Can the Peace Process Move Past the Doha Collapse?

By Syed Baqir Sajjad

As the 12th year of the Afghan war draws to an impasse, there are signs of an abstract convergence about peace in the country, although many of the components of that peace remain mired in stalemate and even controversy.

The Taliban, who described the recent closing down of the “Political Office the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in Doha as temporary, are amongst the many stakeholders of the reconciliation process, all of whom claim that the shaky peace process would soon be back on track. However, no one seems to know when and how that potential breakthrough will actually be achieved.

What is certain is that the longer the stalemate persists, the more complicated and challenging the securing of even a tentative peace (benchmarked with a ‘drawdown’ of NATO/ISAF troops by the end 2014) will get. The much delayed negotiations have already been vulnerable and fragile ever since the Taliban officially opened up a formal avenue of talks this summer. But the consistent and protracted impasse in the peace talks is also bound to adversely impact next April’s Afghan Presidential elections, both from the perspective of security and credibility. This would potentially have long term consequences for an ultimate peace settlement in Afghanistan and the future of a sustainable, democratic polity in that country.

Similarly, such uncertainty in the peace process would also affect the inclusivity and sustainability of any outcome which does not reverse the development gains made by NATO allies in Afghanistan. Crucially, the women of Afghanistan are a key demographic that is likely to bear the brunt of the violence expected to result from a stillborn peace process. Unfortunately, Afghan women still remain unrepresented in any meaningful way in this process.

The expectation of the international community from the Doha process that formally started with the June opening of the Taliban’s Political Office in Qatar was that, at the very least, the militant group would not oppose the presidential polls even if they did not plan to participate in them. With no evident progress in the dialogue since then, the task of holding credible elections becomes even more difficult.

However, there is a sense of optimism that some progress may be visible by late August or early September of this year, which is based on the assumption that some gains were made in behind-the-scenes negotiations that have been continuing since the Taliban’s office opened in June. Many hopes are also pinned on the impetus provided by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to the region in late July, as well as the expected visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan in the last week of August.

Like any other peace and reconciliation process, the Doha process was always expected to carry its fair share of challenges, but ran into trouble more quickly than expected. Moreover, it seems that the reasons for the deadlock run much deeper than the row over the twin issues of the ‘name and flag’ that made the official talks a non-starter for the Karzai regime.

Built on the shifting sands of other efforts which saw little success, the Doha initiative was not the first of its kind. However, as the latest in a series of peace-bids in Afghanistan, it is the one initiative that official circles in the US see as the most likely positioned for any level of acceptable, or as some would argue, face-saving closure.

Earlier, the closest the Taliban and the US had come to an ongoing conversation, pegged to any real outcomes, was a prisoner swap deal negotiated 18 months ago, but that too floundered due to the compulsions of American domestic politics and hard-ball tactics by the Taliban. In the wake of that near brush with an agreement based on an inclusionary model of post-conflict Afghanistan, the Doha office, which took nearly a year and a half of talking with one group of Taliban to open, was thus perceived as the best chance to peace.

For now, the real challenge in the process seems to be as much logistical as it is political. According to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, the biggest hurdle to peace is to “get the two principal antagonists in the same room.” That room may now shift to another location from Doha, but that may not spur real gains.

Unfortunately, like so many of the American goals in Afghanistan, the primary problem has shifted. Making the Taliban talk to the US is no longer the larger challenge – the main issue now is convincing the militants to speak to the two entities they don’t recognise and barely respect: the Karzai government and/or the Afghan High Peace Council (the apex body charged with coordinating reconciliation). The ‘name and flag’ controversy generated after the opening up of the Doha office was pegged on these grounds as well. The Taliban inaugurated the office using their official working title, the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, a moniker they used when they were in charge in Kabul from the late 1990s through 2001, and was only recognised by their three ‘allies’ – Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The nomenclature reintroduced in Doha had serious implications; it implied accepting the militant group as a legitimate Afghan government-in-exile.

Predictably, the elected Afghan government’s protests brought the talks to a collapse before they even officially started. Washington accepted Kabul’s grievance, and the address plaque and flag were removed from the compound by Qatar’s authorities. But, that wasn’t enough to overcome the acrimonious start to the process. The Taliban – who clearly haven’t given up on their two official signatures – ended up signalling a re-think for weeks and eventually closing the office “temporarily” on July 9, citing “unfulfilled promises.”

In their eagerness of finding a way out of the war in Afghanistan, the Western stakeholders had quietly softened the initial conditions set for engagement with Taliban: respect the Afghan Constitution, renounce violence and sever ties with Al-Qaeda. These were made in an apparent concession or incentive for the Doha office to open its doors. In turn, the Taliban were asked to fulfil two simple requirements: To officially distance themselves from violence, and to agree on talks with the Afghan High Peace Council. The international community eventually settled for even less – a vague statement on not allowing use of Afghan soil against other nations.

This overture could have made the Taliban, who consider themselves undefeatable if not outright victors on the battleground, over-estimate their negotiating position. Even more worrisome was the fact that while the Taliban agreed to opening up the Doha office in June, the move was not accompanied by a downturn in violence inside Afghanistan, where the frequency of attacks this year has slightly increased as compared to last year. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) mid-year report on civilian casualties released in July 2013 reported that there was a 23 percent increase in civilian casualties this year compared to last year, and blamed the Taliban for a majority of those casualties.

More worryingly, fighters on the ground have been telling the media that their commanders did not indicate to them that a peace arrangement was imminent, which suggests a possible disconnect amongst the Taliban ranks. These doubts were strengthened by reports of deepening divisions among the various factions in the broad militant group. But it could also point to the militants taking advantage of the looming drawdown deadline by deliberately stalling and hence strengthening their negotiating position.

The sustained and enhanced violence, as well as the recent spate of spectacular attacks mounted by the militants prompt two very pertinent questions: Are the Taliban really interested in peace, or do they just want to buy time from the protracted, if not productive, peace process? Secondly, who is really calling the shots in the militant coalition?

The mixed messages from the Taliban, who could be hedging their bets, continued over Eid as evident from their leader Mullah Omar’s missive on the occasion. Mullah Omar’s five page communiqué contained some feel-good gestures that the West would have wanted to hear – a commitment to not allowing Afghan soil to be used for plotting against other countries; an expression of intent to form an “inclusive government” in Kabul; and a desire for youth to acquire “modern education”. But at the same time, he also called for more violence and announced a boycott of next year’s elections.

During the same Eid break, President Karzai offered the Taliban an option to set up their offices inside Afghanistan using their flag and preferred name. Though some saw a softening in Karzai’s stance in the move, this probably wasn’t the case. Instead, Karzai’s statement suggested that he remained opposed to the setting up of an office under the banner of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ on foreign soil. However, if the Taliban were to open their office inside Afghanistan, they would be seen as recognising the Karzai administration and would be operating much like any other political party.

These developments took place in the backdrop of reported contacts between a delegation of the High Peace Council and Taliban representatives in Dubai for reviving the stalled Doha process. President Karzai’s elder brother Abdul Qayoum Karzai was said to have participated in these meetings, while Masoom Stabnekzai and Sher Abbas Stabnekzai were reportedly the Taliban interlocutors on that occasion. However, the Taliban denied the interaction in Dubai, similar to the past when they refuted secret contacts with the US in Bonn and Doha, which had eventually led to the establishment of the office in Doha.

Complicating the existing equation is another layer of challenges posed by the unstable relationship between Islamabad and Kabul. For much of the peace process the terse, if not tense, relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been stymieing reconciliation efforts. The bilateral relationship has not been in the best of shape since the beginning of 2013, with a very public blame-game playing out between the two neighbours from time to time. However, the international community, and more specifically the US and the UK, have intensified efforts to repair this fractious relationship.

It was in this context that Pakistan’s new Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security, Sartaj Aziz, made a day long trip to Kabul to lend an ear to Afghanistan’s concerns and to invite President Karzai for talks in Islamabad. Karzai is said to have made the usual demand for progress in ties by asking for a more ‘serious and committed’ approach by Islamabad to fighting terror, to which Aziz responded with Islamabad’s stated aspirations for an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-run’ peace process. However, what was important to note was that Karzai also asked Pakistan to take him seriously. There is some context to Karzai’s demand; after frustrations with working with the Afghan government, the Pakistani authorities had  literally written off Karzai, who retires as Afghan president next year and is ineligible to run for a third term.

But there is good news as well. A fragile yet realisable Kabul-Islamabad thaw may be in the offing, and despite his ‘pre-conditions’ President Karzai is due in Islamabad for some level of a bilateral re-set on August 26.

The obvious new challenge in this dynamic is Karzai’s own vulnerability regarding his future, as the clock drags his presidency to a close. His fears that the world may be cutting deals behind his back with the very group he was made to fight for more than a decade are quite logical. Moreover, given that he is still a major player on the negotiating table, those fears cannot be easily allayed. The best way to neutralise his ability to choke the process would be to make him a partner and not a redundant castaway, with clearly defined stakes in the future process.

As for the Pakistan government, which has claimed credit for its role in achieving the “historic milestone” at the opening of Doha office, it now has an additional responsibility to prevent this deadlock in reconciliation from persisting, even as it maintains that it does not have a “controlling influence” over Taliban.  Given Pakistan’s own spiraling terrorist challenge through the month of Ramazan, this claim can be read as not entirely untrue.

Should Pakistan be able to prevent the negotiations from stalling, it would not only help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but would also serve Pakistan’s own interest in securing some much needed peace in the neighbourhood.

In conclusion, the prognosis is not too promising. The current peace initiative arguably needed more work than what the stakeholders put in, especially given the late stage that talks began as well as the entry point at which regional partners like Pakistan were brought in. A comprehensive peace agreement is highly unlikely by December 2014, and violence within Afghanistan may yet escalate after the coalition forces continue to withdraw, perhaps even returning to the terrible levels witnessed in the 1990s. This is the scenario that Pakistan would least want to materialise, because it would also have a direct impact on violence within its own borders, as well as on its faltering economy.

*The writer is Foreign Affairs and National Security Correspondent at Dawn. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect those of Jinnah Institute or his employers.