Small chance of peace

By | February 6, 2016

Najma Minhas | The Nation | February 06, 2016

The Quadilateral Coordination Group (QCG) was set up during the Heart of Asia summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan in December 2015 to kick-start talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks collapsed in July 2015 after it was discovered that Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, had actually died two years earlier and this fact had been concealed. The goal of the QCG is to set up a framework within which to bring in the Taliban into the peace process while simultaneously setting progress measures for these talks. In the last month they have met three times and so far we have heard the usual platitudes of “Afghan led” and “Afghan ownership” of the peace process and how all countries will work towards the “security, stability and prosperity” of Afghanistan.

On the eve of the fourth meeting to be held on the 6th November, no names have been provided of the Taliban groups who have agreed to sit down for these talks, neither have we been told how progress of the talks will be measured and has a timeline been set.While President Obama’s State of Union address, mentioning the continuing future instability in Afghanistan-Pakistan, had many analysts and parliamentarians in the region blowing gaskets, his assessment is correct.  In the case of Afghanistan, there is no easy route to peace and certainly not immediately through the QCG talks. Though, Ashraf Ghani recently called the Taliban “political opponents,” disunity remains within the Afghan government with regard to the peace initiative with the Taliban and what to concede to them. Unfortunately, the discord is split along ethnic lines with the Pashtun leadership wanting to take them into the political system and compromise with them. Yet, it is not clear what they can offer to the Taliban to induce them to negotiate and it seems they are exclusively relying on Pakistan’s ability to twist their arms and bring them to the table.

The Afghan government needs a quick resolution with the Taliban, the longer they stay outside the political fray and gain strength the more the unity government seems weak and not in control of the country.  Between 2009 and mid 2015 over 30,000 Afghan police and soldiers died in attacks from the Taliban. Last year the attrition rate from the army was around one-third, due to desertions, casualties or with soldiers not re-enlisting, despite being lured with monthly salaries of $300 or at the promise of warm clothes and good food. Currently, the Taliban control over 40 Afghan districts with another 39 closely contested where the district center is under government control but the Taliban has large swathes of district territory under its own control. According to UN data around 40 percent of Afghanistan’s provinces are under “extreme threat” from Taliban takeover.This is the reason why the Taliban currently have little need to sit down in the peace talks and have set tough preconditions for doing so including the removal of all foreign forces from the country and implementation of Shariah. Furthermore, spring is just around the corner and this is the period in which the Taliban has traditionally created the greatest havoc in the country.

The more chaos and violence they create the stronger their negotiation power. What’s more, the factions created within the Taliban, after the death of Mullah Omar, has meant there is a group supporting the leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour and a splinter group supporting Mullah Rasool. This has put pressure on both groups of the Taliban to show to their followers that they will not submit to ‘outside pressure’ to stand down from their position. On 29th January 2016, a group of 20 top clerics in Afghanistan, Ittehad-e-Ulema-e-Afghanistan , issued a fatwa saying that negotiations should not be entered into so long as a foreign army is in the country. Additionally, the slowly emerging presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is also forcing the existing Taliban leaders to adopt a more extreme stance to ensure they do not lose loyalists to them. A UN report issued in September 2015 quoted the Afghan Security forces as claiming that 10 percent of ISIS sympathizers belonged to the Taliban.There is disagreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan over what the latter can and should do in ensuring peace in Afghanistan. While Pakistan has assured Afghanistan of its full support in bringing the Taliban to the table for peace talks, it believes that the onus is on the Afghan government to persuade the Taliban to give up its armed struggle.

The Afghan government is desperate for a quick breakthrough in peace talks and this is reflected in the two month deadline that was mentioned by Hekmat Karzai, the deputy foreign minister. After which he suggested a joint military action against the “irreconcilable” Taliban should be undertaken by both countries. On the other hand, Pakistan has stated that talk of tight deadlines and military attack on the Taliban is currently counter-productive, when they are in process of persuading the different Taliban groups to sit down for negotiations. It is expected that Akhtar Mansour’s group and the Haqqani network may agree for talks but Mullah Rasool has already rejected the offer. However, what is clear is that Ashraf Ghani has put his neck on the line, in extending support to Pakistan once again under the QCG talks, and Pakistan needs to do what is necessary to ensure movement on this issue.While the role of the US special representative, Ambassador Richard Olson and his team in the talks is divisive there is no such division over the involvement of the Chinese in the QCG. China is the new kid on the block when it comes to taking a role in such talks in the region.

However, it is a natural participant as it enjoys a trusted relationship with all of the parties involved from the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban. The Afghan government has long desired the Chinese to participate; Hamid Karzai’s administration tried to pressure them to use their influence on the Pakistanis. China has an interest to ensure peace given that it shares a long border with Afghanistan. But even more so, because in Xinjiang, on its western edge, it is increasingly facing a problem of insurgency and violence from the Uighurs; many of whom have spent time in Afghanistan. China has long remained aloof from any political engagement in regions that are outside it’s natural turf. But with the Chinese-Pakistan Economic corridor and its policy of ‘One Belt One Road’, having a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a necessary prerequisite to its goods and services reaching Central Asia and Europe.Despite all its weaknesses, the current arrangement of the Quadrilateral Group is probably the best format with which it may achieve some progress.

With, the USA acting as guarantor for the Afghan Government and the Chinese playing the same role for the Pakistanis. However, to do so the Afghan government needs to offer the Taliban something to make them participate in the talks. In the Pugwash conference, the Taliban put forward several demands to sit in the talks, including the acceptance of their Doha office, asking the Afghan government to stop the ‘propaganda’ against them, release of their prisoners and to be taken off the UN list of travel bans and unfreezing their assets. The first two could be done easily with clarification that the office was to be a political office for the Taliban alone.  Other demands could be met over time depending on how much progress is made. However, what should be clear to all parties is that they need to act fast to ensure that Afghanistan’s power vacuum doesn’t suck in another player in the region in the form of ISIS.

 The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.