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Now Pakistan is all set to host direct talks between the government in Kabul and Afghan Taliban, including other insurgent groups, by the first week of March. “The QCG member states invite Taliban and other groups to participate through their authorised representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government,” post fourth round QCG communique said. “Pakistan has graciously offered to host this round of talks in Islamabad. The QCG members welcomed the statement by Ashraf Ghani on February 15 which underlined the Afghan government’s commitment for peace and reconciliation with Taliban groups and Hezb-e-Islami,” the statement read. The QCG member states also appreciated the decision by Afghanistan and Pakistan to constitute a bilateral joint working group to work with the religious clergy of these two countries.
Earlier a two-member Afghan Taliban delegation, led by head of the group’s political office in Qatar, had paid an unannounced visit to Pakistan as part of preparations for the formal resumption of direct talks with the Afghan government. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, who is heading the Taliban’s political office in Qatar alongside Qari Din Muhammad had travelled to Islamabad on February 06, coinciding with the third round of QCG. During the visit, Doha delegates held informal discussions with senior officials of the four countries. They had shared a list of their representatives who would attend the formal talks.
This is the first time that Taliban’s Qatar office is taking part in the peace initiative backed by both China and the US. When talks between Afghan Taliban and Afghan government took place under the Murree peace process in July 2015, Taliban’s political office in Qatar had distanced itself from the process. The then head of Taliban’s political office Sayed Tayab Agha was against the Murree peace process.
Tayab Agha, however, resigned after Mullah Akhtar Mansoor took over as head of the insurgent group following the confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar. Mansur then appointed Abbas Stanekzai to succeed Tayab Agha. Since Stanekazi is in favour of peace talks, his appointment was an indicator that now the Taliban’s Qatar office will have a lead role in the peace talks.
Pakistan is deeply interested in speedy resolution of the Afghan crisis. Unlike the previous round of talks, this time all Taliban groups are being pursued to come to the negotiating table. Taliban’s splinter group, headed by Mullah Muhammad Rasool Akhund, has also been invited to join the negotiation process. Earlier, Akhund had refused to pledge allegiance to Mansoor after it was revealed that Mullah Omar’s death had been kept hidden for nearly two years. Akhund formed his own faction, and leadership crisis led to fierce fighting among the two factions. Hundreds of fighters from both sides were killed; in January these two rival Taliban factions agreed for a truce — in a move that could help pave the way for consensus within the insurgent groups for direct peace talks with Afghan government. In another major breakthrough, participation of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami in the peace process is also appears certain.
As the resumption of peace process is round the corner, confusing signals continue pouring in from Kabul as to its genuine commitment to the success of the peace process. Though Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhiwal has stated that his government is committed to the quadrilateral peace process, ground realities speak otherwise as some circles from within Kabul are trying to attach pre-conditions to the talks. Moreover, former President Hamid Karzai wants India to be added to QCG; and reportedly the US and India are discussing the ways and means to deploy some Indian troops in Afghanistan. While Americans are pondering over a figure of 3-4000 personnel for guarding the ongoing development projects, in his over enthusiasm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered readiness to deploy around 30,000 soldiers. Pakistan has already conveyed to Kabul that any additional deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan would be taken as crossing of redlines. Presently, 500 Indian military personnel are in Afghanistan, ostensibly to protect Indian embassy and consulates.
This type of environment is quite intriguing. Afghanistan should have been keen for restoration of peace and tranquillity in the country that has suffered so much and for so long because of turbulence and turmoil triggered by a host of factors. Earlier, Afghanistan and some of its friends in the West had been complaining that peace process was not moving ahead because of lack of required support by Pakistan; however, over the last two years, Pakistan has been making hectic endeavours to help forward movement of peace process. Pakistan had successfully arranged the first round of peace talks between Kabul and Taliban in Murree and its outcome was quite satisfactory, but, hurdles were created deliberately in the way of Murree peace talks, and a blame game was initiated vitiating the atmosphere for resumption of the dialogue.
While it is encouraging to see the Afghan government and Taliban talking directly, Afghans have a poor track record of reaching mutually acceptable truces. Therefore, while the two sides may appear talking keenly, the burden of heavy lifting like “what to talk” and “how to talk” will fall on the QCC.
In the presence of strong anti-dialogue lobby in Kabul and existence of fragile fault lines, one could neither be sure about continuity and sustainability of the peace process nor could accurately guess the timeframe for reaching an agreement. Though it would be an ideal CBM to announce a ceasefire as soon as possible, keeping in view the stronger combat worthiness of Taliban in the peripheries of urban centres and the approaching spring fighting season, one may have to wait for quite some time for such announcement without adequate political quid pro quo from the Afghan government. Year 2016 has been widely predicted as a year when Afghan National Security Forces are certain to cede more rural territory and may be some urban centre to Taliban. So time is on Taliban’s side. Under these circumstances, the QCG overseen peace dialogue could be in for a long haul, unless President Ashraf Ghani demonstrates political will by putting forward a credible power sharing formula, attractive enough to woo the Taliban side.