The recent statement by the Afghan Taliban of not participating in talks with the Afghan government under the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) framework has put the Afghan peace process in deadlock once again.
Last July, representatives of the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban met for the first time in Pakistan’s resort town of Murree. Representatives from China and United States participated as observers in the initiative termed as ‘Murree Peace Process’. The participants emphasized on taking confidence building measures (CBMs) to create an atmosphere of trust among all participants. During the meeting, the Afghan government called for an immediate ceasefire from the Afghan Taliban side. The Afghan Taliban agreed to a ceasefire provided that Pakistan and China guarantee the formation of a ‘United National Government’ in Afghanistan. However, participants agreed to continue the peace process.
Prior to the scheduled second meeting, it was revealed that the former Afghan Taliban supremo Mullah Omar has died few years back. Mullah Akhtar Mansour has become the successor to Mullah Omar. Internal disagreements within Afghan Taliban over the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour and the deteriorating relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan hampered any further progress on the peace initiative.
In December 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Pakistan to attend the fifth Heart of Asia Conference. The visit by the Afghan president was seen as an important step in improving the relations between both neighbours. At the sidelines of the Heart of Asia Conference, a quadrilateral framework was announced for the revival of the Afghan Peace Process, involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and the USA. Following the conference, Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif visited Afghanistan to discuss steps to be taken for the revival of the peace talks.
The QCG met for the first time in Islamabad on 11th January, 2016. The participants aimed to bring back the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table to resume the stalled peace talks. During the second QCG meeting in Kabul on 18th January, the participants invited all groups of Afghan Taliban to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government to resolve the differences politically.
In response to the invitation for the peace talks, the Afghan Taliban laid out the following pre-conditions for the peace talks:
- The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil
- To lift the UN sanctions against their leaders
- To re-open their political office in Qatar
- To release their prisoners
- To end propaganda against the group
Following the announcement of pre-conditions for peace process by the Afghan Taliban, the third QCG meeting took place in Islamabad on 6th February, 2016. The participants continued their efforts for finalizing the dates for talks between Afghan government and Afghan Taliban. In the fourth and the latest QCG meeting on 23rd February, 2016 in Kabul, it was announced that Pakistan will host the first round of talks between the representatives of the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban.
Despite the refusal of Afghan Taliban to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government, the countries involved in QCG are optimistic that the Afghan Taliban will enter into negotiations in the next few weeks.
Pakistan desires that a ceasefire should emerge out of the peace process in order to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan is one of the vital interests of Pakistan in the region. A destabilized Afghanistan cannot ensure a terror-free Pakistan. The leaders of terror groups like Mullah Fazlullah and Omar Khorasani who are responsible for numerous deadly terror attacks in Pakistan are hiding in Afghanistan. These terrorists along with their terror groups can only be eliminated if Pakistan continues to pursue friendly relations with Afghanistan and facilitate the peace process.
Over the past few years, China has also become interested in ensuring a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, China’s vital interests in the region are associated with a stable Afghanistan. China wants to realize its ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy by accessing Central Asia via Afghanistan. In order to counter insurgency in the Xinjiang province, China desires a peaceful Afghanistan which will ensure that Afghanistan no longer remains a breeding ground for terror groups like ETIM.
The main obstacle in the mediation efforts is the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil. The withdrawal of foreign troops has been the primary demand of Afghan Taliban for more than a decade. The decision by the USA of keeping its troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 has served as a blowback to the mediation efforts. It is important for the USA to understand that it cannot win in Afghanistan militarily. Despite American efforts to counter the Afghan Taliban, the group has extended its control or influence over an estimated 30% of Afghan territory during the previous year.
In order to sort out the issue of foreign troops’ withdrawal, it is important for the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban to decide about the future government setup. Such consultations will help in the smooth withdrawal of foreign troops from the land-locked country.
On the other hand, the QCG participating nations can work on removing the names of Afghan Taliban’s members from the UN Blacklist, which subjects the individuals to the international travel ban, assets freeze and arms ban. In addition, releasing some prisoners of Afghan Taliban from Guantanamo Bay can serve as a part of confidence building measures (CBMs) for resuming the peace talks. If these CBMs are followed, the Afghan Taliban should then reciprocate with a quick reduction in violence. Such efforts by all parties will create a great platform for the later discussions on the formation of an interim government, foreign troops’ withdrawal and changes in Afghan constitution
With the Afghan Taliban’s spring offensive in progress, the turmoil in Afghanistan will continue. Media reports of the likely takeover of the Helmand province by Afghan Taliban in near future will further help the Afghan Taliban to consolidate its strength. Therefore, it is important for the QCG participants to create an atmosphere of trust by taking few CBMs to bring back Afghan Taliban on the negotiation table.