Reconciliation in Afghanistan — reality or illusion?

Published: February 15, 2014

The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

Is there any truth to the claim by President Karzai’s spokesperson that there have been negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and they have been positive? He made this claim while responding to a question about a New York Times story, based on American and Afghan sources, which said that some elements within the Afghan Taliban had initiated contact in November, just before the meeting of the Loya Jirga Karzai had summoned to consider the finalised draft for the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the Americans. These contacts that Karzai eagerly pursued yielded no positive result and according to the newspaper, may have been no more than an attempt to derail the BSA’s signing.

An unidentified member of the High Peace Council (HPC) confirmed that the Afghan Taliban representatives had come from Doha to Dubai to talk to Karzai’s people but maintained that no results had been achieved. The official spokesperson for the HPC, however, denied that there had been any contacts between the Afghan Taliban and the HPC, which, he emphasised, was the sole body authorised to seek reconciliation and that the HPC had no knowledge of any contacts that President Karzai may have initiated. An Afghan Taliban spokesperson told the Voice of America that the claims of talks were ‘baseless’.

Clearly, reconciliation is the best way to eliminate the threat of civil war that looms large in Afghanistan. At a recent meeting of the Chaophraya Dialogue — which has the distinction of being the only uninterrupted and perhaps, uninterruptable dialogue between retired officials and other members of civil society from India and Pakistan — there was a consensus, reflected in the joint statement that “an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process was key to preventing civil strife following the ISAF drawdown in 2014”. It went on to recommend “that all parties support the reconciliation process and work for its success”. But as this latest episode shows, Karzai’s unilateral efforts are retarding rather than advancing the process by proceeding down a path that has proved to be treacherous in the past. One has only to recall many comedies and tragedies associated with abortive attempts that Karzai’s people have made to start negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

The infamous incident of the Quetta shopkeeper masquerading as an Afghan Taliban emissary — perhaps attributable to the gullibility of British and American intelligence — was one comic farce that received media attention but there have been, according to Afghan friends, other instances of Afghan government representatives being fooled into making payments and attempting negotiations with people who had no standing in Taliban councils.

Other efforts have been more tragic. In September 2011, ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani, then head of the Karzai-created HPC, was summoned from Tehran to talk to two so-called peace negotiators, who then proceeded to blow themselves up, along with Rabbani and five others. In December 2012, Assadullah Khalid, then head of Afghan intelligence, suffered near fatal injuries when the interlocutor, presumably vouched for by Afghan intelligence, blew himself up with a bomb concealed in a body cavity.

Karzai was probably right to oppose in June last year the opening of the Qatar office of the Afghan Taliban since it carried the plaque of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and thus suggested that it was a Taliban government in exile office. Less understandable was his refusal to endorse a UN proposal for an intra-Afghan meeting in Ashgabat to build upon the contacts that had been established in Track II meetings of the Afghan parties, including representatives of the HPC and of the opposition, in Japan (June 2012) and France (December 2012). Clearly, his advisers were divided on the issue since the Afghan foreign ministry issued a statement welcoming the UN proposal for the conference in Ashgabat but was later forced to withdraw it.

Similarly, much was made of the Peace Process Roadmap to 2015 drawn up by the Afghan HPC, which envisaged close cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan to achieve by mid-2013, an agreement whereby, among other things, the parties would transform “the Afghan Taliban and other armed groups from militant groups to political movements”, “the inclusion of the Afghan Taliban and other armed opposition leaders in the power structure of the state to include non-elected positions at different levels” and “integration of the rank and file of the Afghan Taliban and other armed opposition groups in Afghan society”. This November 2012 document never saw any effort towards implementation since it seemed that Karzai had vetoed the effort. It seems that even though he had given the HPC the mandate for reconciliation, Karzai now treats the HPC as a worthless institution — something that one heard in private conversations in meetings with knowledgeable Afghans — and has chosen to entrust others closer to him to pursue reconciliation.

The news emerging from Dubai that Agha Jan Mohtasim, a relative and at one time, close confidante of Mullah Omar has put together a meeting of 20 formerly high-profile Afghan Taliban to negotiate with the Karzai administration and ‘other Afghan parties’ should be good news. Unfortunately, most Afghans seem to believe that since his self-imposed exile in Turkey, Mohtasim has lost whatever influence he once enjoyed with Mullah Omar. It also appears that none of the participants are from Doha where the negotiating team, blessed by Mullah Omar, still retains its presence. One can still hope, however, that this effort will materialise since this report has not been contradicted by the recognised spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban and since as far as one can recall, no one from the Afghan Taliban has ever denounced Mohtasim. The big problem may well become — even if Mohtasim has or gets Mullah Omar’s sanction — Karzai balking at involving other Afghan parties. As his opposition to the Ashgabat meeting shows, he is opposed to any negotiations, official or otherwise, in which his administration is regarded as only one of the parties in an ‘inclusive dialogue’. He wants that he and he alone should negotiate with what is called the ‘armed opposition’.

For the moment, the Mohtasim development notwithstanding, reconciliation in Afghanistan appears to be more of an illusion than a reality. A change may well come only when the Afghan elections bring a new president to power.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Major Iqbal
    Feb 16, 2014 - 12:06AM

    Actually, a change may well come only when Pakistan stops supporting the Afghan Taliban.

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  • Faraz Kakar
    Feb 16, 2014 - 12:36AM

    Dear Sir: Strategic depth is not the answer

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  • anticorruption
    Feb 16, 2014 - 1:04AM

    Reconcilliation also seems difficult at this stage because the Taliban would probably be thinking that they should wait for the Americans to draw down/withdraw their forces and move into the vacuum. This way, they would get to have a stronger bargaining position. It does not make much strategic sense for them to negotiate before the draw down of foreign forces. The result will of course be increased instability in Afghanistan in the coming years

    Recommend

  • Feb 16, 2014 - 2:53AM

    illusion.Recommend

  • Sexton Blake
    Feb 16, 2014 - 7:24AM

    Perhaps the writer means well, but ignores the important aspects of what is happening in Afghanistan. We could argue all day about minor tactical infractions such as one side using explosives inside body cavities, or the other side using drones or F16s. The bottom line is why a certain country is on a permanent war footing, and why over the last 12 years or so has it severely damaged Libya, Syria, Iraq, Africa, and Afghanistan to the extent of causing trillions of dollars worth of damage, killing more that two million people, and damaging the lives of millions more to such an extent that full recovery will not take place within most of our lifetimes. Obviously, the plan is to create disruption and dissension. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the other counties, there are large groups of dissatisfied people and they will distract their Governments for a long time into the future. At the end of the day most thinking people know what the plan is, and who is responsible for it, but many choose to ignore it.

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  • Feb 16, 2014 - 3:07PM

    Isn’t it just wonderful that Pakistan acts as a buffer for India against the violence in Afghanistan?Recommend

  • Nikki
    Feb 16, 2014 - 6:35PM

    Let alone Afghanistan to resolve its internal crisis,Pakistan has already suffered for providing milions Afghan people in 80s and by supporting Taliban’s in 90s.Pakistan should not be so keen about who is constrcuting and what is being constructed.
    Just be vigilant and see what is happening.? And get rid of Taliban with in Pakistan they are threating secuirty and survival too.

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  • Nikki
    Feb 16, 2014 - 6:39PM

    @BruteForce:
    Pleas read an article on ” Pakistan, Afghanistn and the Taliban.

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  • Maria
    Feb 16, 2014 - 8:01PM

    @Faraz Kakar: How can anything be done to reconcile when Afghanistan is an Indian puppet state? It’s where India tries to get strategic depth in Pakistan from Western border.

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  • Rex Minor
    Feb 17, 2014 - 11:22PM

    There will be a reconciiation in Afghanistan, it is ongoing as we write, but at the end it will be the Afghan way and not what most people in the world believe in! There will be no concessions nor compromises in terms of their traditions and culture, the stronger one will determine the course for the country in future.

    Rex Minor.

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  • Rex Minor
    Feb 18, 2014 - 12:46AM

    @Maria:
    I must say that you have very novice ideas about the Afghans? A puppet of India? They are usualy kind with their enemies and give them even a burial after they are dead, but do not hesitate to bury alive those friiends that they like but want to leave them. There are a number of shrines in the Kabul residential area to witness this.

    Rex Minor

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  • Maria
    Feb 18, 2014 - 7:18AM

    @Rex Minor: I think you need to review history to remind yourself that Afghanistan has been in the Indian camp since the British left South Asia in 1947. Perhaps you don’t know about Indian intelligence collusion within Afghanistan in trying to stir up trouble in Pakistan’s Western provinces for the past few decades. In trying to support troubles in KPK and Baluchistan, Afghanistan only destabilized itself as locals wanted nothing to do with them. Instead of doing the bidding of India, Afghanistan has to focus on doing what is best for its own people – regardless of whether they are Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek or whatever race or sect. You may wish to wax sentimental about myths of hospitality of tribal peoples but the reality in Afghanistan is nothing but corruption, violence and disorder. If you want to see images of Afghans violating the bodies of other dead Afghans or those in captivity, they are easily accessible on the internet. Choosing to ignore reality does not change facts.

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  • Rex Minor
    Feb 18, 2014 - 5:33PM

    @Maria:
    Madam, I do not have to surf in the internet to look for evidence of the dead who are violated in Afghanistan or any other part of the world. Humans are beasts in beast form all over the world. Nor do I dispute your account of the activities of the Indian intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan or for that matter the activities of other more powerful and resorceful intelligence units which you did not mention, including that of the USA ‘ PRISM’ surveillance system which operate from Islamabad and Peshawar. .
    But I also know from History that the Amir of Afghanistan ordered the massacre of all foreigners in Kabul despite having signd an agreement with the Brits. His explanation was simple that English language of the agreement is foreign.You overstate if I might add about corruption, violence and disorder in Afghanistan when one compares it in the region or in the rest of the world. Pashtuns are the majority and they must rule and look after the rights of the minority is the fundamental of a democracy. As long as the Tajiks or Uzbeks and their foreign supporters accept this modus operandi, Afghnistan will rid itself of foreign occupation and develope into a great independent land. It needs a corridor to the warm waters and Pakistan leadership should conider this once Afghanistan has a new Government. This will bring peace and prosperity in the region.

    Rex Minor

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  • Faraz Kakar
    Feb 18, 2014 - 7:06PM

    Dear friends… strategic depth is still not the answer

    Recommend

  • Sexton Blake
    Feb 18, 2014 - 7:46PM

    @Maria:
    @Rex Minor
    Dear Maria and Rex,
    I cannot argue too much with either of your missives. However, we have to look at the big picture, and although I like to think I have a better handle on it than most I cannot be too dogmatic about who the shadowy figures in the background, who are running the show, really are. It seems fairly obvious to me that the leaders of most countries, if not all, are merely puppets just following orders. Of course, the leaders of the Sub-Continent countries do make important decisions, which seriously affect the population, but I do have the feeling that from a world order point-of-view they are, like in most Western countries, junior executives. I would be interested in your ideas.

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  • Oats
    Feb 18, 2014 - 8:24PM

    I wonder if the solution to Afghanistan is simply to break it up along ethnic lines because it is a multi ethnic state where the groups have tensions. The different ethnic groups in Afghanistan can’t get along with each other with or without the interference of foreigners. In Canada I note that Afghan Pakhtun don’t socialize with Afghan Farsiwan unless they are the type of Afghan Pakhtuns who have adopted Dari as language and culture. It is obvious that Afghanistan is going to to descend into violence again so the world should examine this option too.

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  • Rex Minor
    Feb 18, 2014 - 9:03PM

    @Sexton Blake
    :
    You have a very good point Sir,. and there is a saying as well that whether the mellon is under or above the Knife, it is the mellon which gets cut in half!

    Rex Minor

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  • Maria
    Feb 19, 2014 - 5:36AM

    @Sexton Blake: In an ideal world, leaders of a country should represent all citizens and work for the betterment of society. That’s what they promise to do when elected. In reality not everyone will be pleased but at least a majority of citizens should be supportive and benefit from public policy. The problem in Afghanistan is that a tribal society or a divided society cannot see or understand the benefit to be gained by working for the country as a whole. That’s why Afghanistan is ranked amongst the worst by Transparency International in its corruption index – bottom three along with North Korea. They are far worse than all of their neighbouring countries – even India,Pakistan and Iran are much less corrupt. Rather than focus on the common people and country’s needs the leaders are interested in just taking foreign aid out because the know the country is going nowhere. Look at all the Afghan aid which is siphoned off to the UAE in the Kabul Bank scandal. The tragedy is that Afghanistan instead blames neighbours instead of owning up to its own self caused problems.

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  • Maria
    Feb 19, 2014 - 5:43AM

    @Rex Minor: You bring up romanticised ideas of respecting graves in Kabul but when you are confronted with reality you say you already know how brutal and backward Afghanistan is- so why bring it up in the first place? In the West, many Afghans will argue that the Pakhtun there are no longer the majority of the population, so you are not in the position of arguing that Afghanistan’s Pashtun population deserves special status over the other races. Why not respect all races and citizens in Afghanistan as equal Afghans – no matter their race and sect? Unless the Afghans can learn to live among themselves, they will never live with their neighbours and they will continue to take orders from India.

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