The quadrilateral group on Afghan peace has reached a consensus on approaching the Taliban’s political office in Qatar in order to persuade the insurgent group to join negotiations, a diplomatic source privy to Saturday’s meeting told The Express Tribune.
The Qatar office, which the Taliban insist is the only one authorised to hold political contacts on its behalf, had distanced itself from past meetings such as the one in Murree in July 2015 and another exploratory session in the Chinese city of Urumqi.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) discussed on Saturday a tentative date – possibly by February end – for direct talks between Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives. The decision was taken to pre-empt the start of the Taliban fighting season which usually commences from late March.
The meeting also approved a roadmap which urged Kabul to “evolve a broad-based consensus for talks and make it a national narrative,” the source told The Express Tribune in an interview.
The four-nation bloc – consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, United States and China – called for a consensus after reports of discord within Afghanistan’s National Unity Government. Sections of the Afghan media had claimed that Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Special Representative to President Ashraf Ghani Ahmad Zia Massoud have publicly opposed peace talks with the Taliban.
“The Afghan side informed the meeting that there is a consensus on reconciliation, but efforts are ongoing to expand it,” explained a diplomatic source who was part of Saturday’s discussions.
Explaining salient features of the roadmap, he said it covers three stages -- pre-negotiations period, negotiations period and the implementation phase after negotiations.
In the pre-negotiation period, all sides are expected have an opportunity to assess possible ‘obstacles and opportunities’ and will see all sides use their ‘channels’ to talk to Taliban negotiators in Doha.
“The Afghan government will contact the Taliban faction, led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool, which now operates from western parts of Afghanistan,” the diplomat said.
At the next meeting of the bloc, scheduled for February 23 in Kabul, officials are expected to present their findings on which of the Taliban groups could join the peace process. The meeting is also expected to finalise a definitive date for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban groups.
To bolster its efforts at convincing the insurgent group to return to the negotiating table, Saturday’s meeting also agreed on ‘public messaging’ by all sides which calls on Taliban groups to opt for dialogue.
During Saturday’s meeting, deliberations were held on a possible venue for direct talks. Participants observed that the Taliban would not be willing to hold talks inside Afghanistan, while China was a viable option since it has already offered to host talks and both Kabul and Taliban have no objection. However, they noted that international travel curbs on Taliban leaders could make it difficult.
“There was an understanding that a safe passage should be given to Taliban leaders once they agree to join the intra-Afghan dialogue,” the source said.
While participants were not in favour of imposing any preconditions to talks, both Pakistani and Chinese officials expressed their desire for some confidence-building measures to encourage the Taliban to join the process.
“The Afghan side presently does not want CBMs but could consider this as an option once the Taliban agree to enter into direct negotiations,” the official said, adding that Afghanistan still insists on action against irreconcilable Taliban while the US supports a reconciliation process but with pressure on the insurgents to compel them to negotiations.
Asked if the four-nation process would succeed to bring the Taliban within the deadline of February set by the Islamabad meeting, the source said the Afghan side wanted the talks before March to ward off the Taliban Spring offensive that is traditionally launched in late March or early April.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2016.