- If the talks are to lead to anywhere, meetings must include representatives who can deliver results on the ground
In the latest attempt to find a solution to the nearly 38-year-old war in Afghanistan, diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China will meet in Islamabad on January 11. This format, called the “two plus two” or the “quad”, evolved from an effort started by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani soon after his inauguration in September 2014.
Ghani seems to have based his effort on the following hypotheses:
Fighters have joined the insurgency in Afghanistan for many reasons, such as anger over the US-led intervention, civilian casualties, detentions and torture, abuse by local power holders, or to protect lucrative criminal activities, but the main driver of the conflict is Pakistan’s use of these groups to pressure Afghanistan.
Pakistan, specifically the military, intends to keep pressuring Afghanistan to counter Kabul’s perceived alignment with India and the longstanding bilateral issues between the two countries. These mainly concern the status of the boundary between the two countries, which Afghanistan calls the “Durand Line” and has never officially recognised.
Disputes over the border are linked to Afghan and Pashtun nationalist movements in both countries that have challenged the legitimacy of the incorporation of Pashtun territories into Pakistan.
Pakistan supports the Taliban by providing a secure safe haven for their leadership, logistics, training, recruitment, and fundraising. Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional forces have deterred kinetic action against these safe havens. The country’s strategic importance to China, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, precludes international sanctions against Pakistan. Therefore only a political solution is possible.
At a press conference on December 31, 2015, Ghani said, “It is obvious that there are groups of Taliban, not a unified movement.” If so, direct engagement with the Pakistan-based so-called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, formerly led by the late Mullah Muhammad Omar and now by Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, will only magnify the importance of that group.
Since the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, at least one group has split from the Taliban, but Pakistan, sometimes to the dismay of Kabul, has supported Mansur’s efforts to consolidate power. If the Taliban are a collection of groups, then the Taliban political office in Doha with which the US has engaged in talks, could not be an effective interlocutor.
Therefore as a first step Afghanistan must offer to build trust with Pakistan, as Ghani tried to do starting with his November 2014 visit to Pakistan. Economic cooperation such as the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) pipeline will reinforce such confidence building measures and provide incentives to reach agreement.
The rise of China’s economy and its leadership’s decision to “look west” has led China to break with its passivity in this region. In order to complete the hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure that China intends to build across Central and South Asia, it requires a predictable environment, including peace and security in Afghanistan.
This trend has moved China’s interests in the region toward closer alignment with those of Afghanistan and the US. At least some of Pakistan’s use of Islamist militants now threatens China’s interests, while China’s investments offer Pakistan a significant payoff if it modifies its policy of protecting the Taliban safe haven. Hence inclusion of China in the process is essential to move Pakistan in the right direction and keep it on board.
The US remains the dominant foreign power for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the increasing alignment of US and China’s interests and the development of US-China cooperation on Afghan issues reduces Pakistan’s ability to play one against the other. US-China cooperation may also turn into a durable partnership that will be needed to monitor and implement any agreement.
Therefore these four powers must reach agreement on the framework for negotiation. Whether or not various Taliban groups accept that internationally agreed framework will constitute the working definition of those who “choose peace or terrorism”, in Ghani’s words.
Those who refuse this framework should be dealt with militarily in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would include international extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL.
Especially after the bloody summer and fall of 2015, Afghan public opinion will not accept negotiations as long as this level of violence continues. While Pakistan has argued that a ceasefire or the equivalent must emerge from the talks, Ghani insists that some confidence building measures must lead very quickly to a reduction in violence. For that he is relying more on Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban than on agreement with them.
Talks with Taliban
Who would represent the Taliban in such talks? The Taliban leadership has stated for years that the Doha office is the address for talks. The Taliban sought an office in a Gulf country so it could operate more independently of Pakistan and represent the real positions of what they portray as a politically centralised, though operationally decentralised, movement.
At the July 5 meeting in Murree, however, the Taliban side consisted of two representatives of mujahidin networks from Eastern Afghanistan dating back to the 1980s that joined the Taliban later (the Haqqanis and Harakat-Mansur) and one individual working more or less directly for the ISI (Mullah Abbas).
If negotiations are to lead to an actual settlement with most of the insurgents, future meetings will have to include representatives who can deliver results on the ground.
If the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan does speak for a significant portion of the fighters, it may be necessary to include the political office, which has so far rejected the framework proposed by the Afghan government and demanded more talks with the US and the lifting of sanctions before negotiating with the Afghan government.
If Pakistan’s ability or willingness either to deliver or suppress the Taliban is less than the Afghan government believes or hopes, Afghanistan may have to engage more with the Taliban rather than with Pakistan, and Pakistan will have to agree to loosen its control of the process. Thus far it has insisted that all meetings, including both Murree and this Monday’s diplomatic meeting, take place in Pakistan. And if Pakistan will not or cannot take the necessary measures to disarm the Taliban as part of the implementation of an agreement, not only Afghanistan, but also the US and China will have to reconsider how to gain its compliance.
The main subject of discussion in Islamabad is likely to be where and when to hold the next meeting, who should be invited, and how to place the chairs around the table. That is necessary.
But a clearer consensus within the quad on the issues discussed here will be needed to actually attain the objective.