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Talking to the Taliban (II)

June 28, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Reports of talks between pro- and anti-Taliban factions should be welcomed but treated with great caution.  The Afghan High Peace Council’s Chairman could perhaps spend less time blaming Pakistan and more time taking proactive responsibility for Afghanistan’s future…

Oct 2010: HPC inauguration – weak and controversial from the beginning?

Arguably, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC), established in 2010 and charged with conducting peace negotiations with the Taliban, was struggling to achieve anything noteworthy even before its original chairman, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by most likely the Taliban or one of their allies in September 2011.  I note that apparently two meetings have taken place – one in Paris and now in Tokyo – involving pro- and anti-Taliban representatives.  I am being deliberately cautious in my categorisation of the participants.  The Paris meeting talked of members of the former Northern Alliance talking to the Taliban representatives (and HIG) and the Tokyo meeting of members of the High Peace Council.  And I am not sure if the two meetings are linked and/or coordinated.

From this distance it is of course difficult to see what this might lead to.  Although all contact should be seen as a positive, many contacts have been made before and frequently between different groups acting without coordination – and very likely actively against each other.  Such a delicate issue should, initially at least, be held between closed doors.  However we should be aware of the risks of deals made by small groups and the need ultimately for Afghan popular consent.

Kabul—The Afghanistan High Peace Council, Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) led by Gul Buddin Hikmatyar, on Wednesday started a trilateral meeting in Kyoto city of Japan, officials said.

HIA head of political affairs Dr. Ghairat Baheer, former Taliban Planning Minister Qari Din Mohammad, ex-Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zayeef and representative of peace council, Masoom Stanikzai participated in the one-day peace meet. “This is the first close international conference of its kind between the Afghan government, Hezb-i-Islami and Taliban,” he added.

Last week, representatives from the peace council, National United Front, HIA and Taliban gathered in Paris, France for a dialogue.

A member of the peace council said on condition of anonymity that it was decided at the Paris gathering that the Taliban and HIA officials would conduct another meeting with the council in Japan.—INP

What is to be discussed, what may be on the table, what is non-negotiable and how any agreements could be made, monitored and enforced remain unclear.  I suspect they have not even been discussed yet – we are still likely to be in the “talks about talks” stage.  I wouldn’t get your hopes up just yet.  At the Tokyo meeting:

Taliban senior official Din Mohammad said his group will not sit down for talks until troops from the US and all other foreign countries first withdraw from Afghanistan.

At the moment I sense that the Taliban feel they are in a good military position – a position that will only improve as ISAF forces scale down – 30,000 in this year, for example.  Keep the contact up, obviously, but why bother to talk now when, in their judgement (flawed or not) it will be easier in 2 – 3 years time?

The current Chairman of the HPC, Salahuddin Rabbani, son of the previous murdered incumbent, Burhunuddin, has given an interview in which he expressed his desire to restart the talks process and also called upon Pakistan to do more in the process:

(Reuters) – Afghanistan’s top peace negotiator urged Pakistan on Wednesday to free Taliban prisoners and push militant leaders into peace negotiations, saying Islamabad must do more to help bring an end to the 10-year Afghan war…

“Pakistan can do a lot in bringing (the Taliban leadership) to the negotiating table,” Rabbani said, speaking in the same heavily guarded, pastel-colored home where his father was killed last year by a man described as a Taliban envoy.

“They have influence,” the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said. “Pakistan is the key to the whole process.

Pakistan, Rabbani said, must finally take action in areas where it has the potential to catalyze a process that has moved so slowly that critics suggest it is doomed…

He said Pakistan should free Taliban prisoners such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the movement who is described as No. 2 to its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar.

“By releasing them or giving them to Afghan custody, that would help the process,” Rabbani said, suggesting he would redouble previous Afghan pleas to release Baradar and other Taliban who have supported peace talks with Kabul.

This strikes me as lazy, weak and even irresponsible.  Mr Rabbani appears to prefer to blame Pakistan, make a powerless victim of Afghanistan and avoid taking responsibility for the peace process.  There is no love lost between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani government – they both see the other as necessary evils.  If an Afghan “deal” (I’m  using the word very carefully) could be reached within the various Afghan stakeholders, there might be no need to be dependent upon a country whose actions in regard to Afghanistan have been highly questionable for years.

If you are going to sit back and pin it all on a strategy dependent upon Pakistani efforts and good intentions, then you will have a long wait…

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