Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US – the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – are pushing to open a new chapter in the ongoing search for a peace process for Afghanistan. The group has now met for the fourth time, although direct talks with the Taleban have yet to begin. Earlier this week, it issued an ultimatum to the Taleban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government by early March 2016, or face the military heat. At the same time, the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) was revamped so that it could “more effectively” support the envisaged process. This approach, however, risks once again derailing talks before they have even begun. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig takes a closer look.A view of the quadrilateral talks in Kabul. Source: Etilaat-e Ruz.
For the past months, Afghanistan and its three partners in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – US, China and Pakistan – have been trying to force a breakthrough by creating a viable Afghan peace process. The current drive is partly fuelled by a desire within the US administration to gain as much ground before the next US elections, and partly by the recurring hope that Pakistan may now be more amenable to peace between the Taleban and the Afghan government. The initial drive for renewed talks came from the new Afghan government. The current focus in the process is, in the first instance, to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table and get them to agree to direct talks with the government in Kabul – without which a genuine peace process would be difficult to imagine.
An invitation-cum-ultimatum and a ‘road map’
Following the fourth meeting of the QCG, which took place on Tuesday (23 February) in Kabul, the four participants issued an “invitation” to “all Taliban and other [armed] groups to participate through their authorized representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government expected to take place by the first week of March 2016.” (The emphasis on “authorised representatives” is meant to ensure that the insurgent delegation does not permanently need to go back to consult its leadership for decisions, which also can be a delaying tactic.) Pakistan has agreed to host these talks in Islamabad.
This ‘invitation,’ which bears all the hallmarks of an ultimatum given the very short deadline, was part of a stern five-paragraph joint press release (the statement of President Ghani is here) published by the Afghan foreign ministry after the QCG meeting. It was preceded by some posturing in the meeting’s opening statement by Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, in which he said that his government would welcome any group joining the process, but that
…those elements of the armed groups who continue to refuse to join the peace talks, and continue the path of violence must realize that our message to them is clear: our brave security forces will not hesitate in their resolve to fight them resolutely, wherever they are, to stop them from committing terror, violence and bloodshed.
Kabul’s approach seems to be based on the – unpublished – roadmap for the envisaged peace process (see press release here) agreed upon by the QCG’s members during their previous meeting in Islamabad in early February, which, according to participants, determines “parameters of shared responsibilities.” It tries to capitalise on the split in the Taleban insurgency that showed when Mullah Muhammad Mansur officially took over as new leader following last year’s announcement of the death of the movement’s founder-leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and a dissident faction emerged under Mullah Muhammad Rassul. (See AAN’s analysis of these developments here.) Currently, it tries to drive the wedge even deeper, using the emergence of further, smaller splinter group, related or unrelated to the dissidents. (See for instance the media reporting on Taleban infighting in Paktika here and in Faryab here.)
Analytically and practically, the roadmap envisages that the Taleban be divided into those considered to be ‘conciliatory’ and ‘irreconcilable.’ President Ghani, in a press conference on 31 December 2015, had already set the tone for this (quoted here) when he said: “It is obvious that there are groups of Taliban, not a unified movement. The fundamental issue here is the choice: choose peace or terrorism. There will be no tolerance for terrorism.” (1) Abdul Hakim Mujahed, a former Taleban diplomat now on the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), made this approach even clearer in an interview, where he said that those deemed irreconcilable will be fought. As he put it:
The road map is being prepared to combat the Afghan insurgency and bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Certainly all four countries [on the QCG] will cooperate with each other to combat the insurgency.
The strategy of seeking to widen the split among the Taleban is apparently based on two hopes. Firstly, that either Pakistan, with China’s prompting, will succeed in bringing the Taleban mainstream faction of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur to the Islamabad talks or, alternatively, persuade other groups (for example Rassul’s faction or Hezb-e Islami) to join the talks. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction, Hezb-e Islami, has been holding direct talks with the Afghan government for years (AAN’s analysis here) in an attempt to increase its political standing and might take up the QCG’s offer. (Many other Hezbis joined the post-2001 political system either individually or in groups, registered a political party, secured several cabinet positions and one of their leaders is deputy to the CEO. Its armed wing, however, has failed so far to come to an agreement to end its armed campaign.) If some groups joined the talks, it could prompt some of the more mainstream Taleban to join the bandwagon of peace talks.
Mullah Muhammad Rassul’s dissident Taleban faction, though, has also adopted the position that it would be ready to engage in peace talks only after the departure of all foreign troops (here in Dari).
Secondly, the strategy seems based on the premise that Pakistan would start clamping down on ‘irreconcilable’ Taleban even if hitherto it had considered many of them allies or assets. According to the New York Times earlier this week, “officials close to the talks process” (it is unclear of which government) said “Pakistan’s representatives had earlier given assurances that violence will be noticeably reduced in coming weeks” and that the Taleban might even refrain from announcing their ‘spring offensive’ this year. (That being said, there has been virtually no lull in fighting over the winter. Many Taleban fighters were ordered to stay in their province and not to retreat to their shelters in Pakistan.) This aim – the reduction of violence in Afghanistan – had been established at the QCG’s second meeting in Kabul in January 2016 (see statement here).
The question remains, however, as to whether such a shift in behaviour would fit into Pakistan’s long-term regional strategy. Until now, the Taleban have been seen as its strongest card in the regional power play with regard to securing influence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. It seems unlikely that Pakistan would discard the Taleban while bilateral relations remain dominated by mutual mistrust and accusations of supporting or harbouring each other’s armed insurgents. There are also unsolved issues, such as the open border question.
The Afghan government used the opportunity to restate its main red lines for the envisaged peace talks. In his speech introducing the revamped High Peace Council on the day of the QCG meeting, President Ashraf Ghani urged the Taleban to end their armed campaign, to “join the caravan of peace” and to choose “political participation” under “our constitution.” (2)
The second decision of the fourth QCG meeting was to set up a joint Afghan-Pakistani working group to mobilise support of ulema (religious scholars) from both countries for the “peace and reconciliation process, including through Fatwas against the ongoing senseless violence.” In this way, the Afghan government is trying to flank the talks with activities that aim to build a constituency for peace. It is also trying to take the moral high ground, presenting itself as the party that pushes for an end to the conflict, giving the other side the choice of whether to join or be sent to the warmonger’s corner.
The Taleban reaction
The Taleban, in their first response to the QCG statement issued by the spokesman of their political office in Qatar to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said they were “unaware of plans for talks.” The Taleban spokesman, Muhammad Naim Wardak, added that they had not changed their position regarding the conditions under which they would be ready to join a peace process, as announced at the second Pugwash meeting in Doha on 23 January 2016 (see the organisation’s rendering of the results here; the Taleban’s version is here). The conditions include the withdrawal of all foreign troops, official recognition of the Qatar office, the removal of the Taleban from the UN sanctions list, a halt to the “arrest and elimination” of Taleban fighters, the release of Taleban inmates from prisons, and a stop to what they call “anti-Taleban propaganda,” including labelling them as “terrorists.” (The Qatar office has been tasked both by the old and the new Taleban leadership to act as the movement’s sole intermediary.) Diplomats in Kabul have interpreted this list of Taleban demands as a hardening of their position in comparison to what they said at the first Pugwash meeting in May 2015 (see AAN’s take on this meeting here).
To date, the insurgents have officially rejected engaging in direct talks with the Afghan government, as they first insist on holding negotiations with the US regarding the full withdrawal of all foreign military forces. Their official position is that ‘intra-Afghan talks’ would only be possible following this withdrawal (the date of which has now been postponed due to the extension of Mission Resolute Support beyond the end of 2016).
There has been one major exception, though. In the Murree talks in July 2015, Taleban representatives did in fact sit down for talks with officials from Kabul for the first time. These talks were quickly abandoned, however, mainly due to the news of Mullah Omar’s death which came out in the middle of the sessions and the break of confidentiality about the talks (read AAN analysis here). The Taleban also sat in the same room with Afghan government representatives in lower key events not directly related to Afghanistan, such as in a March 2015 peace seminar in Oslo. This might serve as some indication that there may be some political posturing involved and that the ‘preconditions’ could become negotiable once a degree of trust has been established, after the many failed attempts at getting talks underway.
There are two elements in the invitation issued by the QCG that may well be off-putting to the Taleban. First, there is the tone, which is one of an ultimatum, when in fact the Taleban are making steady territorial gains in parts of the country where the most intensive fighting is taking place. In the strategically important province of Helmand, for example, the Taleban have recently forced the ANSF to beat a ‘tactical’ retreat from at least one district (see a media report here; an AAN analysis of the Helmand situation is forthcoming). Furthermore, they are still capitalising on their temporary takeover of Kunduz, where a dangerous situation continues (see AAN’s analysis here). Sources from various provinces told AAN how this victory has boosted the local Taleban’s morale. Secondly, they might be suspicious – given the experience of the Murree talks – that Pakistan’s role as host for the newly envisaged talks would once again mean that Pakistan will determine who should sit at the table on the Taleban’s behalf.
Finally, the early March deadline for talks seems unrealistic. The QCG Four might well end up talking with only a few marginal groups (or delaying the timeline).
It is unlikely that the short deadline set by the QCG will in the short run bring about the longed-for reduction of violence in Afghanistan, as expressed by the officials quoted above. It therefore remains to be seen whether, if the talks do not commence by early March, the ANSF can make good on Kabul’s strong rhetoric and significantly increase their pressure on the Taleban in the spring, thereby turning the military tide and re-taking the initiative in the war. In all probability, this is doubtful, according both to the US special inspector’s latest assessments (highlighting the ANSF’s five main challenges including “questionable force strength numbers” and ”uncertain long-term sustainability”) and to what Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, interior minister until recently, said about the Afghan police – that there were “imaginary units,” “networks of financial and political corruption“ and “large quantities of untraceable ammunition” undermining its fighting capability. The alternative would be to extend the deadline of the ‘invitation’ for talks and in the meantime keep the QCG’s member-states’ political pressure on the Taleban up.
President Ghani and CEO Abdullah present the revamped HPC. Photo: Presidential website.
A reformed High Peace Council?
The QCG’s statement and the Taleban’s reaction almost overshadowed the fact that, after months of deliberations, a new composition for the High Peace Council (HPC) was announced (see the composition of its leadership bodies in the annex). Former HPC foreign affairs representative, Ismail Qasemyar, who continues to speak for the council, confirmed to AAN that the number of its members has been reduced from 70 to 50. A full list of those members, however, was not available at the time of writing.
The first mention of how the HPC had been revamped came late on 21 February 2016 via a post on Twitter by the deputy spokesman of the CEO, somewhat prematurely it seemed. The Palace took its time and only confirmed the news two days later in a press conference (statement in Pashto here; as yet unavailable in English), on the day of the QCG meeting.
The HPC top post went, as the Kabul rumour mill had indicated for a long time, to veteran mujahedin leader Pir Seyyed Ahmad Gailani. (3) The Pir still commands a lot of respect, also as the leader of an important Sufi order that includes the Taleban among its followers. He is, however, ageing and it is expected that his role will mainly be a symbolical one. His son, Seyyed Hamed Gailani – who also runs the Gailanis’ political party, Mahaz-e Melli Islami (English: NIFA) – may end up running the everyday work of the council on his father’s behalf, although his name has not yet been mentioned for any official role within the council.
The HPC also has six new deputy heads. There is Haji Din Muhammad, a key Ghani supporter and eastern Pashtun. As head of the 2009 presidential campaign for then president Hamed Karzai and with a key role in the current president’s 2014 campaign, he helped establish contacts that kept the insurgency relatively quiet on those elections days in parts of the country. The other five deputies are former Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili (a Hazara, currently without a government position); three religious scholars, respectively Mawlawis Abdul Khabir Uchqul (an Uzbek), Abdul Karim Khuddam (a Turkmen) and Atta ur-Rahman Salim (a Tajik) and Habiba Sarabi, the former Women’s Affairs minister and first female provincial governor (for Bamian, 2005-13; she is also a Hazara). Khuddam and Salim represent Jamiat-e Islami, Khabir was deputy chairman of the Jombesh party and Khalili leads his own wing of the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami.
There are two women on the new HPC Executive Board of Advisors: Sadeqa Balkhi, a former minister and serving member of the Afghan Senate, and Hasina Safi, director of the Afghan Women’s network. Both women participated in a landmark meeting in Norway in the middle of 2015 – the first where Afghan women activists and Taleban representatives directly exchanged views (see here and here). The other four advisors are Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Mujahed, a former Taleban diplomat and deputy HPC head; Mawlawi Attaullah Ludin, former governor of Nangarhar and member of Hezb-e Islami’s legal wing; and two of the council’s spokesmen, Ismail Qasemyar and Farhadullah Farhad.
Much like the old council, the focus in appointing the HPC’s new leadership and advisory board seems to have been more on balancing the major ethnic groups and political factions, than on gathering a strong team of negotiators. (Read AAN’s take on the initial HPC in 2010 here.)
The CEO’s spokesman who initially broke the news told AAN “these appointments will help [the] competence [and] effectiveness of the HPC at a time when we are preparing the [first] round of direct peace talks.“ President Ghani later said the council’s task was “to meet soon to set out a priority framework” according to which the government “will take action.” Given these comments and the fact that the Taleban never recognised the council (which they deem to be too close to the government to be a viable partner in negotiations), (4) and taking into account how the HPC has functioned in the past, it does not seem likely that it will play a central role in peace talks, should they take place. The way the quadrilateral negotiations have been conducted until now also points to the fact that the ultimate negotiation team will very likely not come from the HPC, or would only include a few individual members.
If indeed the HPC remains a side-show in the peace process, its re-launching was probably mainly designed to serve as another symbol that a peace process is finally taking off, and also to tick a box on the list of benchmarks agreed upon between the Afghan government and the international community (see here, in the annex). It also ensures that a number of influential figures are kept on board in well-remunerated positions. This in turn implies there is a danger that, with its still large membership, the HPC will continue to be used as a cash cow. Qasemyar was recently quoted in a government-run newspaper as saying that he expected the impending changes within the HPC to bring with them a resumption of international funding.
On a more positive note, ethnic and social groups that suffered the most at the hands of the Taleban regime are now better represented in the various HPC’s leadership bodies: there are two Hazaras (one is a woman) and three women. This seems to be a direct response to demands from civil society as well as segments of the international community. These groups harbour the most fears about repercussions of a possible return of the Taleban to power as a result of the envisaged negotiated settlement. Even if the council is no more active than its predecessor, with its new members, and particularly the women, it could potentially serve as a warning bell in case the government negotiators threaten to compromise too much – provided, of course, they are listened to.
The NUG’s attempt to take the moral high ground in the peace talks would have been more convincing had it managed to end its quarrels over cabinet and provincial governor posts, or been more transparent regarding its progress on fighting corruption, improving the country’s socio-economic situation and creating jobs – not least as it needs to stem the continuing flow of refugees from the country.
(1) Former Taleban diplomat Abdul Hakim Mujahed, who remains a key member on the new HPC, expressed a somewhat different notion when speaking to web-based magazine The Diplomat in February:
First of all, we hope that all the factions of the Taliban will come under one leader. If this can’t be, we hope that the four countries [in the QCG] will call all of them to the negotiations. They will try not to exclude anyone and to avoid the mistake that was committed in 2001, when the Taliban movement was excluded from the peace process. We have to learn from the failures of the past and understand why the earlier efforts could not yield any results.
(2) A Pashto transcript of the president’s speech can be found here. No English translation is yet available. The text of this dispatch quotes a short English version of the speech that was diffused from the Palace’s twitter account.
(3) Gailani’s main competitor for the top HPC post was former interim president Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, who led the first, heavily funded but largely ineffective and corrupt ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ programme, known by its Dari abbreviation PTS (Program-e Tahkim-e Solh/Programme for Strengthening Peace). The PTS was established by President Karzai in 2005 and replaced by the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP). The HPC was set up as part of the APRP. Details on the APRP’s donors here.
(4) The Taleban even considered the HPC members ‘legitimate targets’ in their fight. The council’s first chairman, Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani, was killed by a Taleban assassin in 2011 (the first of a series of five AAN dispatches on this topic here). Rabbani’s successor (as acting HPC head), Arsala Rahmani, a former Taleban minister, was also assassinated a year later (AAN analysis here). President Ghani mentioned in his inauguration speech for the council’s new set-up that also at least 40 of its provincial officials have been murdered.
Annex: The new HPC leadership:
Pir Sayyed Ahmad Gailani
Abdul Karim Khalili (Senior Deputy Chairman)
Haji Din Muhammad
Mawlawi Abdul Karim Khuddam
Mawlawi Abdul Khabir Ushqul
Mawlawi Atta ur-Rahman Salim
Executive Board of Advisors:
Abdul Hakim Mujahed
Mawlawi Attaullah Ludin
Muhammad Ayub Rafiqi (head, based in Kandahar)
Farhadullah Farhad (deputy head)
Dr. Faruq Bashir (deputy head)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020