The representatives of Afghan Taliban have met with the Afghan government’s official delegation and decided to meet again after Ramazan. Such meetings were held earlier too, but this one is fundamentally different in that this is the first publicly-acknowledged peace talks.
It was the office of President Ghani Ashraf that announced that the two sides were going to meet in Pakistan, and the Taliban did not deny it. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has also admitted hosting the meeting, “as part of commitment to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process”.
This is a “breakthrough”, said an excited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, telling his audience during his visit to Norway that “this process has to succeed”. The United States too has welcomed the meeting, which was held in Murree. It was also attended by American and Chinese officials.
And no less significantly, the Taliban delegation had flown in by a UN flight. Of course, there was the build-up to this breaking news development. Facilitated by Pakistan, following CoAS General Raheel Sharif’s meeting with President Ashraf Ghani in February, the Afghan Taliban had met the Kabul officials at Doha, Oslo and the Chinese city of Urumqi.
But these meetings were unofficial even when these were face-to-face. Among the factors that lend significance and weight to the meeting in Murree is the composition of both the teams.
If the nine-member Kabul team represented all shades of the Afghan Unity Government the Taliban delegation was led by one of the Mulla Omar’s close confidantes, Mulla Abbas, who was health minister during the Taliban regime. No question, the Murree conclave is a momentous development, given the protracted pace of the Afghan peace process that was seen to be going nowhere.
But now that it has happened it is dicey also – a peaceful Afghanistan doesn’t fit their geo-strategic worldview embraced by some of the regional powers. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is right on spot when he says “nobody should derail the process”.
As to why now, and never before, the Afghan Taliban leadership appeared amenable to the rationale of a workable peace process there is an admixture of their hopes and fears. Seemingly, it must have concluded that their chance of ever capturing power in Kabul and revive the Islamic Emirate by force remains an unmet dream even after their decade-long struggle deeply drenched in blood.
So the time-tested adage: “if you can’t defeat your adversary join him” might have worked with the Taliban leaders. Then their demand was that as long as foreign troops are on the Afghan soil they would not talk with the government in Kabul.
Now all foreign combat troops have left and only 9800 Americans remain who too should be leaving by the end year unless their extended stay is warranted by the continuing violence. Another factor that tends to transform the Taliban position is the first-time Beijing’s interest in a peaceful Afghanistan – not that it was not there before but the difference now is that China is now in position to effectively deliver on its commitments. But no less compelling force behind this meeting appears to be the frightening clout and rise of self-styled Islamic State in some provinces of Afghanistan.
Some of the Taliban commanders have broken off to join the IS jihadists, and in return have attracted drone attacks in the province of Nangarhar costing them an important commander.
The truth is that even when Taliban leadership never acquiesced to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan their struggle against foreign presence was essentially in the context of their nationalistic ethos.
They had no hand in the 9/11 tragedy but received all the punishment for that uncommitted crime only because their tradition of hospitality did not allow them to surrender their guest, al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
They don’t seem to be ready for another bout of punishment for the un-committed crime of hosting the jihadists of the Islamic State on their soil. That the Afghan peace talks took place on the eve of important summits of the SCO and BRICS in Russia is a development that certainly helps the regional and global stakeholders see the Afghan imbroglio in its realistic perspective.