Peace By Piece

Despite its diplomatic pageantry the tripartite summit held at Chequers last week between the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Britain hardly broke any new ground.
The joint statement issued after the meeting on February 3-4 called for talks with the Taliban. But this did not obscure the fact that no peace process is yet in place or agreement on how to start negotiations. This made the goal set in the communiqué to “achieve a peace settlement over the next six months” not just over ambitious but completely unrealistic.
The Taliban’s reaction to the London meeting threw this into sharper relief. Their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared that the summit took no “practical steps to fulfil the pre-requisites for negotiations”. Like previous gatherings it did not produce an “encouraging outcome” for an Afghan solution.
The Chequers declaration did however affirm the opening of a Taliban office in Doha. But this echoed the call made in a joint statement on January 11 by presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai during the Afghan leader’s visit to Washington.
What happened between the Washington parleys and the London meeting is instructive to recall for it lays bare the difficulties in even setting up an office, just the first step to establish a location for sustained peace talks.
Behind the scene discussions to formally open such an office have been going on intermittently for over a year. In 2011-early 2012 they involved direct exchanges between US officials and Taliban interlocutors, until the Taliban suspended the dialogue in March 2012. On various occasions in this period President Karzai expressed misgivings, even outright opposition to the office. This became one of the reasons why the embryonic Qatar process began to stall.
In this backdrop, and with the US keen to revive the Qatar process, American officials prevailed on Karzai to publicly announce support for the Doha office during his Washington visit. This was duly reflected in the joint statement and in remarks at the news conference with President Obama.
But no sooner had he returned to Kabul that Karzai began setting terms for his support for the office. He demanded a memorandum of understanding with the Qatar government and insisted it reflect several conditions. This included the stipulation that the Doha office be used only for talks between the Taliban and his government-appointed High Peace Council (HPC) and not between others including various Afghan parties. He evidently feared being sidelined once this process got underway.
Qatar declined to provide written assurances while American officials tried to walk an increasingly insecure Karzai back to commitments he made in Washington. A report in the Washington Post (February 3), detailing this disagreement, described how Karzai became the “biggest cause of US teeth-gnashing, and not for the first time”
By the time the summit convened at Chequers, Karzai was reportedly persuaded to give up his MoU demand and approve the Qatar office without pre-conditions. But his support in the joint statement did not reflect the terms he continued to press in the London parleys. According to an authoritative account, Karzai linked the opening of the office to a prior statement from the Taliban iterating that the Doha office would exclusively be used for talks with the HCP and no other purpose.
Pakistani officials urged Karzai not to place preconditions and instead proposed a sequence of steps, starting with the official opening of the office, followed by revival of talks between the US and the Taliban, and then talks among Afghans including members of the HPC. Karzai was not persuaded. This left the Doha office issue undecided. Uncertainty prevailed over whether planned efforts to convince Taliban representatives into issuing a statement indicating willingness to negotiate with “all Afghan parties” would yield a positive outcome.
For the Pakistani side another frustrating encounter was in discussions of the proposed Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Islamabad and Kabul. Karzai linked the conclusion of the SPA to progress on peace and reconciliation. His stance was that ‘partnership’ should follow peace. He thus refused to see it as a means to build peace. This seemed to halt progress on the issue, contrary to understandings reached in the last trilateral meeting in New York in September 2012.
This was not the only issue on which Karzai’s stance was less than helpful in the talks. On so-called track II discussions, which have brought different Afghan groups including authorised Taliban representatives together – recently in France and earlier in Japan – Karzai assailed these and cast them as “dangerous”. He reiterated what he and his spokesmen have been publicly stating – that the moves aimed to “hijack” not advance the peace process and were being used as a “lever” against his government.
His opposition to these informal ‘intra-Afghan’ parleys torpedoed plans for a UN-sponsored meeting in Ashgabat, which Turkmenistan was to host later this month. More significantly it underscored how Karzai was placing impediments in the path of diplomatic efforts that could lead to a peace process, fearful they would marginalise his government.
For their part, Taliban representatives have continued to state that their attendance at such conferences should not be construed as participation in negotiations. In the Paris meeting for example they reiterated their rejection of talks with the Karzai government, characterising Kabul’s terms as tantamount to “surrender of the Mujahideen”. Taliban leaders did however signal willingness to talk to all other Afghan parties to arrive at a solution. Whether this might in time include members of the HPC, as individuals not representatives of the Kabul government, remains to be seen.
This is not the only circle that needs to be squared going forward. Among other ‘requirements’ for the Taliban office to officially open is the US insistence that before this the Taliban issue a statement denouncing international terrorism. By some accounts this was agreed early last year as part of several confidence-building measures both sides were to take. The CBMs also included a prisoner exchange – the US moving five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo to Qatar in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.
All this was under negotiation when the talks broke down over Taliban accusations that the US had gone back on the agreed sequence of steps. American officials however denied that any timetable had been finalised.
The question of ‘who goes first’ and how to sequence the required steps remains a key problem that has to be addressed to get serious negotiations going. This has been the focus of continuing ‘talks about talks’ at several levels aimed at reconciling the varying priorities of different sides.
The Taliban’s core demand remains the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Thus their main focus is to secure American assurances in this regard. In the Taliban’s response to the London summit, Zabihullah Mujahid renewed the call for an end to occupation and respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
What is unclear is whether the Taliban would see assurances on this count as a pre-requisite for peace negotiations or are open to the possibility that such assurances would emerge as an outcome of negotiations. President Obama’s anticipated announcement in his State of the Union address to accelerate the pace of troop withdrawal this year could create space that might be helpful in future talks. But direct US-Taliban engagement has to first resume to determine that.
If there was a positive aspect to the London meeting it was the headway made on modalities for an ulema conference that Pakistan and Afghanistan plan to jointly convene in Kabul in early March. How this will play into the reconciliation process is not yet clear.
The London meeting served as a reminder that finding a path to the negotiating table remains an onerous task. Given the present impasse and decisions that Washington and the Taliban leadership have yet to take, progress towards a negotiated peace remains a more distant possibility than the hope expressed by the Chequers statement.