By Manish Rai
The Afghan government and the Taliban held their first official meeting in Pakistan hill station of Murree a significant step beyond an informal gathering that took place in May. The most important thing about the two-day meeting is that the delegations agreed to convene again in several weeks to discuss the possibility of formal peace talks. Though the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Taliban continue to fight on the battlefield, it is becoming clear even to the warring sides that political reconciliation is the only possible solution to the conflict. Even the UN Security Council has welcomed these talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as a step towards “peace and reconciliation” in the war-torn country. Previous attempts to engage Kabul and Taliban in negotiations have fallen flat, including the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar in 2013 which was shut down after former Afghan President Hamid Karzai sharply criticized the move, arguing that Kabul would only engage in inter-Afghan talks. So this time there is lot of hope from this rounds of talks called Murree Peace Process. It’s true that the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan may be coming round to the idea of a negotiated settlement but the contours of a possible agreement acceptable to everyone are still far from clear.
Some analysts believe that Taliban agreed to attend the meeting only under pressure from Islamabad its long-time patron. After this round of talks, Pakistani and Afghan officials insisted that the Taliban who attended were “duly mandated,” but Taliban members who are part of the group’s official political office in Qatar disagreed. What that means for the future is still unclear. The Taliban have yet to comment on the meeting, but its official spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the group managed its affairs through its political office in Qatar which has the authority to maintain talks with foreign and Afghan sides in any country. There is a clear rivalry between the Qatar and the Pakistani process and the question is whether this is being done on purpose by the Afghan government in a bid to drive a wedge between the Taliban movement or whether the Taliban are simply not saying the truth. Taliban are also not in a hurry to enter formal negotiations, as they had almost zero political capital in terms of mass public support in Afghanistan. Their only strength which they capitalise is that of being a dreadful fighting machine.
The Taliban face bigger problems of their own. They were never a monolith organization but they could get away with their factional groupings being underground. But now under the media gaze they have to prove their political worth as a united political organization capable of taking part in politics as effectively as they could fight. The total and unexplained absence of Mullah Umar from the scenario hangs like a Damocles sword over their heads. Both sides have committed to have a second round of negotiations after the Eid to discuss a formal cease fire. But much will depend on Taliban’s ability to control their rank and file and their foreign supporters to refrain from launching large scale attacks to create a conducive atmosphere for the success of the negotiations. The Taliban is increasingly split, with field commanders unwilling to accept orders from a leadership based outside Afghanistan. Further complicating any potential peace process is the rise of an offshoot of Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has succeeded in attracting the support of disillusioned Taliban fighters.
To further muddy the waters, the leader of the Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has now advised his own supporters to take sides with the IS. Additionally, elements within the Taliban opposed to negotiating a settlement may try to derail talks through provocative acts of violence. Divides within the Taliban between those for and against talks has been made worse by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State. The Taliban warned IS last month against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar. The notoriously uncompromising IS has shown no desire to negotiate and if the Taliban fault lines widen, there is a danger the talks process could drive more of its hard-line fighters into the arms of the Middle Eastern militant group.
But if the process fails to deliver, the implications will be horrendous not only for Afghanistan, but also for the neighboring countries. Both the sides have a long way to go with many potential slips between the cup and the lips. But it’s a fact that stable and lasting peace cannot prevail all of a sudden, it requires years of negotiations and continuous dialogue. So even this current round of peace talks can act as the starting point for the process of lasting peace in Afghanistan in order to prevent further destruction and bloodshed of more innocent people than it will be a great achievement for worn torn Afghanistan.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)