Breakthrough at Heart of Asia: Kabul agrees to restart dialogue with reconcilable Taliban

Source:  Dawn.com Published in Foreign Affairs on Thursday, December 10, 2015

ISLAMABAD: The Afghan government on Wednesday agreed to restart dialogue with ‘reconcilable’ Taliban with the help of Pakistan, the United States and China.

The development came after a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings involving the four countries on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting, where other regional countries also pledged support for the dialogue.

This was disclosed by Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. “At the trilateral and bilateral meetings we had this afternoon, the main discussion item has been the peace process in Afghanistan. Our allies agreed to work with us in this regard… to bring the reconcilable elements to the table,” he said while talking to reporters on Wednesday.

The declaration issued at the conclusion of the Heart of Asia meeting, meanwhile, urged all Afghan Taliban groups and other armed opposition groups to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government and agreed to put in place specific measures to deny terrorists access to financial and material resources, dismantle their sanctuaries and curtail their ability to recruit and train new terrorists.

The meeting, jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, focused on “enhanced cooperation for countering security threats and promoting connectivity in the Heart of Asia region”.

Pakistan, US, China agree to facilitate process; Afghan president and army chief discuss roadmap

Separately, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, talking to journalists at the US Embassy, said: “The governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and US held a series of meetings today to reaffirm our collective commitment to enabling an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation and cessation of violence.”

Mr Blinken did not give any timeframe for the resumption of the process, but noted that all stakeholders were determined to move forward and “get the right people around the table”.

He said that during the meetings there had been discussions on the roadmap and steps that would be required to take the process forward. Those steps were discussed in detail during a meeting between Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif and President Ashraf Ghani later in the evening.

It should be recalled that the initial agreement between the US and Pakistan on expediting the resumption of Afghan peace talks was forged during Gen Sharif’s visit to the US last month.

A senior Pakistani official told Dawn that the process was being resumed from where it broke off following disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death ahead of second round of dialogue in July. He said that Taliban groups that had opened talks with the Afghan government at that time were likely to come back to the table.

Regarding the meeting between Mr Ghani and Gen Sharif, the official said, the two discussed “meaningful steps” that could bring enduring peace and ensure that the gains made in this regard are irreversible.

The reference to making gains irreversible was about Pakistan’s concerns that elements in the Afghan establishment, who are opposed to the process, could again sabotage the resumed contacts.

But Mr Blinken, in his remarks, rejected Pakistan’s concerns and said that Afghanistan was committed to re-engaging in the process, provided the Taliban were ready.

“Afghanistan, Pakistan and US commit to pursuing peace talks immediately. All efforts for dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban groups will be explored and encouraged. All will pursue with urgency confidence-building measures that reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan and allow for full participation in talks by all participants,” a joint statement issued at the end of the trilateral meeting said.

Friendly overtures?

Earlier, in his inaugural address at the Heart of Asia conference, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the enemies of Afghanistan as enemies of Pakistan, adding that his government would continue to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process, which seemed to be the most viable option to end violence in Afghanistan.

He said that Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism and extremism were achieving the desired results. “We are convinced that terrorism and extremism is the common enemy of all. In our view, the finalisation of border management SOPs at the earliest will be helpful in containing the movement of terrorists across borders,” he said.

“We believe our efforts for long-term stability in Afghanistan should envisage the return and resettlement of Afghan refugees to their homeland, in a dignified manner,” he said, adding that massive cross-border movement of people constituted a security risk and was exploited by miscreants.

In his speech, Afghan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani lauded Pakistan’s decision to launch operations against militants, but was also critical of some of Islamabad’s actions.

“The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan launched a vicious attack on children in Peshawar, for which Pakistan robustly responded. But that very response brought them into our country. Until now, we have launched 40 operations against them through our forces.”

Saying that non-state actors were a thing of the past, he called for a distancing from such actors. “State-to-state, political-to-political, military-to-military, economic-to-economic and intelligence-to-intelligence cooperation are central to the Pak-Afghan relationship,” he remarked.

“We need to create a framework for comprehensive cooperation so that, in light of drivers of conflict, we can fashion solutions that are going to be lasting. Peace is not equivalent to reconciliation,” he pointed out.

“[Both] Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and I do not believe in blame games. We would like to suggest mechanisms of verification as to what type of actors threaten our common interests... [so] we can fashion the instruments of cooperation,” President Ghani remarked.

Terror financing

The declaration also observed that a considerable share of the terrorism financing sources consists of the revenues obtained from drug production and trafficking and participants resolved to begin the process of identifying and countering each of these threats at the national, regional and international level.

In this connection, senior officials from the Heart of Asia process will hold their first meeting within three months of this conference. Participants also welcomed India’s willingness to host the next ministerial conference as co-chair in the last quarter of 2016.