As negotiations begin to fade

The history of reconciliation initiatives over the past few years, have been a monumental exercise in self-deception

Rustam Shah Mohmand April 15, 2016
The writer has served as ambassador to Afghanistan and is a former interior secretary

The much-trumpeted peace process launched through the quadrilateral contact group, comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US, appears to have lost its way. This was not unexpected. Surprisingly, in initiating a new effort, no attention was focused on the causes that led to the failure of previous such endeavours. The same errors of judgement were made repeatedly, in the hope of achieving a different outcome.

Quite frankly, the history of reconciliation initiatives over the past few years, have been a monumental exercise in self-deception, principally on the part of Kabul and Islamabad. The two countries have lived under self-constructed illusions. Perhaps, the ground realities were too painful for them either to comprehend or to incorporate in the strategies they designed to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

Crafting an appropriate framework for negotiations — one that is acceptable and can explore some common ground for sustained dialogue, is, admittedly, not an easy task, given the complexity of the Afghan imbroglio. But some lessons should have been learnt from past interaction with the leaders of the Taliban.

The standpoint on the release of prisoners and the scraping of the ‘black lists’ has been a persistent theme in the response of the Taliban, to any offer of talks. Some gesture could have been made by releasing just a few detainees. It is standard procedure for detenus to be released even from places like Guantanamo or other facilities, from time to time. The request for the scrapping of the black list that places restrictions on the movement and travel of the leaders of the Taliban could have been partially accepted in order to enable some ‘leaders’ to travel and participate in talks. Such flexibility could have created a suitable environment for a consideration of the more intractable issues like the exit of foreign forces or the induction of an interim government.

As the quadrilateral contact group fizzles out, hopes for reconciliation are fading. The Taliban, buoyed by some successes in the battlefield and by a growing number of government troops defecting to them, have taken a hardline position on peace talks. The powerful pro-status quo lobby is also operating to block any move that would help mainstream the Taliban on the terms the movement would impose. Kabul continues to live under an illusion that with some incentives being offered, the Taliban would relent in their attitude and policy and agree to participate in talks. But the government in Kabul, while ignoring ground realities, is also attempting to create a split in the ranks of the Taliban. To this end, it is promoting a dialogue with such groups as Hizb-e-Islami. People in Afghanistan know that Hizb-e-Islami chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is no longer part of the Taliban, but an integral component of the regime — all top leaders of the party being present in Kabul, while many occupy government positions.

Without understanding the cause, rationale, raison d’etre of the Taliban, it is inconceivable that any appropriate and coherent policy could be put into practice. An insurgency that has gone on for 14 years, confronting the most potent and lethal firepower of a number of highly developed countries led by a super power, would certainly be anchored deep in the aspirations of the people. The argument that the movement has survived because of continuous support from across the border i.e., Pakistan, lacks credibility, particularly in view of Pakistan’s  most concerted offensive launched against remnants of the Taliban in Waziristan, two years ago. This operation attacked all segments of the insurgents in the tribal areas, without any discrimination. Considering that Pakistan has established more than 1,100 security posts along the border to prevent infiltration of all suspected pro-Taliban volunteers, it is wholly unfair to assume that Islamabad or its agencies would lend any covert or overt support, either in providing training, equipment  or technology to the Taliban. Indeed, there are no instances to show that in the last so many years the coalition forces, or their Afghan partners, have been able to intercept, confront or attack volunteers going across the border, to take part in anti-government fighting. The Taliban could continue fighting without any external support as has been evident for the last 15 years.

The situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen. Large numbers of government troops are defecting. More than 250,000 Afghans have left the country posing as Syrian refugees in the last 15 months. Opium production has soared and the number of addicts has been rising. Many areas are held and administered by the Taliban. About half the country is under direct or indirect control of the movement.

Fighting rages on in areas such as Herat, Kundus, Ghazni, Helmand and Nangarhar. Daesh is on the retreat, having lost support of the people, as cash offers to potential volunteers declined and news of brutalities inflicted on innocent people spread. Daesh is now retreating in its stronghold of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan — a good omen for Taliban.

In this grim background, support for Ashraf Ghani’s government is fast disappearing. People are losing faith in the ability of the government to steer the country out of the perpetuating morass into which it has sunk. Ghani’s government has been pressing the US to continue their military and economic assistance as well as extending the deployment of the US forces, indefinitely. But many within the US camp are disillusioned with the slow progress the government has been making on such issues as governance and, more importantly, the eradication of corruption. It is doubtful if the quantum of aid will continue in the face of the poor performance of the government and rising levels of insecurity.

A genuine reconciliation process can be put back on track with some structural adjustments to the policy on peace talks. Releasing some prisoners and agreeing to abolish the black lists after some spade work has been done, would create a conducive environment for peace parleys to begin. It is not entirely clear why there is such inexplicably tough resistance to consider setting free a few detenus and lifting the ban on some others to be able to travel and take part in the negotiations. Unless this attitude changes, it is difficult to foresee any breakthrough being made in the peace talks in the near future.

If and when peace negotiations get underway, after the concerns of the Taliban have been met, progress towards addressing the core issues would present formidable challenge. But as engagement with the Taliban deepens in the wake of reconciliation talks, suspicions would begin to vanish, gradually, and in a climate of trust and understanding the talks could move to a level where the more contentious issues, like the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, could be addressed.

To set the ball rolling is critical. The four nations involved in the ‘quadrilateral process’ — rather  than holding meaningless parleys amongst themselves, may better focus on finding a way out of the impasse by moving forward on the two issues of releasing the detainees and abolishing the black lists. The reality and the inevitability of the Taliban being mainstreamed, under certain conditions, has  to be accepted for a sustainable solution. The signs are ominous. The so called ‘unity government’ is,  in fact, a fractured alliance that demonstrates lack of resolve and commitment on the one hand and a lack of competence on the other; more importantly, it looks for a ‘messiah’ at all times, to rescue it from impending disasters. Such a shakey dispensation cannot deliver in such turbulent times.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2016.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.