Doha initiative renewed with mixed hopes

US-Taliban-Talks By Asif Haroon Raja

On assuming office in January 2009, Barack Obama shifted the US emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan and within a year approved two troop surges to enable Gen McChrystal to wrest the initiative from Taliban and possibly defeat them. Increase in quantum of troops and launching a major operation in Helmand rather than weakening the Taliban further galvanized them to hit back more ferociously and causing more casualties upon ISAF. By June 2010, Obama came to the firm conclusion that there was no military solution in Afghanistan. Thereon, he launched a political prong to seek a political settlement. In December 2010, he gave the first hint of pulling out troops from Afghanistan much to the chagrin of Pentagon.

Gen David Petraeus didn’t sheathe the military prong in Afghanistan but kept postponing his impending military offensive in Kandahar in 2010 on the plea that Pakistan should first clear up the safe havens of militants in North Waziristan (NW). Attack in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, unleashing of vitriolic propaganda against Pakistan establishment, activation of western front by absconder Fazlullah, Admiral Mullen’s diatribe against ISI describing it as a veritable arm of Haqqani network in reaction to Taliban attacks in Kabul on September 13, 2011 followed by murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani on September 20, 2011, and Salala massacre in November 2011 were a direct consequence of Pakistan’s refusal to mount a major operation in NW.

Secret parleys were initiated by Obama’s administration and several Arab and European countries including Turkey and Pakistan were asked to play their role. Regional option was also tried by organizing meetings at London, Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago and Tokyo. Britain and France also held meetings in which Taliban representative sat as an observer. Saudi Arabia and Qatar kept persuading the Taliban to hold peace talks, while Karzai kept up his frenetic efforts to befriend Taliban and make them agree to share power. Former ISI chief Lt Gen Shuja Pasha made a significant opening by arranging a meeting between US officials and Siraj Haqqani at Dubai in 2011. The meeting couldn’t lead to productive results because the US tried to create a wedge between Haqqanis and Mullah Omar. The US military, CIA, Karzai regime and India disfavoring talks with Taliban kept employing tricks to vitiate the atmosphere and to push Obama to change his stance.

Afghan peace process stalled in March 2012 because of the US failing to abide by its commitments on prisoners swap has recommenced with the opening of political office of the Taliban at Doha. Obama had backtracked mainly because of US Congress reservations. While the inauguration of the office and speech made by Taliban representative was being greeted the world over, the tenuous peace process ran into difficulties because of Hamid Karzai’s objections over the hoisting of Taliban flag and a plaque inscribed with ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ on Doha office building, which did give the impression of an independent Afghan Embassy. He boycotted the process in a huff and accused US and Qatar of violating the understandings given to him that the office would only act as a venue to allow Taliban to interact with the international community and advance the peace process. Karzai has never uttered a word against Baloch rebels hoisting Baloch flag in schools and colleges in Baloch inhabited interior Balochistan seeking independence. Rather, his regime assists them.

Flag and plaque were not the bone of contention, but the real reason of Karzai’s annoyance was that he and Afghan High Peace Council (APHC) had been left out. Earlier on when the idea of opening of Taliban political office in Doha had almost materialized in Bonn conference held in December 2011, Karzai scuttled it by laying down a condition that the said office should be approached through APHC led by Salahuddin Rabbani only and not directly and insisted upon a MoU stipulating conditions of his choice. He later climbed down from his high horse during his visit to Washington after being ticked by Obama. But living up to his slippery character, he wriggled out of his commitment since he wanted a main role for himself in any talks with Taliban.

In order to give a fresh kick to the peace process, Obama after getting re-elected in November 2012 hastened to change his hawkish top leaders and bring in relatively moderate ones. John Brennan replaced Gen Petraeus as CIA Director, John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel took over from Leon Panetta as Secretary Defence. The new team realized the gravity of the obtaining security situation and the cutout date of December 2014 inching closer. They understood that unless Taliban agreed to hold talks and unless Pakistan helped, smooth transition was not possible.

Peace process picked up momentum after April 24, 2013 Brussels meeting between John Kerry, President Karzai and Gen Kayani. Ill-tempered Karzai’s unstoppable complaints against Pakistan military compelled Kerry and Kayani to jointly cross the last hurdle without him.

The breakthrough in Doha once again flared him up. He got miffed over secret backchannel efforts by the US and Pakistan without taking him along. He was ignored because he had proved to be a tetchy lame duck. Karzai didn’t pick up courage to admit that his hectic efforts since 2009 to woo the Taliban had completely failed. Heavy amount of secret funds he received from the CIA were used by him to buy the loyalties of Taliban senior leaders and other Pashtun notables but he failed to break Mullah Omar’s Shura. Pakistan was pressured by him and the US to release Taliban prisoners held in its custody. 20 prisoners were released by Pakistan as a goodwill gesture but this move also backfired since none approached Karzai or Salahuddin.

When all his efforts failed he started blaming Pakistan. He has maintained a highly antagonistic posture towards our military establishment and ISI as is evident from his invectives he off and on hurls and the interview he gave to Salim Safi on Geo TV on June 17, 2013. He reiterated his stance of non-recognition of Durand Line and held military establishment responsible for destabilization of Afghanistan and prevention of peace talks with Taliban. With this colored mindset, it was natural for him to burst out when he learnt that Gen Kayani and Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam were instrumental in persuading the Taliban to start the peace talks.

Karzai’s tantrums not only marred the big event but also delayed the commencement of formal peace talks between the US and Taliban in early June. To put pressure on Washington, he hanged up Afghan-US strategic partnership agreement which he and Obama had gladly signed on May 01, 2012 in Kabul. The agreement had yet to decide the issue of retention of military bases by US forces beyond 2014. Reportedly, Karzai had given his consent for nine bases and retention of up to 15,000 US forces in the garb of trainers and advisers till 2024 but this was to be approved by Afghan Loya Jirga.

He ignored the historic significance of peace process over which hinges the hope of ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan and peace in the region. The Taliban acted wisely and ceded to the US and Qatar’s request to remove the contentious flag and the plaque and saved the process from getting disrupted once again. They were sensible enough to realize the importance of this event for them when seen in the backdrop of their unabated persecution since October 2001 and isolation from the world comity. The whole world is now recognizing them as a legitimate stakeholder and requesting them to end the war and arrive at a political settlement.

The Taliban formally announced in Doha that they will not allow Afghan soil to threaten other countries and also expressed readiness to meet other Afghan factions, which meant Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, Northern Alliance and others. This was in sharp contrast to policies pursued by Karzai and his patrons who have been misusing Afghan soil for cross border terrorism in Pakistan. Taliban didn’t give a firm commitment of severing ties with al-Qaeda as had been demanded by Washington, but their undertaking to disallow others to use Afghan soil to harm others was accepted as a good enough starter. The Taliban didn’t insist on releasing their five prisoners imprisoned in Guantanamo as a pre-requisite for talks. The US had also softened its stance by not insisting upon the implementation of its three pre-conditions of breaking ties with al-Qaeda, renouncing violence and accepting Afghan Constitution framed by Karzai regime at the behest of US.

Notwithstanding the significance of recommencement of Doha initiative, the process is still fragile and vulnerable to disruption given the vested groups hell-bent to fail it. While the US and Taliban would have to set aside their aspersions and distrust for each other and proceed forward with open and generous minds, the US will have to reign in the spoilers trying to derail the process. Pakistan is the only country which has contacts with Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan as well as with important leaders of NA and hence is in an enviable position to play a pivotal role in forging a political solution provided its due place is recognized by all stakeholders and is trusted. Doha office is just the beginning and the path forward is riddled with complexities requiring patience, coolness of mind and large-heartedness by all concerned.

The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst.

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