Monday, October 24, 2016

Business Recorder Column Oct 24, 2016

Afghan peace talks reset? Rashed Rahman Speculations regarding new moves and developments in the stalled Afghan peace process have been triggered by the visit of a Taliban delegation to Pakistan. The three-member delegation comprises former Afghan Taliban ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, Maulvi Salam Hanafi and Jan Mohammad, the latter two having served as cabinet ministers during the Taliban rule. The visit follows meetings in Qatar between Afghan intelligence and US officials and Taliban leaders based in their political office in Doha, which all parties are at pains to deny or at the very least refrain from confirming. If these reports are correct, the visit of the Taliban delegation to Pakistan would be the first contact after the breakdown of Islamabad-brokered talks between Kabul and the Taliban in May this year as a result of the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike in Balochistan. As to the purpose and agenda of the Taliban delegation, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as saying the delegation would discuss some major issues with the Pakistani leadership, including the arrests of some Taliban leaders and Afghan refugees and the repatriation of the latter to Afghanistan. The statement rejected any suggestion that the peace process would be up for discussion, but it is difficult to imagine the opportunity for reassessing the situation would be passed up. This is borne out by the admission by another, unnamed Taliban leader that the possible revival of peace negotiations would be the main talking point of the delegation’s visit. As to the arrests of Taliban leaders alluded to, the authorities raided a madrassa in Quetta for the second time in the past two months and picked up a Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Samad Sani in the second foray. Reports say the mini-crackdown on Taliban commanders is part of Pakistan’s pressure to return to the abortive peace talks. This pressure is also credited with producing the delegation’s visit. Interestingly, while the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal seemed aware of the developments, our Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz did not have a clue about the delegation’s arrival. Coupled with his statement the other day that Islamabad had not received any positive response from the Afghan Taliban regarding the peace talks despite its best efforts raises the question who the Taliban delegation has come to see. Logically, they would not want to waste their time and would prefer to talk to the real decision makers vis-à-vis the Afghanistan imbroglio. The perception that Pakistan’s growing pressure on the Taliban has evoked the Qatar delegation’s visit is borne out by the list of their leaders arrested in recent days. They include Maulvi Ahmadullah Muti, alias Mullah Nanai, the Taliban intelligence chief under slain leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour; Suleman Agha, the Taliban shadow governor for Daykund province; Mullah Sani, aka Samad Sani, the latest detention of the head of a madrassa and well known trader, and Hamas, a leader of the Haqqani network. In the murky world of engagement amongst the protagonists, deniability, whether plausible or not, forms an intrinsic part of this shadowy and intricate minuet. Hence the confirmations and denials of such contacts flow thick and fast from discrete corners. This is the pattern for all the actors in this conflict. Engagement is indispensable, since outright military victory is unlikely for either side, the recent Taliban attacks and advances in Kunduz and Lashkar Gah notwithstanding. However, wading through this minefield of obfuscation reveals the increasing tendency of the US, Afghanistan and India to leave Pakistan (and China) out of the peace loop. This effectively means the Quadrilateral Group, which brought together Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China to find the path to peace is all but dead in the water. Kabul has pulled off a coup by reconciling Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, although he has few forces at his command but is still a name to reckon with. President Ashraf Ghani’s strategy has shifted subtly to direct (whether admitted or not) negotiations with the Taliban to try and find a political solution to the long running Afghan war. Irrespective of success or failure in these efforts, the gambit also helps sow confusion and differences amongst the fractious Taliban ranks. Fifteen years and billions of dollars later, the truth of Bush’s adventure in Afghanistan is reaffirmed. The west cannot defeat the Taliban. Kabul cannot defeat the Taliban. Obama’s premature withdrawal put paid to whatever residual hopes there may have been to bring the Afghanistan venture to a successful conclusion. The Taliban have the strategy, time and patience to continue to bleed Kabul and its western supporters, even though they may not be able to roll over the Afghan army completely. There seems no way out of the strategic stalemate except a political solution, with its concomitant painful concession of some sort of power sharing with the Taliban. Pakistan persisted with its dual policy for far longer than was healthy or wise. By the time a shift occurred, Islamabad had accumulated so much mistrust in Washington and Kabul as to render even its sincere peace efforts suspect. Nevertheless, if the powers that be in Pakistan have seen the light finally, the difficult but not impossible peace process must be pursued irrespective of setbacks and roadblocks. Pakistan needs peace within and peace without. The two are inextricably linked because of reliance on proxies to achieve foreign policy goals in the region. Time to recognise where Pakistan’s true long term interests lie. Another manifest failure of the western occupation’s failure is their inability to wipe out or at least restrict opium production. Afghanistan now provides 90 percent of opium and its derivative heroin to the world market. The trade, which the Taliban had banned during their stint in power, is now taxed by them to finance the insurgency. The other source of funding continues to be reactionary Arab monarchies. The counterinsurgency strategy of the US-led NATO forces was doomed without such sources of funding being cut off. Pakistan, through recent steps against ostensibly recalcitrant Taliban commanders on its soil and the declared intent to attend the Heart of Asia-Istanbul ministerial conference in the first week of December in Amritsar despite tensions with India, is trying to reinsert itself into the peace efforts from which it is threatened with ‘expulsion’. At the same time, deteriorating relations with Kabul have persuaded the authorities to ‘lean’ on the Afghan refugees, forcing an estimated half a million to begin or prepare to begin their long trek back home to their devastated country. International aid agencies are struggling to cope with this growing wave of humanity crashing onto Afghanistan’s bleak shores. The long sojourn of these Afghan refugees in Pakistan has inevitably led to inter-marriages between Pakistani men and women and their Afghan refugee counterparts. The Afghan spouses, female first and foremost but male too, are suffering CNIC blocking and other problems that reflect the present official attitude to the refugees. Expelling refugees against their will, whether officially acknowledged as a policy or not, violates international law. Separating or causing difficulties for long time Afghan refugee residents in Pakistan who have contracted marriages here and raised families is a human tragedy compounding all the tragedies already heaped on the heads of the Afghan people over the last four decades. Is our conscience and humanity dead?

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