By Iqbal Khan
The four-nation, Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) talks on exploring ways to revive peace process in Afghanistan, were held in Oman on October 16. Parleys ended without any breakthrough. And participants—Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States—preferred to stay quiet over the event and no joint statement was issued. The QCG, had held its previous meeting in Islamabad early last year.
The QCG was set up in December 2015, by the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad. The main aim of the initiative was to make collective efforts for arranging direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban; and since its inception, the group has been trying to carve the path to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The US has ever since been playing both sides, trying for negotiation with Taliban as well as systematically disrupting it, at will. The group had held five meetings before the process met a dead end after Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansur was killed in July 2016. Now Taliban’s military campaign “Operation Mansuri” is in full swing in Afghanistan
For current revival of QCG process, Muscat was selected as venue to avoid media scrutiny and unnecessary hype; it was a closed-door activity. QCG meetings have restarted with hope for peace in Afghanistan. Muscat session was aimed at discussing options on how to move forward. Expectations were not high ahead of the meeting since it was taking place after a long gap. This was the first meeting of the group under the Trump administration, which thinks that time is not yet ripe for initiating the political solution to Afghan conflict.
Every time the prospects of QCG talks became bright, the process came to a halt, once due to outbreak of news about death of Mullah Omar and later due to killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack by the US. Then on, Taliban have shown little faith in the process. During the Muscat round Afghanistan was represented by High Peace Council (HPC) and government representatives in anticipation of attendance by the Taliban delegates; however, the Taliban did not turn-up. They had indicated their intent of not attending the session, as they wanted to gauge the seriousness of the effort.
The QCG initiative continues to be marred by differences between its members. Since assumption of Presidency by Donald Trump, America has been sending conflicting signals. Its recently announced policy on Afghanistan and South Asia is also full of contradictions.
Pakistan has told the US that the option of use of force would be exercised only after a consensus is reached among all QCG members. Pakistan is of the view that a mechanism has to be evolved by all the four countries for the military option if efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table fails. There was no statement issued by the Foreign Office prior or after the meeting. Pakistan attended the Oman parleys with ‘low expectations’.
Given the previous experiences, Pakistan would like to first know whether Afghanistan and the US were interested in the peace process. Recent reports had indicated that the Trump administration was not keen on the revival of the QCG given the new American strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, issued in August. However, at the same time, America sent across Alice Wells, the Acting Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the Oman talks. It indicates that despite hawkish stance a public level, the US would like to pursue the political solution, at least in parallel, and that it has not totally abandoned the option of peace process.
Revival of QCG process also indicates that despite the ongoing rhetoric at media level, undue high heat in the US-Pakistan relations has vented off through safety valves, without causing a serious rupture. By now it is amply clear that India is not deploying any troops in Afghanistan. Moreover, addition of few thousand foreign troops is not likely to tip the strategic balance in America’s favour. With no additional dynamics factoring in, President Trump may be all set to quietly adopt major action points of his predecessor’s Afghan policy; as he had done on many other major foreign policy issues .
While refusing to do as a scapegoat for collective failure of international community in Afghanistan, Pakistan has reiterated its support for making serious efforts for negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban for achieving lasting peace.
In keeping with his chaotic style, while churning out its untenable wish list about Afghanistan in August, Trump may have not anticipated that Pakistan would dig its heels; and that if it did so, the US would not have much of leverage over Pakistan. It is America that critically depends on Pakistan for sustainability of its military operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan does not have much to lose in case of further American squeeze. Trump had warned that there could be further cut in aid. Military aid had already been halved between 2012 and 2016. And Pakistan is contemplating other options to offset the material setbacks that further American squash could cause.
May be, Trump has also gone through summary of a few recent reports by Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), pointing towards American follies in Afghanistan. It appears that Trump’s rhetoric with respect to imposing a military solution on Afghanistan would slowly de-steam and the issue of restoring peace may go on back burners. Keeping about 15000 troop stationed in Afghanistan is American compulsion, and that runs counter to achieving even semblance of peace in Afghanistan—the pot must keep boiling to justify cooks necessity.
There are a number of other foreign initiatives by the international community yearning for bringing peace in Afghanistan; some of these processes include the US while others do not. One such ‘minus- America’ forum is Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan. Group held its deputy foreign minister-level meeting in Moscow on October 11. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov chaired the meeting while deputy foreign ministers of Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and representatives of SCO and its relevant bodies attended the meeting. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, while participating in this meeting, aptly commented that “Afghanistan faces many challenges, including deteriorating security situation marked by increasing ungoverned spaces which are being used to provide sanctuary to the terrorist groups like Da’esh, al Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamatul Ahrar (JuA) and increasing drug production which pose serious challenges to Afghanistan’s neighbouring states”.
It was felt during the meeting that there is need for serious efforts for a negotiated settlement between Afghan government and the Taliban for achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan. And conditions conducive to respectful return of Afghan refugees are also essential for sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Needless to say that only a stable Afghan government could lead towards combating the challenges of drug production and human trafficking.
Members of SCO Contact Group pondered over ways and means “to support peace and stability in Afghanistan through facilitating Afghan-led peace process, assisting the Afghan government in dealing with security and counter-terrorism challenges and promoting regional economic integration and connectivity”.
American policymakers have also considered revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, but found that it would cause only symbolic set back but limited practical impact.
Whether Trump likes it or not, Pakistan remains vital for the United States as a route to supply American and Afghan war effort. Pakistan shares international community’s concerns about instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan is ready to work with every one and any one as a partner for achieving peace and security in the region. However, arm twisting and bad mouthing will not lead any party anywhere.
*The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at Iqbal.firstname.lastname@example.org