The matter of peace talks between the Afghan government and representatives of the Afghan Taliban is so essential that efforts have to be made to revive these talks no matter how many times they are derailed. The formation of the quadrilateral group consisting of the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China is the latest effort in this connection. In its third meeting, the quadrilateral group drew a roadmap and set up various stages for the peace talks. Taliban representatives have been invited for a meeting with the Afghan government at the end of the month.
A joint statement issued by a member of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) said: “The group adopted a roadmap stipulating the stages and steps in the process.” The statement further said: “The QCG will make joint efforts for scheduling a dialogue between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban before the end of the month.” The QCG members called on all Taliban groups to join the peace talks. In the event of maximum groups joining the peace talks, recalcitrant Taliban groups could be isolated. In this regard Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs, Mr Sartaj Aziz, also said: “We believe our collective efforts at this stage, including supporting confidence building measures, have to aim at persuading a maximum number of Taliban groups to join the peace talks.”
The quadrilateral meeting, held in Islamabad, was attended by host Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, Chinese envoy for Afghanistan Ambassador Deng Xiujun, Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Olson and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Mr Hekmat K Karzai. The presence of the Chinese representative in the quadrilateral talks must have been especially comforting for the Taliban groups, as China has remained neutral throughout the Afghan crises.
The date of the talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government will most probably be disclosed on February 23 when the QCG meets in Kabul. It seems the negotiating group is keen to bring the warring factions to the table before the Taliban’s spring offensive. The Taliban conducted military activity of unprecedented intensity within Afghanistan last year. Last year’s winter offensive by the Taliban led to 26 percent more casualties than the year before. Today it is said the Taliban holds more area within Afghanistan for the first time since 2001. The Pentagon has warned that this year could be bloodier in terms of battle fatalities.
One of the main purposes of the quadrilateral group when they first met on the side lines of the Heart of Asia Summit was to lower the level of violence in Afghanistan before this year’s spring offensive by the Taliban. The QCG’s adoption of the roadmap and announcement of the reconciliation process were all to reach a political settlement of the dispute and cessation of hostilities. Pakistan fully shares Afghanistan’s concerns that increasing violence is a key challenge and its reduction should be an important objective of the peace talks.
The Taliban representatives who have been reluctant to participate in the quadrilateral talks so far did take part in the Track-II dialogue arranged by the Pugwash conferences held in Qatar. The Taliban, though reluctant to participate in the quadrilateral talks, did not reject the offer of participation outright. The Taliban did, however, renew their previous demands, which they had put forward before they took part in any peace talks. These demands or conditions in the main were: withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, delisting of Taliban leaders by the United Nations Sanctions Committee and lifting the ban on their travel.
It is still unclear as to what incentives the Afghan government is prepared to give the Taliban groups to bring them to the peace table. Mr Aziz aptly said: “Offering the incentive of political mainstreaming to insurgent groups will gradually shrink the space for irreconcilables.”
The achievement of sustainable peace through the quadrilateral group or any other forum is certainly not an easy proposition. The alternative is, however, much worse. An auspicious development that recently took place was the arrival of the Afghan intelligence chief in Pakistan where it was decided that cooperation between the two intelligence agencies would take place.
The only thing required now is patience and perseverance on the part of the QCG, especially the Afghan government, so that a maximum number of moderate Taliban groups join the peace talks. The people of Afghanistan have suffered greatly because of war; now is the time to give them enduring peace.