Has reconciliation been advanced?
THE trilateral summit hosted in London by Prime Minister David Cameron, judging by the joint statement his office released, has been an outstanding success.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have 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”. The Taliban have been called upon to open an office in Doha to “enter into dialogue” with the Afghan government which has also set up a base in Doha. Lastly, both countries “reaffirmed their commitments” to signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) to encourage closer ties.
This was the third such summit that the UK has hosted but this time it was different because the delegations of the three sides included not only the political leaders but also the military and intelligence chiefs of the three participants. It was different also because it had been preceded by an unprecedented visit of the Afghan defence minister to Pakistan in the course of which there had been Afghan acknowledgement of Pakistan’s positive role in advancing reconciliation exemplified by the release of 26 Taliban leaders from Pakistani custody and a number of hints that Afghanistan saw advantages in having its armed forces personnel trained in Pakistani training institutes.
On the face of it, one could say that even while the time frame appeared overly optimistic, both Afghanistan and Pakistan appeared determined to work together to build a better bilateral relationship and to advance reconciliation. If they were moving towards concluding a Strategic Partnership Agreement they would ensure that no officially sanctioned activity disturbed peace along the border. It could be hoped that an understanding between the Karzai administration and all centres of power in Pakistan would bring overwhelming pressure to bear on the Taliban and persuade them to abandon their stance of refusing to talk to the Karzai administration. Unfortunately, much as one would want this to happen the reality on the ground appears to be very different.
Consider the reality that the day after Afghan Defence Minister General Bismillah Khan finished his five-day visit to Pakistan, mortar shells from Afghanistan rained down on a Pakistani village near Angoor Adda, killing six people. This seemed to give lie to the agreement to better coordinate action against cross-border activity that was one of the principal subjects discussed during Gen Bismillah’s visit. Clearly, such coordination serves Afghanistan’s interest and it is difficult to understand why Afghan forces are seeking to undermine it.
Consider that on the day the trilateral summit commenced in London, 200 Pakistani trucks carrying perishable goods to Central Asian destinations were turned back or held at the Afghan border in retaliation for what the Afghans claimed was the unwarranted delay in clearing Afghan imports through Karachi port. This invited suggestions from Pakistani traders that Pakistan should stop Afghanistan’s overland trade with India and if the problem is not resolved soon, will invite calls for suspending all Afghan transit trade.
Pakistan’s overland trade with Central Asia is still at the nascent stage but is essential if Afghanistan is to be seen in Pakistan through an economic rather than a security prism. On the other hand, Afghanistan — despite the development of the transit trade through Iran — remains overwhelmingly dependent on Pakistan’s ports for its trade with the rest of the world. Allowing Pakistan to develop its trade with Central Asia, thus generating revenues for Afghanistan and creating an economic interdependence, is clearly in Afghanistan’s interest and it is therefore difficult to understand this move on the part of the Afghan customs’ authorities.
Both these developments could perhaps be ignored as no more than cussedness on the part of local officials or the effort of a minority of Afghans to sabotage an improvement of Pak-Afghan relations but what is much more important in the context of reconciliation is the Afghan government’s stance on the setting up of the Taliban office in Doha.
On the day that the summit concluded in London, the Washington Post carried an article which highlighted the frustration of the Obama administration with the Karzai administration’s insistence that the Qatar authorities permit the setting up of the Taliban office in Doha only after exchanging a memorandum of understanding with the Karzai administration. This memorandum would include assurances that the Taliban office would not be used for any “political purpose” other than direct negotiations with Afghanistan, that it would have a fixed time frame and be closed if talks do not take place, and that all Taliban negotiators would provide “documentation” proving they are legitimate representatives.
The article says that the Americans believed that Karzai’s reservations had been addressed during his visit to Washington and he had come around to accepting that the Taliban office would serve as the venue for talks with the Americans for the swap of the American soldier the Taliban were holding for five Taliban leaders detained in Guantanamo and simultaneously for the Taliban’s talks with the Afghan High Peace Council. The Obama administration had apparently informed Pakistan of this shortly after Presidents Karzai and Obama had jointly announced on Jan 11 that the Taliban would be allowed to set up an office in Qatar. Apparently Mr Karzai, on his return to Kabul, changed his mind fearing that the Americans will reach a “deal” with the Taliban from which his administration will be shut out.
To an outside observer Mr Karzai’s stance is unreasonable. He himself had proposed to the Americans that the five Guantanamo prisoners identified by the Taliban be released to facilitate reconciliation. The Taliban had made it clear that such a release would give them confidence that the Americans were serious and had apparently indicated in preliminary contacts that this would enable them to publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda. Such an agreement can be reached only in talks between America and the Taliban.
Mr Karzai does fear, as his public statements have shown, that the Qatar venue may be used for Taliban talks with other parties in Afghanistan. Such fears were probably fuelled by the Qatari prime minister’s statement on Jan 15 that the opening of the Taliban office would “facilitate dialogue between the Taliban and other political parties in Afghanistan.” He has the right to demand that the Taliban talk only to his High Peace Council while ensuring that the loyal opposition is represented in the council’s team.
The big question with regard to the London summit therefore is whether Mr Karzai has accepted the need to have the Taliban office in Doha and whether his demand to be the sole Afghan interlocutor with the Taliban has been accepted.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.