War & Peace

Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Af-Pak roller coaster and a possible new Taleban office


Tomorrow, 26 August, President Hamed Karzai is visiting Islamabad; it will be the first visit since February 2012. At the top of the agenda: peace talks – again. In the lead-up to this visit, officials of the two countries spoke of alternatives to the Taleban’s Qatar office. AAN’s Borhan Osman (with input by Thomas Ruttig) ponders how much hope to pin on Pakistan, now under new leadership, and how promising the alternatives to the “Qatar process” are. He concludes that Kabul’s attempts at wooing Islamabad to open talks with the Taleban have been a diplomatic roller coaster, rendering chances for serious cooperation dim. He also finds that the Saudi Arabia and Turkey options, as opposed to Qatar, will be ineffective as long as the Taleban are not consulted.

Afghanistan’s attitude towards Pakistan has been perplexing, with several radical shifts over recent years. Now Kabul indicates it is time for rapprochement again. After the long-awaited opening of a Taleban negotiations office in Qatar in June was botched (see AAN reporting here) following an objection from Kabul, the Afghan government is now turning back to Pakistan to get access to the Taleban leadership. It wants its own channel to the insurgents, independent from the US. President Karzai is scheduled to visit Pakistan for the first time in more than one and a half years – the longest pause ever since Karzai became president(1) – and for the first time since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League won the parliamentary elections in May.

Afghan attempts to go through Pakistan for Taleban contacts are not new. Most similar moves have been unsuccessful in the end, though. First, a roadmap prepared last year by Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (the main government body responsible for the peace efforts) envisaged a lead role for Pakistan, but turned out to be unrealistic and therefore ineffective (find the text here and our analysis here). Also some high-flying hopes that Pakistan would help bolster the peace process after the Chequers Summit (hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in February) yielded few practical results. The joint statement issued at the end of the summit committed all sides to take steps to “achieve the goal of a peace settlement over the next six months”. Not much has happened since.

This time, both governments are united in their antagonism to the Taleban office in Qatar. Karzai’s visit to Pakistan comes when both countries are pondering dropping the Qatar office and relocating it to another country, most likely Saudi Arabia or Turkey (see here and here).

Kabul’s problem is that the Qatar office provides – or was supposed to – a channel for direct US-Taleban talks from which it was largely excluded, despite Washington’s rhetoric to the contrary. Before Qatar came up, Kabul had repeatedly tried to persuade the governments in Ankara or Riyadh to host a Taleban representation. Ankara had shown some sympathy to the idea but the US-Taleban option for Qatar made it obsolete. Since both proposals were made unilaterally, without consulting the Taleban (as Kabul was not consulted by the US about Qatar), they never held any viability anyway. Islamabad on the other hand, although it was still able to control the movements of those Taleban leaders residing in Pakistan, felt that the Doha office could move the insurgents’ negotiation team outside its reach, minimising its leverage on the results of the talks. Kabul’s latest turn back towards Pakistan gives its government the chance to stop the Taleban slipping from its grip.

As a result of both countries’ current convergence of interest, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) welcomed a suggestion by Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs and de facto foreign minister who had visited Kabul in July, to relocate the Taleban office. Then the Foreign Ministry in Kabul mentioned Turkey and Saudi Arabia as possible alternatives to Qatar.

The meeting in Islamabad thus might display a rare harmony between the two countries (although Karzai, in a press conference on 24 August chose a careful approach, saying that he was “hopeful, but not confident about a good outcome”; the Pakistani press, also, has low expectation, see for example here). There is, however, at least a chance that both sides will play a key role in future peace talks, as pursuing a new office for the Taleban in a different country amounts to initiating a new process versus the Qatar Process.

But how long will this new swing of the Afghan-Pakistani pendulum last, given that Karzai can achieve something during his forthcoming visit? Looking back at the recent history of these relations does not provide much optimism. Not long ago, Afghan officials accused Pakistan on a range of issues, such as plotting with the United States to break up Afghanistan, promoting a power-sharing plan in favour of the Taleban or controlling the Taleban war in Afghanistan. As recently as March 2013, the President’s spokesman was quoted giving the statement that “if we signed a strategic agreement with Pakistan, the Afghan public would stone us to death because they know that the suicide bombers that kill civilians and our armed forces come across from Pakistan”.

For now, Afghanistan seems to be treading lightly, speaking not of “pre-conditions” for peace talks as it often did in the past. Tolo TV, on 21 August, quoted the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, Omar Daudzai, with the soft-spoken statement that the “Afghan government submitted a plan to the Pakistani government in which it was asked to undertake a number of vital steps that include supporting the peace negotiation process, paving the road for talks between the High Peace Council (HPC) and the Taliban, releasing of key Taliban commanders and ensuring the participation of Pakistani religious scholars in the grand meeting of Islamic scholars from the Muslim world”.

The release of Taleban leaders detained by Pakistan is considered a particularly important Pakistani commitment to helping an Afghan peace process. The most prominent case is that of Mulla Abdul Ghani, aka Mulla Baradar, one of the Taleban’s most powerful military leaders, who hails from the same tribe as President Karzai: the Popalzai of Kandahar and Uruzgan (see AAN reporting here). He has been held by Pakistan since 2010 and his release, demanded time and again by Kabul, has been promised repeatedly by Islamabad under Zardari’s government – at least statements have been taken to be promises on the Afghan side(2) – but never delivered.

The new Pakistani government, at least so far, seems to be following the same line of dangling incentives in front of Kabul. Sartaj Aziz, before coming to Kabul last month, again announced that Baradar was “included in the list of who might be released” but “timing and the modalities have to be worked out”. Reportedly, Islamabad let HPC members visit Baradar in jail recently. This is one step ahead, but will still fall short of convincing Kabul of Islamabad’s seriousness. More border shelling will not help, either – only three days ago, Mohammad Zahir Bahand, the spokesman of Nuristan’s governor, reported that another “40 missiles landed in the Gordesh area of the Kamdesh district“.

Another question remains open, namely, how feasible it is to open an office for the Taleban in a country other than the one the insurgents have chosen. The Doha office was a product of secret talks between Taleban and US representatives that since spring 2010 have been facilitated by Germany. During the first contacts between the Taleban and Germany, the Taleban asked that the Qataris be pulled in, as a country they trusted. The Taleban’s selection of Qatar was a long-pondered decision. They wanted a venue that was an Islamic but not a neighbouring country, one without a military presence in Afghanistan and without a history of interference there.(3) The latter two points ruled out Turkey, which is contributing thousands of soldiers to the ISAF forces; it is also seen as too close to and supportive of the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who (as part of the so-called Northern Alliance from 1996 to its fall in 2001) is a bitter enemy of the Taleban.

Saudi Arabia, too, does not fulfil all the Taleban’s criteria. It heavily supported certain mujahedin factions during the anti-Soviet war, particularly that of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf who would later on, as a leader of the Northern Alliance, become one of the Taleban’s fiercest opponents.(4) And while Saudi-Taleban relations were positive during the earlier years of the Emirate – Riyadh being one of three governments worldwide that recognised the regime – they later became frosty again, first when the Taleban hosted Osama bin Laden and then when they snubbed visiting Saudi representatives. Talks about handing over Osama collapsed in 1998.

Since any serious negotiation requires mutual understanding with the other party of the conflict about the initial diplomatic framework of the dialogue (a principle that was violated in the case of the Qatar office – see our analysis here), pushing unilateral proposals can be destructive. Because the Afghan government felt sidelined by the US’ Qatar channel, it now insists on having the last word on how an eventual peace process is run and tries to bring the talks under its own control (see AAN reporting here). President Karzai in his first visit to Qatar in late March reportedly asked the Qatari government to have the Taleban’s yet-to-be-opened office operate under the supervision of the HPC.

The Afghan government opting for unilateral proposals, such as promoting Saudi Arabia and Turkey as new Taleban office locations, and its leaning on Pakistan despite the deep distrust caused by previously unsuccessful engagements does, however, also bring under scrutiny the government’s general commitment towards the peace talks. It is this approach to the negotiations that gives good ground to scepticism and to ponder if the government is seeking a deal with the Taleban in earnest.

(1) Karzai has visited Pakistan 19 times since coming to power in 2002, an average of about two visits per year.

(2) “Promises” have indeed been phrased rather softly as, for example, reported here in February 2010, quoting the then Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik: “Malik said last week that Pakistan would not hand the Afghan suspects to U.S. authorities but would return them to their countries of origin if there was no proof they had committed crimes in Pakistan.”

(3) As the Taleban’s official website stated in January 2012: “Choosing Qatar for the political office is a sign of prudence of the Islamic Emirate. If it had opened the office in a neighbouring country [to Afghanistan], this would have been used as a pretext for Karzai’s government [to claim that the Taleban are being steered by neighbouring countries – meaning Pakistan]. If the office had been opened in Saudi Arabia, its close military relations with Pakistan would have brought the same doubts. And since Turkey is part of Nato [which has forces in Afghanistan], the office’s sovereignty would come under question here, too. Qatar, though, has balanced relations with all sides [of the conflict].”

(4) As described in “New Geopolitics of Central Asia and Its Borderlands” (edited by Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner, Indiana University Press 1994) “Saudi Arabia has been financing the Itihad-i-Islami, an extremist Sunni group led by Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf.” More about the post-Soviet history in “Sources of Tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A Regional Perspective” by Guido Steinberg and Nils Woermer: “Saudi Arabia banked on Ittehad and Hezb-e Islami in the internal mujahideen power struggle after the fall of the communist regime in Kabul in April 1992. But the kingdom failed to forge a strong Sunni Islamist alliance capable of sidelining the key Iranian proxy, the Hazara Unity Party (Hezb-e Wahdat).”

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