Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Taliban-Afghan Pugwash Conference a Success

Call me naive, but I think the Pugwash Conference held at a beach resort in Doha, Qatar the last couple of days featuring informal talks between representatives of the Afghan Taliban and the government of Ashraf Ghani was a big success. Tentative, non-binding "common points" were reached on several topics that have proved to be stumbling blocks in the past. Both sides agreed that 1) the current Afghan constitution is not sacrosanct; 2) the Taliban can open and operate a political office in Qatar, something which sent Hamid Karzai through the roof in 2013; and 3) interference by neighboring foreign states and Daesh (ISIS) is not welcome.

Here is the complete list of "common points" as published by the Pugwash Conference:
1. There was a general appreciation of the positive value of the meeting, and a widely shared sense of gratitude towards the State of Qatar for the hospitality and the assistance given to the participants in the meeting. 
2. The idea of bringing about peace in Afghanistan and ending the conflict was wholeheartedly supported by all the participants. 
3. The civilian casualties of the Afghan conflict have been lamented by everybody, even though differences may exist on who bears the main responsibility of these casualties. Protection of civilians is, as it should be, a priority for everybody. 
4. The role of foreign forces that are or have been present in Afghanistan were evaluated in different ways (also in relation to the civilian casualties mentioned above). Everybody agreed that foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon. Some expressed concern that there should be an agreement among Afghan political forces before the departure of the foreign forces. 
5. Any political discrimination against any Afghan political party or group would be an obstacle to the peace process. In particular, the delisting of black-listed Taliban would facilitate the peace process. Political prisoners should be released. 
6. Corruption and the production/selling of drugs are among the most serious problems of Afghanistan. 
7. The value of education for both men and women was underlined by everybody. Economic development in Afghanistan will heavily depend on peace. 
8. The structure of the political system (and the constitution of Afghanistan) should be discussed in detail, and, while different opinions may arise in this respect, there is a general agreement that no party should have a monopoly on power. 
9.  In any case, the government of Afghanistan will be an Islamic one. This does not mean that minorities of any sort should be discriminated against. [Pamela Geller will love this one.]
10. The model of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) is alien to the tradition and the desires of the Afghan people. This point was agreed upon by everybody. 
11.The relation with neighboring countries should be kept amicable, and cooperation with such countries should be strengthened. This does not mean that neighboring countries are welcome to interfere with Afghan internal affairs. 
12. The meeting of 2-3 May 2015 should be followed up by other meetings in order that the peace process be sustained. It is vital that communication among different Afghan parties and groups be kept alive, even at an unofficial level. In general, the peace process should be speeded up! Some would welcome the possibility of talks between the Taliban and the Government. 
13. The Taliban in Doha played an important role in the organization of this meeting. The Taliban’s office should be opened to facilitate meetings and talks. 
14. Qatar, UN and non-governmental international organizations such as Pugwash should hopefully continue to support the Afghan peace process. 
15. The public interest and the well-being of the Afghan people will be at the center of the attention of the participants in this meeting and in the forthcoming ones.
Interestingly, Rod Nordland, back in Kabul after assignment in Iraq, chooses to accentuate point #4 in "Some Progress Is Reported in Informal Afghan-Taliban Talks" as a tentative retraction of the Taliban demand that formal peace negotiations cannot begin until all occupying military forces withdraw from Afghanistan: "The Taliban signaled that they might be willing to drop their demand that all foreign troops, such as the residual American and NATO force of 13,000 trainers and counterterrorism troops, would have to be withdrawn before peace talks could take place."

Nordland cited the Taliban's post-conference statement as proof for his interpretation of point #4: "In a separate statement, the Taliban denounced the American role in the country and demanded a withdrawal, but did not appear to make that a precondition for peace talks, as they often have in the past."

But point #4, as is, says nothing about the Taliban dropping their demand on the removal of all foreign troops as a condition for the start of a formal peace process.

What Nordland's story makes clear, and one that he wrote which appeared in yesterday's paper ("Afghan and Taliban Representatives Meet in Qatar"), is that the Pugwash Conference in Doha was successful to the extent that it cut out Pakistan. This from today's story:
“Peace cannot be achieved just in talks and slogans,” the Taliban statement, posted on the group’s website, read. “There is a need for determination and good intentions.” They also appeared to dismiss a role for Pakistan in future talks, criticizing “peace talk offers that are usually made to neighboring countries.” 
Pakistan has long allowed the Taliban’s senior leadership to take refuge on its side of the border and has been wary of peace overtures that its government does not control.
And from the story yesterday:
Pakistan has long been seen as an important potential broker of any peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, given that many insurgent leaders have found continued shelter there. But the Qatari conference represented an effort by the Taliban to strike out independently of the Pakistanis, Mr. Mutmaeen ["an Afghan writer and journalist who previously served as an official in the Taliban government"] said. “The important point is that there are no Chinese, no Saudis or no one from Pakistan, only from Europe and the United Nations” other than the Afghans, he said. “This is a good development.” 
“This is an opportunity,” Mr. Qasimyar ["foreign policy committee chief at the Afghan government’s High Peace Council"] said. “They get together, they may have a chance to have tea or dinner or lunch at the same table, and that’s all right.”
Much has been made recently about China's sizable investment in Pakistan and its plans to build a land bridge to the Arabian Sea, as well as its own efforts to host peace talks. The Pugwash Conference highlights the obvious (something that easily gets lost): the Taliban is not a monolith. There are many different factions and players; some are agents of Pakistan, and some opposed to Pakistan. How this all plays out as the spring offensive in Afghanistan continues to get underway is hard to say. But the results of the Pugwash Conference are better news than we have had for some time.

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