Spearhead Analysis – 05.03.2018
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
In December 2017, the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) assembled a conference, during which mechanism for peace talks with Taliban was deliberated. At the time, the Chairman of HPC concluded that Kabul is ready to start peace talks with Taliban without any pre-condition. President Ghani, on his part externalised the crisis and stated that “If the Taliban call themselves Afghans… they should come and sit with us at the inter-Afghan dialogue so that we can reach a peace deal with Pakistan like state to state”.
A few days later, Chairman of Mahaz e Milli Party Afghanistan- Sayed Hamid Gailani- sought to form a delegation aimed at entering talks with some factions of the Taliban. He stated that “I do not accept the rumours that say Taliban leaders are in other places. Most of Taliban leaders are in their own country. I say to the Taliban this is your country and also to the government that this is your country”.
The month of January 2018 unearthed speculations on various ‘secret talks’ with the Taliban. It was reported that two representatives of the Afghan Government were engaged in talks with certain members of Taliban in Turkey. However, Afghan official stances and Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid denied the report.
Amidst these developments, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited Afghanistan. After her trip, she stated that the “The US policy on Afghanistan is working, we are seeing that we’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.” She also noted that the US position on the peace talks is that of a supporter instead of a facilitator.
In this same time frame, talks of Taliban delegation from Qatar office visiting Islamabad began to circulate. Some sources claimed that the delegation engaged in talks with members of Mahaz-e-Milli Party Afghanistan. Alongside, news of another meeting in Turkey between some Taliban members and Hizb-i-Islami members also surfaced. These happenings were also largely denied by all respective parties. In the same span, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, also revealed that NDS chief Mohammad Stanikzai has regular contact with some Taliban members for peace talks. Whereas, former NDS chief Hanif Atmar was engaged in a separate contact mission. However, reportedly neither of the chiefs were harmonizing the scope of these discussions with each other or the HPC. Certain positive signals began to emanate when a Taliban group released 14 Afghan soldiers in the eastern province of Paktia terming it a goodwill gesture ahead of the Kabul Process.
However, these short-lived developments were met with a spate of tragic terror attacks in Kabul at the end of January 2018- two of which, were reportedly claimed by Taliban. The unfortunate events also led to another dip in Pak-Afghan ties as the blame game began.
Soon after these tragic attacks -In a reverse from Nikki Haley’s assessment- the US Deputy Secretary of State during his visit to Afghanistan, stated that all groups in Afghanistan are ready to join peace process ‘except the Taliban’. President Trump on his part also denounced the prospect of peace talks with Taliban.
Despite the stream of allegations, Pakistan on its part worked to mend ties with its neighbor and called for proof so that correct cooperation may take shape. A high level Afghan security delegation was invited to Pakistan to discuss the terror attacks. This was followed by meeting between a Pakistani delegation led by the Foreign Secretary and the Afghan counterparts; during which Pakistan reportedly proposed a number of joint working groups to focus on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, military, economy, trade and transit interaction, refugee repatriation and connectivity. Pakistan also reiterated its support for an Afghan owned peace dialogue.
Nonetheless, the Kabul attacks were met with widespread denunciation of peace talks with Taliban as both President Trump and President Ghani stated that dialogue could no longer happen. In response Taliban’s spokesperson stated that “The language of power, the language of threat will not convince Afghans to surrender.”
These deadlocks compelled key regional players to take a more proactive stance on the Afghan solutions. A high level Pakistani foreign office delegation met with its Russian counterpart to discuss prospects of political negotiations in Afghanistan. China, Iran and some Central Asian countries too, lend support to the notion of finding a political solution to end the Afghan war. The Pakistan Army chief also visited Kabul in mid-February 2018, to attend a Chief of Defense Conference, the visit further highlighted Pakistan’s resolve on Afghan stability as it took place amidst strained bilateral ties. The Army chief reportedly called for a collaborative and persistent approach to resolve the regional security crisis.
As the various machinations and talks continued; a few days prior to the Kabul Process-on 20th February 2018- Taliban wrote an open letter addressed to the American people stating that “if they want peaceful dialogue with Afghans, then they need to make their president and the “war-mongering congressmen and Pentagon officials understand this reality and compel them to adopt a rational policy towards Afghanistan”.
In the wake of this letter, President Ghani in consultation with the HPC called on the Taliban to enter into peaceful negotiations with the Afghan government. Whereas- on the parallel, diverging end- former NDS chief explored options to shut down the Taliban Qatar office.
A day prior to the Kabul process, the Taliban announced its stance and stated it is ready for direct talks with US only via its Qatar office. President Ghani’s office responded stating”.
“They (Taliban) have twice asked the US and said they are ready for direct talks with the United States. But the Afghan government is telling them (Taliban) that if you are Afghans, come and talk with Afghanistan. The Afghan government is ready to talk,”.
As this deadlock over conceding one another’s legitimacy continued, the Kabul Peace conference convened on the 28th of February 2018- In absence of Taliban representatives.
The core points of the Kabul process entailed: engaging in Talks with Taliban without ‘preconditions’ in order to lead to a peace agreement in which: 1) constitutional rights and obligations of all citizens (especially women) are ensured, 2) the constitution is accepted, or amendments proposed through the constitutional provision, 3) defense and security forces and civil service function according to law, 4) and no armed groups with ties to transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organizations, or with state/non-state actors seeking influence in Afghanistan are allowed”. The Taliban was also asked to offer its own input. The NUG is also exploring options to open a Taliban office in Afghanistan, offering them some degree of freedom of travel, removing sanctions against some Taliban leaders, arranging media access, and relocating families.
The Kabul process was largely welcomed by key regional players and the US.
The Taliban response on the recent proposal remains largely muted; some conflicting reports on their statements have surfaced since the conference but their official direction remains to be seen.
The Afghan government and the Taliban forces also appear unwilling to entirely concede to one another’s legitimacy. Thus, ‘whom to talk to’ remains a sticking point, it is unclear whether the US would be willing to circumvent the NUG at a future point. However, a broader dialogue involving all Afghan factions, key regional players and the US would be ideal. The internal Afghan landscape also remains divided and often lacks a coherent approach on policy, it is thus imperative to ensure any spoilers do not derail the current track. President Ghani should also respond to Pakistani overtures and work with a ‘collaborative and persistent’ approach. Lastly, the US also needs to evaluate the dichotomy in its ‘enhanced offense to seek peace’ approach.
Barnett Rubin in his recent open letter to the Taliban has raised some critical points stating that
“Many Afghans claim that any answer should go not to you but to the Pakistani generals and intelligence operatives who shelter your movement. I disagree.
I have concluded that your opponents underestimate your independence and abilities. But you may also underestimate theirs.
Few would disagree with your call “to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues,” if they thought it were possible. On January 29th, after your organization used a car bomb disguised as an ambulance to kill nearly a hundred people in Kabul, President Trump did say, “I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now.” That was an impulse, not a strategy. As you yourself observed on Monday, “the United States has kept the doors of dialogue open for the Taliban.”
The flaw in your call for dialogue is that it is addressed only to Americans, not your fellow Afghans. You accuse Afghans opposing you of “committing treason against our nation,” but the government of Afghanistan, corrupt and divided as it may be, is recognized by every nation in the world—not just Washington and its allies. Your dialogue with the U.S. government cannot replace dialogue with that government and the millions of other Afghans who fear your attacks and your return. Trying to exclude them repeats the mistake the U.S. made by excluding you.”