For Taliban, direct talks with the American officials at Abu Dhabi in mid December was the culmination of a journey they had begun in August this year with a visit to Tashkent , the capital of Uzbekistan. The next stops in this journey were Beijing, Jakarta, and Moscow – all underscoring the acknowledgment of their political relevance to a strife-torn Afghanistan.
Abu Dhabi provided the topping on the ice, where Zalmay Khalilzad greeted Taliban delegation in the presence of representatives of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the three countries that had originally lent recognition to the Taliban government in the autumn of 1996. This unique gathering, for the first time, demonstrated the wider regional consensus on, and the ownership of the peace process.
With this, it seemed, history had moved full circle, and those hunted until recently as terrorists were once again back to the table as legitimate interlocutors, as described by diplomatic officials privy to the process.
“It will therefore be quite erroneous to assume that the Taliban changed overnight to agree for talks with the US,” said a diplomat who insists that this would not be possible without months of hard behind-the-scene work by the US, and Pakistan in particular.
In various meetings, Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad kept conveying to the Tehreek-e- Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) leaders to engage in dialogue, particularly after their travels through various capitals.
We eventually managed to convince them to the idea of sitting across the table under one roof without any pre-conditions, Pakistani and US officials say. There are clear signs of the TTA now following the path that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) took i.e. creation of Sinn Fein, the political arm to talk to London. Their Doha office served exactly the purpose that Sinn Fein did for IRA.
That the Taliban – many of whom move back and forth in the guise of traders and refugees visiting families and friends spread all over Pakistan – eventually listened to the advice out of Islamabad, is by no means a turn-around in their view on a country that had ditched them and allowed the humiliation of their former ambassador Mulla Zaeef – unceremoniously handed over to US marines in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks.
Despite their mistrust of Pakistan, the Taliban presumably also lent a receptive ear to their interlocutors in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran – all of whom meanwhile have developed unanimity of view on the possible course of action for bringing peace to Afghanistan. Collective wisdom at work, it appears.
This has raised expectations that Pakistan may eventually pressurize TTA into accepting some power-sharing mechanism. But officials in Islamabad remain extremely cautious; although we succeeded in bringing the horse to the water, yet we certainly can’t force them to drink it to. It is all up to them, said a senior official privy to the Abu Dhabi process.
We can persuade them but not pressure them into an externally imposed mechanism, he underlined. This is what we explained to our Iranian, Chinese and Russian friends during the whirlwind tour that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi undertook earlier this week.
This was a rare pro-active diplomatic mission undertaken to update all relevant regional stakeholders in confidence and update them on what Islamabad had done so far to break the deadlock in Afghanistan. All immediate neighbours of Afghanistan – Central Asian Republics, Russia, China (all share the worry on the surging Daesh/ISIS in Afghanistan), Pakistan and Iran – recognize the criticality of their convergence on the future course of the peace process. They also discern the unusual sense of urgency in Washington, where a non-conventional President Trump.
The postponement of the Presidential Election in Afghanistan, earlier set for mid April, indicates that things are moving fast in Kabul and that the US might be moving by a time-line that president Trump has drawn for his envoy Khalilzad.
If Khalilzad were to eventually bring both the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) and Taliban face to face sooner than later, then the first few weeks of 2019 might see major developments in quick succession.
Khalilzad, nevertheless, faces two major obstacles… the multi-lateral mistrust that accompanies the air of optimism. Bilateral mistrust, particularly between Pakistan-Afghanistan, Iran-US, and US-Russia, are the organic hurdles in the reconciliation marathon.
The second hindrance relates to the possible spoilers in and outside Afghanistan; the NUG is a divided house, with President Ghani having surrounded himself mostly with Pashtoon leaders but is dependent a security establishment that is largely non-Pashtoon and will now likely be guided by ministers like Amrullah Saleh.
Although averse to Pakistan, leaders like Saleh need to be engaged to minimize their mistrust of Islamabad and its security establishment. Some of their grievances may be legitimate but they owe to their nation a more reconciliatory and rational conduct to take their country out of this perennial conflict. That will be possible only if immediate neighbours such as Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian republics as well as Russia were all on board for a regionally inclusive peace process. Externally driven brinkmanship and expediency may be exciting for a few individuals but it has been deadly for the majority of Afghans. And it could be even more precipitous if President Trump took at least half of his troops out of Afghanistan.