Afghanistan’s new envoy to Pakistan has reiterated that President Ashraf Ghani’s administration remains committed to the quadrilateral peace process as top officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States prepare for a fourth round of talks on February 23.
“There is overwhelming support in Afghanistan for peace talks [with Taliban],” Dr Omar Zakhilwal told The Express Tribune in an interview in Islamabad. “Most influential leaders within and outside the government back negotiations,” he said, adding that President Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah and all within the government were on the same page. Even former president Hamid Karzai has thrown his weight behind the four-way talks.
However, President Ghani also faces opposition from some of his senior aides, including Special Representative on Reform and Good Governance Ahmad Zia Massoud and first Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. The acting governor of Balkh province, Ata Muhammad Nur, has also called for pre-conditions for talks.
Massoud, in an interview to the Los Angeles Times on Friday criticised peace dialogue with the Taliban, calling it ‘waste of time’.
The quadrilateral group has met thrice since December 2015 in a bid to revive the moribund peace talks with the Taliban. While the insurgents have not been formally invited to the talks, they have observed it keenly from a distance.
In its last meeting in Islamabad on February 6, the quartet decided on a roadmap, setting a tentative schedule to approach the Taliban’s political office in Qatar for holding direct talks between Kabul and the insurgents by the end of February.
“A visible progress and reduction in violence during the talks will further strengthen the national consensus” said Dr Zakhilwal, who was part of the four-nation discussions. He said Kabul was due to announce new leaders for its High Peace Council.
Asked about the pre-conditions set by the Taliban, Dr Zakhilwal said there would be no pre-conditions for talks. “The Quadrilateral Coordination Group has agreed there will be no pre-conditions for peace talks,” he added.
He emphasised that the process should not take too long that the people lose their trust and patience.
To another question about the roadmap, Dr Zakhilwal said: “It defines certain principles that provide boundaries needed to take the process forward. Principles are important in the sense that it addresses public’s fears with respect to the compromises made.”
People familiar with Afghan Taliban’s political discussions have confirmed to The Express Tribune that their negotiators in Qatar have been ‘contacted and invited’ to join the peace process. “The Taliban leaders are of the view that their joining the peace talks without a positive response to their calls will be counterproductive,” sources said.
Afghan High Peace Council
In a related development, Afghanistan on Sunday appointed influential political and religious figure Pir Syed Ahmad Gilani as the new chief of the Afghan High Peace Council. Former Afghan Vice President Karim Kalili has been appointed his deputy, while Maulvi Ataur Rehman, Maulvi Khaibar and Habiba Surabi have been appointed as members of the council.
In a surprising move, a woman has been appointed to the council for the first time.
The HPC had been headless since Ghani picked its former chief Salahuddin Rabbani as foreign minister in his cabinet in January 2015. The council had been formed by the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai in mid-2010 to provide a platform for talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2016.