By S. M. Hali
The ice has been finally broken and the first round of direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban has taken place at Murree, a location renowned for hosting a number of historical parleys. It was a favourite summer retreat of the British Raj. Various political accords were concluded in Murree. Henry Kissinger’s now famous trip to China was planned covertly, using his stay in Murree as a subterfuge. Exactly forty-four years ago, Kissinger clandestinely flew to Beijing on July 9, 1971 to meet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and pave the way for US President Nixon’s momentous visit to China, which ushered in the thaw in Sino-US relations and the restoration of People’s Republic of China as the true China and not Taiwan; the rest is history.
It is significant that China, Pakistan and the US are again on the same page, this time to usher peace in war ravaged Afghanistan. Ever since China announced its willingness to take interest in restoring peace in the strife-torn country after the completion of drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan, feverish attempts have been made to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government to the negotiations table. The Afghan Unity government led by Dr. Ashraf Ghani brought a sea change in the attitude of his country’s High Peace Committee towards holding parleys. China hosted the fourth round of the Heart of Asia Conference at Beijing in October 2014 and pledged its full fledged support to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. US welcomed the Chinese initiative and Dr. Ashraf Ghani’s reach out to Pakistan to help broker the process and urge the Taliban to participate in the process has borne fruit. The direct meeting between the Afghan and Taliban delegations follows a two-day secret conference in late May in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi, which was sponsored by China and facilitated by Pakistan. Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security, Sartaj Aziz had informed Pakistan Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee regarding the indirect contact in China but Taliban spokesmen had distanced the group from the talks in Urumqi, saying that only their leaders based in Qatar were authorized to hold such negotiations. Three previous meetings, in Qatar, Oslo and Dubai, were termed personal interactions by the Taliban.Thus the first direct parleys between the protagonists can be deemed as successful since both partieshave agreed to meet again after Ramadan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s comment on the meeting between the Afghan Government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan held in Pakistan is sanguine. Welcoming the parleys, the Spokesperson reiterated that the Chinese side always supports the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” reconciliation process while China encourages and supports the Government of Afghanistan to have peace talks with Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan, and always maintains close contact with the concerned parties. Chinese observers, who attended the meeting, view that China considers this meeting to be conducive to promoting peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. According to the Spokesperson, China appreciates the flexible attitude and collective willingness for convening this meeting to advance the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. China has reassured that it is ready to work with relevant parties and play a constructive role in achieving broad and inclusive peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
In a similar tone, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest, during his briefing, stated that the United States commends the government of Afghanistan’s prioritization of peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, and both countries acknowledge and appreciate Pakistan’s important efforts to host these conversations. Earnest added that the Murree talks mark the start of the formal reconciliation process.
Briefing journalists on the epoch making event, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesman Qazi Khalilullah informed that during the talks, both sides presented their stances on the prevailing situation in Afghanistan and how progress could be made. He added that the participants exchanged views on ways and means to bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Both major parties agreed that for lasting peace in the region, each side would approach the process with sincerity and full commitment. The spokesman said participants recognized the need to undertake confidence building measures in order to engender trust among all stakeholders.
It is important to note that a firm beginning has been made but it will be unrealistic to expect miracles at an early stage. Fourteen years of hostilities and conflict cannot be washed away in a few “monsoons”. Ashraf Ghani’s resolve to pursue the peace process diligently and patiently must be appreciated. He was expecting Pakistan Army and ISI to deliver the Taliban to the negations table at an early date. Reality check prevailed when the Pakistan Army made it clear that it could request the Taliban and coax them to agree to talks not coerce them as it did not hold their reins. With every week of delays and the mounting casualties from the Taliban spring offensive in Afghanistan, detractors of the peace process were ruing Ashraf Ghani’s overtures to China and Pakistan. On the other hand, propaganda elements from some vested interest like India were giving an impression that groups like the Haqqanis did not participate. It is noteworthy that the efforts of all facilitators, China, the US and Pakistan Army must be lauded that their efforts have finally converged and almost all the factions of Afghan Taliban participated in the first round of direct talks.
The onus now lies on Afghan leadership and Taliban to pursue their collective desire to bring peace to Afghanistan and the region, and agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive to the peace and reconciliation process. Both sides will need to be flexible and accommodating because at the end of the day, it is their country, which is at stake. The impending threat from the Islamic State or Daesh prevailing in the region is looming large and disgruntled Taliban joining the Daesh is a reality. To meet the onslaught of this new peril, all stakeholders need to get their act together and build mutual trust and stand united for peace wholeheartedly.
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