Talking about talks
THE symbolism of the Karzai-Zardari meeting in the UK was clearer than its specifics. Six months for achieving a settlement with the Afghan Taliban is obviously overly optimistic; the slow progress and eventual breakdown of the Doha talks are evidence of how difficult it is to negotiate confidence building measures, let alone a peace agreement, with the insurgent group. It is also unclear what exactly the summit statement means by a “peace settlement” or “peace and reconciliation”, likely because the participants have no concrete idea of what they can expect out of talks with the Taliban. By all accounts, the process of talking to the group has so far been a slow, complex one with several different strands of dialogue facilitated by various countries but no single venture that has made significant progress.
Specifics aside, the meeting did send two important signals. For one, its positive vibes reinforced the increasing Pak-Afghan cooperation seen over the last year, particularly the former Pakistani prime minister’s public appeal to the Taliban in February 2012 to join intra-Afghan dialogue and Pakistan’s release of around two dozen Taliban prisoners. Second, while six months might be an unrealistic timeframe, it sends a message about the need for urgent and concrete forward movement in talks given the ongoing Western withdrawal and the approach of the upcoming Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections. For too long, the reconciliation process has been a piecemeal, decentralised and hesitant one. But the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan now agree on the importance of talking to the Taliban, and despite their refusal to negotiate with President Karzai, the Taliban have spoken to his representatives in France and Japan. That should be enough to re-launch the process in a more focused and vigorous way.
And that is perhaps what the summit statement meant when it supported the much-delayed opening of a Taliban office in Doha. But President Karzai has always been uncomfortable with that idea, and its success will in part depend on whether he feels reassured that he will not be sidelined. There is also the usual list of challenges in the way of reconciliation, including the residual presence the Americans want after 2014, ideological differences and ethnic rivalries. But the most pressing issue is the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US need to work on a political settlement. But they also need to work on a ceasefire, and the latter shouldn’t have to wait for the former or for the complete withdrawal of American troops. Along with all the talk of peace after the Americans leave, the core group also needs to push for peace as soon as possible.