Just don’t call it talks…
Summary: The Taliban and the Afghan government will meet in Qatar in a carefully choreographed non meeting. Gently does it.
Days after the commencement of their Spring offensive, the Taliban appear to have confirmed that they are to take part in two days of discussion and engagement in Qatar at the same time and the same event as an Afghan government delegation. The coming together, which both sides seem at pains to downplay, is under the auspices of the Pughwash Group, an organisation of scientists and experts with a mission as follows:
Through meetings and projects that bring together scientists, experts, and policy makers, Pugwash focuses on those problems that lie at the intersection of science and world affairs. Pugwash’s main goals remain to seek the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, to reduce the risk of war especially in areas where weapons of mass destruction are present and may be used, and to discuss new scientific and technological developments that may bring more instability and heighten the risk of conflicts.
The Taliban have issued a statement on their website as follows:
A two-day research conference is scheduled to take place in the country Qatar on Sunday, 2nd May 2015.
This research conference is prepared by Pughwash International Organization where individuals from various countries are invited to participate. Pugwash is an impartial international organization based in Canada with branches in London, Switzerland and a few other countries. The said organization routinely convenes conferences concerning world affairs in various parts of the globe, bringing together experts from different places.
It is worth mentioning that all participants of this conference attend in an individual capacity, no one participates as representatives for any government or party. Since this is a research conference therefore every participant gives their opinion on a range of issues.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will also be sending an eight-man delegation headed by Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai to this conference in order to personally deliver the message of its oppressed nation and other such issues to the world just like it previously sent delegations to conferences in France and Japan. A statement for participation in the conference has also been prepared which will be shared with our respected readers at an appropriate time.
It must be stressed that participation in this conference by a delegation from the Political Office of Islamic Emirate should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks. This issue has already been discussed with and accepted by the organizers of Pughwash and an understanding has been reached that every attendee will participate in an individual capacity and not as representatives of a side or government.
The participants of Islamic Emirate in this conference are as listed below:
1. Mr. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai
2. Mr. Maulawi Jan Muhammad Madani
3. Mr. Maulawi Sayed Rasoul Haleem
4. Mr. Maulawi Shahabuddin Delawar
5. Mr. Qari Deen Muhammad Haneef
6. Mr. Maulawi Abdul Salam Haneefi
7. Mr. Sohail Shaheen
8. Mr. Hafiz Aziz Rahman
Perhaps understandably, you can sense the carefully treading on eggshells. The Taliban do not want to give any sense that they are in any way conceding and taking part in peace talks. Their own organisation is likely highly divided on the issue of any engagement with Westerners. They are at pains to “clarify” that this is simply a conference to discuss “world affairs” and that no one is officially representing the Taliban. The rough model for this slight encounter between Afghan government and Taliban seems to be the Kyoto (Japan, June 2012) and Chantilly (France, December 2012) meetings in which similar “not talks” events took place under the guise of discussing more general matters.
But it is possible to present the current conflict as a stalemate – both sides in the field and willing and able to contest the battleground, but no one in a position to land a decisive blow. Although we should not, of course, see developments in Qatar as an indicator that anything like “talks” will take place anytime soon, this does seem to be a slight, but potentially significant, shift in the Taliban’s approach: making a clear and defined statement, uncluttered by vitriol and denouncement.
We should see some feedback from Qatar in the coming week, although confidentially is to be expected and should be respected: let no one be humiliated or pushed either too far or into a corner. As for the fighting inside Afghanistan, I would expect it to continue. In many conflicts, the period before talks is often the point at which both sides attempt to grab as much bargaining power as possible but I do not think we are at that stage yet.
Forget formal talks for the moment, but these sort of general discussions are to be encouraged – and the frequency increased – as they could well represent the necessary throat-clearing and confidence-building precursors to a proper exchange in months and, more likely, years, to come. The paper I produced earlier this year suggested these type of meetings as but one of a basket of confidence building and communication measures that could assist in bringing the two parties slowly together.
Do not get expectations up. Do not shout too loudly about it.
Easy does it.