Afghanistan and Qatar have finally agreed to establish a political office for the Taliban in Doha. The establishment of a Taliban office was seen as a vital prelude to the negotiation process and should facilitate peace talks, though a number of obstacles remain.
Afghanistan and Qatar have agreed to establish a political office for the Taliban in Doha. The agreement, which was reached during a recent visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the Gulf state, was seen as a crucial prelude to the negotiation process. Despite this, however, peace talks still remain fraught with challenges and much work is needed if a resolution is to be reached.
The establishment of a Taliban office in Doha is a crucial step in the negotiation process. Past efforts to set up an office had been grounded by a range of preconditions outlined by President Karzai. Recently, with a solution to the decade-long war becoming ever more urgent, Karzai has softened his stance on the Taliban, effectively paving the way for an office to finally be opened.
With a location finally settled, there are renewed hopes that negotiations may begin to bear fruit. Speaking to Al-Jazeera recently, Karzai said the office should ‘facilitate’ talks with the militants while establishing ‘direct contacts’ in the push for peace in Afghanistan. Confusion remains as to how exactly the negotiation process may unfold or which parties it might be included. Generally, however, diplomats and leaders are hopeful that things may finally be moving in the right direction. As The Economist wrote on 9 February, ‘A comprehensive peace process is now more a realistic prospect that at any time since the Taliban were driven from Kabul in 2001’.
A negotiated peace settlement is far from a forgone conclusion, especially given the intractable positions of the parties involved. Even now, it remains unclear whether the Taliban are prepared to compromise. With the bulk of foreign forces set to leave in 2014, they may wish to hold out knowing that the US will lose much of its influence and political capital once this happens. Moreover, they have consistently refused to negotiate with Karzai, who they deem a puppet of Washington, and have demanded the release of several prisoners before talks can even begin.
The US, meanwhile, has not yet agreed on a prisoner exchange deal but is generally supportive of negotiations. It will want some assurance, however, that the Taliban is willing to negotiate in good faith if any prisoner exchange is to take place. Given that Taliban negotiators have abandoned talks before, this is easier said than done. In addition, the US is also wary of releasing prisoners that may re-join the war effort, sparking a backlash. Still, with US military commanders conceding that a military victory is now out of reach, Washington knows that a negotiated settlement – one that is likely to encompass a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan Government – is needed. So long as the US can be certain that al-Qaida will not return, this is a deal that Washington can probably live with.
Pakistan remains by far the biggest variable in the peace process, however, having persistently played an obstructionist role in the peace process. A supposed ally of the US in the war against terror, it has supported the Taliban for years in the hope of reaching a favourable outcome for itself in Afghanistan and reducing India’s influence in the region. As Foreign Policy acknowledged as early as September 2011, ‘peace in Afghanistan will only come when Pakistan wants it’. This predicament has long worried US policymakers; at a time where Washington is losing influence in the region, Islamabad’s political clout is rising.
Worryingly, recent reports suggest that Pakistan is demanding that Kabul sever ties with New Delhi before it supports any settlement. If this is true, then Islamabad may well be prepared to thwart negotiations for a while longer in the hope of securing an Afghan Government that is sympathetic towards Pakistan. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen.
Should Islamabad continue to prosecute its current king-making strategy, however, the Afghan Government may be cut out of its own country’s development. This could set the scene for future violence and unrest, with key stakeholders and groups left out of the political process. In the long term, though, Pakistan may be forced to soften its demands, knowing that further violence is likely to spill over the border, where sectarian attacks are worsening.
With a peaceful settlement in the interests of all parties, the US now needs to outline a clear strategy, involving all relevant stakeholders, and begin to implement that plan as soon as reasonably possible. The establishment of a Taliban office in Doha should facilitate this process and help restart negotiations. Still, with so far to go, the real work may have only just begun.
Indian Ocean Research Programme