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Afghanistan Peace Talks: London Calling

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By Monish Gulati

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari were in London on 03 February 2013 for a trilateral summit meeting with the British Prime Minister David Cameron. The focus of the talks were on cross-border security, the Afghan peace process including reconciliation efforts with the Taliban and more bluntly, the options available to the Afghan government if it fails to get the Taliban on board before most NATO troops leave at the end of 2014. The British government press statement put the larger agenda quite succinctly, “This trilateral process sends a very clear message to the Taliban — now is the time for everyone to participate in a peaceful political process in Afghanistan”.

David Cameron had initiated trilateral meetings with Afghan and the Pakistani President last year, aiming to build consensus between the two countries and promote regional stability amid growing fears that a civil war could erupt when NATO/ISAF troops leave Afghanistan. The current talks in London were the third in the series of trilateral meetings with the first two having been held in 2012; first Kabul in July and then New York in September. In the London talks, however, the Pakistani and Afghan army and intelligence chiefs took part for the first time. For Pakistan, Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and DG ISI Lt Gen Zaheer-ul-Islam attended the trilateral conference

On the evening of 03 February, the British Prime Minister hosted a private dinner for Karzai and Zardari at his country residence Chequers, ahead of the in-depth talks between the leaders and their top officials on 04 February 2012.

While the conference sought to remove existing irritants to the peace process and speed up the reconciliation efforts with possibly the date of the 2014 Afghan provincial and presidential elections in mind. Though it is important to get the Taliban to the negotiating table but the first tangible achievement of the peace process would be to have the Taliban taking part in the scheduled elections. The present irritants in the peace process are the various demands and concessions of the various stakeholders. Pakistanis want a secure Afghan border, an end to the Balochistan insurgency and limit the role of India in Afghanistan. To that end it seeks the signing of a favourably formulated Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Afghanistan; which in turn is looking at the end of cross- border shelling and direct dealings with the Taliban for a ‘negotiated settlement’. The Taliban in the short term is demanding release of its leaders detained by Afghanistan and Pakistan and withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. After the conclusion of the trilateral, at a news conference with Karzai and Zardari, David Cameron said “an unprecedented level of co-operation” had been agreed between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The discussions had centred on both the Afghan-led peace process and on enhancing co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The joint statement said all sides had agreed on the urgency of the Afghan peace process and “committed themselves to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of a peace settlement over the next six months”. The call to the Taliban, to open an office in Doha and “to enter into dialogue” with the Afghan government, was renewed. President Karzai and President Zardari also “re-affirmed their commitments” to signing the SPA.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul after the trilateral summit told the media in Kabul, that the issue of Pak-Afghan SPA was discussed. He said that Afghanistan’s conditions for endorsing the SPA with Pakistan were very clear and it was legitimate Pakistani efforts for restoration of peace and stability and efforts for trust building. “When Afghan people are assured of existence of sincere cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad, people move towards peace and security and no threat is posed from Pakistan to Afghanistan, then we will be ready to sign the strategic pact with Pakistan”. With regards to the opening of Taliban’s office in Qatar, he said an office for the Taliban had not yet been opened and Talks have not yet begun.

An Afghan Taliban statement on 06 February 2013 however, dismissed the outcome of the London trilateral which sought a peace deal within six months. The conference and other “horse trading” are “the real obstacles of effective and fruitful negotiations between the factual sides,” the Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on its website.

The US on its part said that it supports the Pak-Afghan deadline for finalising a peace deal with the Taliban and urges insurgents to open a reconciliation post in Qatar. Such a process was “the surest way to end the violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and in the region”. “Our goal here has been to support the creation of a process to make it possible for willing Taliban participants to talk directly to the Afghan High Peace Council”.

India, understandably, has been uncomfortable with the British efforts to push through a SPA between Afghanistan and Pakistan as it believes the entire peace process is Pakistan-centric and does not involve the concerns of countries like India. It also remains deeply skeptical of British interests and intentions in this region. It is widely believed that British interlocutors had a leading role in the drafting of the five-point peace process roadmap for Afghanistan which mainly addresses Pakistan interests in the region. India feels that British intervention through a hastily-cobbled deal between Afghanistan and Pakistan including bringing the Taliban into the power structure in Kabul, aims to give the NATO and the US an honourable exit from Afghanistan.

Relations between various parties to the conflict in Afghanistan have been marred by distrust, which has made reaching an agreement on peace extremely difficult. Apprehensions are historical. Pakistan does not want a repeat of the 1989 pullout by Soviet forces, which left Kabul in the hands of forces inclined unfavourably towards it. It fears a similar situation may be a source of increased Indian influence on its western borders. Many Indians, on the other hand, fear a repeat of 1947, when the British departed from the sub-continent leaving behind two formative nations at each other’s throats. A poorly crafted peace resolution, with only an honorable exit for the US as its primary aim, may not be in the best interest of South Asia. (Eurasia Review)

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