From all the media reporting of developments in Afghanistan and the statements made by President Karzai and his aides it is evident that in Kabul’s perception or perhaps more accurately President Karzai’s perception Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have reached a new low…
This is not how the relationship looked a few months ago. High level Pakistani dignitaries, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Army Chief of staff had visited Kabul and in meetings with leaders of all groups, particularly the representatives of the ethnic minorities, had apparently been able to convince them that Pakistan’s support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation with the Taliban and other “armed opposition groups was sincere. The head of the High Peace Council Mr. Salahuddin Rabbani had visited Pakistan and had secured the release of Taliban leaders held by Pakistan identified by the Afghans as potential interlocutors in the reconciliation process. Meetings of the representatives of the “core group”-Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USA were held regularly and seemed to be making progress. Pakistan claimed with some measure of credibility that it had facilitated the movement of Taliban representatives to Doha for setting up the office, which could be used for reconciliation.
In February Prime Minister David Cameron hosted a trilateral summit at which their defence and intelligence chiefs accompanied the leaders of the three countries. The communiqué that emerged from this meeting sounded a very positive note. Mr Cameron said «an unprecedented level of co-operation» had been agreed between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The joint statement said all sides had agreed on the urgency of the Afghan peace process and «committed themselves to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of a peace settlement over the next six months». President Karzai and President Zardari also «re-affirmed their commitments» to signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), to encourage closer ties.
Pakistan had also agreed at the Chequers summit that future releases of Taliban prisoners would be coordinated with the Afghans. This was a follow up on a commitment the Pakistan Foreign Secretary had made publicly that all Taliban prisoners held by Pakistan would be released and implicitly affirmed that this could include Abdul Ghani Baradar the former deputy to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He told the Pakistan Senate committee that a coordination mechanism had been set up for this purpose so that the Afghan High Peace Council would have advance notice of releases addressing an earlier Afghan complaint that they had not been informed of the exact dates of release when some 26 Taliban had been released by Pakistan in November in response to requests from the Afghan High Peace Council.
These positive developments were however soon overshadowed by the abortive effort on Karzai’s part of organise a conference of Pakistani and Afghan religious scholars (Ulema) to condemn suicide bombings as unislamic and to endorse the peace process. These efforts foundered when the Pakistani Ulema insisted that the Taliban be invited to participate and subsequently by the furore created when the head of the Pakistani Ulema group, Mullah Ashrafi, was quoted as having said that suicide bombing was justified against foreign occupiers. Karzai maintained that since the Pakistan government had appointed Ashrafi his views had official endorsements. Ashrafi’s clarification that his remarks had been misinterpreted and a Pakistan embassy statement that Ashrafi’s views were personal and not official did not quell the storm. The proposal withered away but left officials and politicians on both sides with a sense of grievance.
In November 2012 Salahuddin Rabbani had come to Pakistan and had presented a document entitled “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015”. This document, many suggested had been drawn up by the Afghans working with their Pakistani counterparts while others suggested that it had emerged from meetings of the “core group”-Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USA. Whatever its origin the document did attempt perhaps unrealistically to lay out a path by which the Taliban with Pakistan’s very pro-active involvement could be persuaded to participate in peace talks in return for the promise of a share of power and for ultimate emergence as a political rather than military force competing for the support of the Afghan people. The most important elements of this road map, were that in a series of 5 steps up to 2015, the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire, renounce ties with Al-Qaeda. In return they would be given power in the areas in which they were dominant and a share of power in Kabul. Pakistan, the document makes clear, would have the key role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table to work out this arrangement.
Writing on this subject at that time I had said, «There is much in the road map that can be regarded with scepticism or even dismissed as fantasy. There are a number of imponderables including the measure of support the road map enjoys in Afghanistan, the spoiler role of powerful drug traffickers and warlords who flourish while instability pervades the region, the political differences between Karzai and the loyal opposition and on the other side the existence of differences within Taliban ranks with many factions believing that having fought for a decade against a Super Power they are within sight of total victory».
Such questioning is valid but given the irreversibility of the American decision to withdraw and given the signs, albeit faint, that the majority of the Taliban too realise that it would be impossible to return to the Taliban era in today’s Afghanistan, this does seem to offer some hope of a negotiated settlement provided a measure of trust can be created and provided Pakistan plays the limited cards it has with some skill.
There is no doubt that this road map and the indications of a certain flexibility on the part of the Taliban, contained in the presentation that the Taliban representatives made at an ostensibly Track II meeting in Chantilly outside Paris in January were borne very much in mind when the optimistic conclusion of a peace settlement in 6 months was broached in Chequers. At the Chantilly Conference where all elements of the “loyal opposition, the “armed opposition and the government were strongly represented, the Taliban statement repeated what Mullah Omar had said earlier- not seeking an exclusive right to power» and wanting instead ‘an all-Afghan, inclusive government”. It offered a general amnesty to those who had fought against the Taliban, seemed to accept that the present ANSF should continue, as should the many new Afghan institutions created under NATO tutelage. It denounced the present Afghan constitution as something imposed and proposed that a new constitution be drawn up based on «the Islamic principles, national interests, social justice, and historical gains», which would «guarantee, without prejudice, equal rights for all ethnic groups». But his last point was not a s significant as it appears since most of what they want in terms of Islamic principles is part of the present constitution.
The problem from that time onwards has been that President Karzai is not prepared to concede that the Taliban office in Doha as and when it becomes functional should be used for anything other than a dialogue with Karzai and his representatives. He has insisted that the Qatar government sign a MOU with his government prohibiting the Taliban from using the office for any other purpose. The Taliban however remain adamant on not talking to Karzai since they see him as a puppet installed by the foreign forces. They actually want to use the Qatar office to talk to the Americans about an exchange of prisoners – the one American soldier they are holding for the 5 Taliban they want released from Guantanamo. Many people believe that if this exchange proceeds the Taliban would be prepared to formally renounce ties with the Al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organisations. Many others believe that they may then also be willing to talk to Karzai on the basis of the High Peace Council Roadmap.
The second problem is that there is no general acceptance within Afghanistan of the Roadmap. In a television programme organised jointly by an Afghan and Pakistani channel two months ago, an Afghan participant, Ahmad Wali Masood the brother of the late Ahmad Shah Masood, said clearly that there was no Afghan consensus on the Roadmap, which needed further discussion.
It would therefore appear that before Karzai talks to the Taliban he must have internal discussions to establish that the broad parameters of his negotiating stance enjoys broad acceptance within Afghanistan. Karzai appears unwilling to move in this direction.
In the next article I will seek to explore how Karzai seems to be intent on using Pakistan primarily and America secondarily as a means of taking the focus away from this issue of prime importance and burnishing his credentials as an Afghan nationalist. I will also talk of what I believe was the damage done by a public expression by Pakistani foreign office officials of their disillusionment with Karzai and their perception that Karzai had become the main impediment to the peace process.
(To be concluded)