Leader of movement in hiding since 2001 says he hopes talks will put an end to ‘occupation’ by foreign forces.
For over a decade, Afghanistan has insisted on “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led” talks with the Taliban, preferably to be held on its own soil. Official dialogue channels are now open, but it was Pakistan that hosted direct talks with the Taliban, and of course, with its own initiative.
The two-day talks, which began on July 7 in the Pakistani resort of Murree, were hailed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, as a “major breakthrough” and were welcomed, not just by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, but also by the United States, China, the UN Security Council, and NATO.
Yet, the timing of the talks and the composition of the delegations suggests the feelings of success could be short-lived.
“We will always talk from a position of strength” insisted President Ghani a day after talks started. “We will make sure that women are fully represented in all these dialogues” he tweeted. Yet, both of these points became of secondary importance in an apparent rush to make the talks happen.
Civil society and women’s organisations, a key component of any meaningful dialogue, were absent from the Afghan delegation.
There are also serious divisions within Afghanistan’s National Unity Government, especially over its relations with Pakistan and the modalities of the talks with the Taliban. The government’s cabinet is still conspicuously missing a defence minister nearly one year after gaining power.
The official delegation from Afghanistan was weak. It was led by a relative newcomer, Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, and by Haji Deen Mohammad, a former Mujahideen leader who represented Afghanistan’s High Peace Council – a body which has proved ineffective since its formation in 2010.
Compare that to the Pakistani delegation led by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry and officials of Pakistani foreign ministry and military intelligence, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – who are clearly there just to direct the talks as preferred by Islamabad.
The Taliban delegation was also only part of the bigger picture. It was claimed that those who attended were authorised by the deputy of the reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Yet, no word has been heard from the leader himself until recently when he described it as “legitimate”. The Qatar office disowned the delegation describing the talks as a “catastrophe” for Pakistan.
The delegation was led by Mullah Abbas Akhund the former health minister of the Taliban, and by the Haqqani Network representative Ibrahim Haqqani, who along with his other family members have been residing in Pakistan for many years.
The network is responsible for the bulk of “terror attacks” that have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan over the past decade. While it would be the right group to include in any discussion about peace, it should be remembered that the group would be as ruthless in its demands as it has been brutal in its operations.
These shortcomings leave plenty of room for future disagreements – even from within Afghanistan’s National Unity government – which has a strong contingent of former Mujahedin leaders. These are the same former Mujahedin leaders who fought the Taliban for two years, and then lost the country to them in 1996.
...if the talks are to be sustainable, there must be consensus inside the unity government and due consultation with all neighbours of Afghanistan - not just Pakistan and China - but also the Central Asian republics, Iran, Russia, and India.
They would want Pakistan’s involvement to be reduced to a minimum, looking for a set of criteria in the talks that may be very different to President Ghani’s. It was just over a month ago when tensions were heightened over Ghani’s proposed signing of the Memorandum of Understanding for intelligence cooperation with Pakistan, with some describing it as “.
As international presence is reduced in Afghanistan, the talks with the Taliban provide Pakistan with a unique opportunity to return to its former position of dominating Afghan politics and involving its preferred players and partners. The talks in Murree were observed only by the representatives of the US and China.
By bringing China on board, Pakistan is serving one of its major funders who is seeking to replace the US as a major regional and international player. In return, Pakistan benefits from large investment by China in its “ project and from China’s investment in energy and infrastructure projects so vital to the survival of its economy.
Like Pakistan, China has a double bargaining chip too, since by improving ties with both Pakistan and the Taliban it could stand a better chance of defeating its own Muslim “insurgents”, such as the Uighur nationalist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – who are known to use Pakistani and Afghan territory for re-grouping and planning purposes.
Jockeying for regional and international position is not limited to China. The Russian President Vladimir Putin is also watching the situation with concern.
In a speech at a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation last week, Putin sharply criticised the international handling of the situation in Afghanistan saying it did not bring “any qualitative improvement”.
Recent on Russia portrays President Putin in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine, as intensifying many of his older policies such as “pursuit of hegemony over as much of the post-Soviet space as possible”.
As such, the talks with the Taliban are taking place when regional dynamics are especially changing with new rivalries and new political power games. There is also the additional threat from the ISIL group, increasingly making pacts with some Taliban commanders, to consider.
|Afghanistan: No Country for Women|
The talks are also being held when Afghanistan is at its weakest, when there are serious security challenges threatening two-thirds of its provinces, when Afghan forces have lost soldiers this year compared to the same period last year, and when, the number of civilians killed and injured has topped 10,000 since 2009.
Positions of strength
Because they are talking from a position of strength, it is clear that the Taliban could demand a minimum of a few cabinet posts plus the return of Sharia law and major amendments to Afghanistan’s constitution that was ratified in 2004.
Each of these demands would be catastrophic for Afghanistan – destroying all that has been achieved in the past 14 years and putting to waste billions of dollars spent on democratisation projects.
If peace talks are to win broad support in Afghanistan they must include the civil society, and especially women’s groups, which have worked incredibly hard to establish credibility within Afghanistan and a series of important benchmarks for democratic rights within the new government.
Additionally, if the talks are to be sustainable, there must be consensus inside the unity government and due consultation with all neighbours of Afghanistan – not just Pakistan and China – but also the Central Asian republics, Iran, Russia, and India.
Any peace talks in Afghanistan would benefit from being observed or overseen by the United Nations – who are experts in conflict resolution and peace building and a trusted organisation by the people of Afghanistan.
Unless these changes are made, this Murree round of talks – which are due to be continued after the holy month of Ramadan – will go the way of all previous talks like those in Qatar, China, and Norway, and will dissolve before they even have a chance to succeed.
Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.